Is it just me or has it gotten dark in here recently? I’ve been talking about dark emotions, horrible things happening to good characters, and my own failures these past few months. That combined with the fact I’m ready to go Cast Away on my wisdom tooth, and you’ve got yourself one depressing blog.

You know it’s bad when you start to think this a good idea.

I think exploring our darker emotions is something that is both healthy and necessary, especially for writers, but even more important than that is enjoying the happiness in our lives. More to the point, we need to see the characters in a story happy, we need to see them at their best. Otherwise their eventual fall and misery has no impact because we never see what it is they’ve lost, and we don’t get a chance to bond and relate with the characters when they’re always miserable. If you’re a good friend, you stick with them through everything good and bad that happens to them, but let’s face it, if the first time you meet someone they act miserable and sullen, you’re not likely to strike up a friendship at all. It’s like dating, if you rush up to a woman pleading for them to love you because you’ve been alone for years, they’re more likely to run away screaming than they are to take pity on you (not that that’s from firsthand experience or anything…) but if you act confident and happy, then you’re someone people want to be around.

It’s the same for the characters in a book, if you come into a book just as miserable as when you leave…well then you’re not giving the audience a lot to work with in terms of liking and rooting for your character. You have to show us the good times and the bad, otherwise we have no frame of reference for just how bad the bad times are. If your character is a bum on the street, show us when he used to have a job or a family or even just a friend. If he’s always been alone and on the street, yeah that’s sad, but not as sad as showing us someone who has lost everything.

One of the best examples of this juxtaposition in work is Futurama. It’s a goofy comedy that combines slapstick humor with pop culture references while parodying common scifi tropes. It’s hysterical, and that’s why when they drop the emotional hammer on the audience, it often affects us way more than when the same thing happens in a straight up drama.

Shut up! I’ve just got something in my eye!

Jurassic Bark aside, it’s not hard to cry over a loyal dog after all, Futurama has managed to move me over the stupidest things. Not always to tears, sometimes it’s a little smile, a warm glow in the pit of my stomach. Because I spend most of the time laughing my ass off watching Futurama, when they start playing those metaphorical violins, it seems way sadder.

That’s not to say a story needs to be funny in order for the tragedy to come across. It also doesn’t mean that the character’s life needs to be filled with rainbows and sunshine before the fall, either. For instance Mikael Blomkvist starts out with his life in the toilet; Mikael’s newspaper has been found guilty of libel, his journalistic integrity is in ruins, and he’s pretty much broke. Yet we get glimpses of the life he lost, he has a nice apartment, his newspaper was once prominent enough that his trial was a media circus, and he has an on-and-off sexual relationship with his editor. Not everything is horrible.

Similarly, Harry Potter almost has the exact opposite juxtaposition as most dramas. He’s completely miserable at the beginning of the book, living with his horrific extended family. Throughout the first book Harry’s life gets gradually better, he finds out he’s a kickass wizard, he makes some great friends and learns how to defend himself. In fact, aside from the occasional run-in with Voldemort happy goons, Harry’s life gets better with each passing book.

That’s why when shit hits the fan in book four Goblet of Fire it comes as such a shock. Suddenly Voldemort is up and walking again, he kills Cedric and the series takes a dark and violent turn. Characters we’ve grown to love and care about start dropping like flies, and each one is like a punch right to the gut. Sirius Black, Dumbledore, and even Harry’s owl Hedwig eventually dies.

These tragedies have real weight specifically because things were going so well up until things went to hell. Well, it’s also because those characters were awesome, but I’ll go into characterization in another post. 

Oh yes, I’m looking at you, Walking Dead…

So yeah, I like looking into the darkness as good as any other guy. and I love me some dark stories like Spec Ops: The Line, but there’s something to be said for games like Saints Row 2 as well.

Saints Row 2 is a goofy, over-the-top open world crime simulator. You can play through the game as a cross-dressing clown who walks with a pimp cane that is also a shotgun. You can pilot attack choppers and destroy twenty pimped out gang cars as they fire rocket launchers at you. It’s not exactly a serious drama, is what I’m saying.

Johnny Gat, most badass character in the game, seen here being convicted of 1,000 counts of first degree murder.

Like Futurama, I spent most of my time laughing or at least smiling while playing Saints Row 2. There’s nothing like flying a plane directly into the pool of a rich billionaire, parachuting out before impact and then throwing that same billionaire into the flaming wreckage of his pool while he stares in open-mouthed amazement. Fun times.

And then Red Asphalt happened. Carlos is a young kid that helps you break out of prison in the beginning of the game. He’s a typical gang-youth, brash, violent, and not too smart. His character can’t be more than eighteen years old when we meet him, and he had a charm all his own.

And then a rival gang chains Carlos to the back of a truck and drag him through the streets like Achilles with Hector’s body. Only Carlos is still alive. I’d never felt angry playing Saints Row 2, but when I saw Carlos dragging behind that truck I was furious. I blew that truck apart with relish, and watched expecting to see Carlos stand up, brush himself up and say something in Spanish like he always does.

But he didn’t. He just lay there, his body completely shredded and just gasping for breath. He couldn’t even speak. My character drew his pistol and did the only thing he could, he ended Carlos’s suffering…

That’s the last thing you see of Carlos, your character holding his hand while he tearfully puts his friend out of his misery. It’s a brutal reminder of the reality of gangs, in a game that is essentially a parody of the idea. Gang violence claims the lives of thousands every year and injures even more. I found Carlos’s death had far more emotional impact for me than say, the death of Nico Bellic’s annoying cousin and girlfriend in Grand Theft Auto IV.

Nico Bellic goes from one crap hole to another the entire game, we rarely get to see him enjoying himself or even get a smile out of him, so when something bad happens to him…well so what? Something bad is always happening to him.

We could all take a page from Saints Row 2 and lighten up a little. That way when tragedy strikes, it actually means something.

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Written by John Stevenson

I'm a freelance writer based out of Seattle, Washington.

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