Spoiler Warning: This podcast contains spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2, Doki Doki Literature Club, The Last Guardian, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, Inside Out, Up, and Mother 3
Episode Description: In this episode, we took a look at how Melancholy can provide release and catharsis for video game players. Personal stories about their favorite moments come from Dylan Perry, Lady Pelvic, Max Marriner, Kate Kadowaki, and Megabite.
Kevin: When I was a kid, I started having these melancholy dreams about the end of the world. They usually took one of two forms. Either the sun would vanish or the sun would rapidly go through the final stages of its life cycle until it consumed the earth. The result was the same in both cases, an overwhelming sadness during the last seven minutes of life, as I realized that nothing could be done. When I would wake up, I would have a massive unshakable cloud hanging over me.
It's ironic, then that I've spent the better part of my life enjoying sad and melancholy moments in media. There's something cathartic about experiencing it second hand. It allows me to release the troubles that I have in the pit of my spirit, in a low stakes environment. And in that moment of release, there is a joy in allowing my emotions to flow through me. So today's episode is a discussion about moments of sadness and melancholy found in video games. I spoke with some friends who provided their favorite scenes as well. Welcome to Arcadeology: The Joy in Melancholy.
Somber safe havens.
Dylan Perry: I was really surprised by, I guess you would call it the method of storytelling within the camps, and in particular, the melancholy that it produces and how effective it is at instilling this kind of just this hanging feeling of sadness or of melancholy.
Kevin: The safe haven or home base is pretty common in open-world games. Some games allow you to upgrade the base or recruit others to stay there. Other games use it as a way to hide upgrades or display trophies. Many games use it as a way to reinforce recently experienced themes and plot elements that have been presented in the main storyline.
Dark Souls II. Strangely, Dark Souls II is what inspired me to write this video. Specifically the score to the area called Majula. It's often thought of as the lesser game of the trilogy, but it has a soft spot in my heart. Majula is the safe haven of Dark Souls II. It is strikingly different in appearance compared to its counterparts in Dark Souls I or III. You come to Majula after a brief introductory area that is dismal, dark, and dreary. Then you exit the cave and the sun greets you with the sound of waves crashing against the beach. This moment is not something that players of Dark Souls would have come to expect. Majula is tranquil. You're in no danger here, except perhaps from the skeletons in the basement of the mansion. And yet in that tranquility is the melancholy that I noticed.
The driver of that melancholy is the surrounding area. Despite the sheer beauty of Majula, lands corrupted by the presence of the dark signs surround your haven. One direction takes you toward a fallen castle overrun by the forest and its soldiers long since hollowed. Another course takes you toward Hyde's Tower of Flame, also plagued by the elements. In this case though, water.
Majula stands alone in the world of Drangleic. Beautiful, tranquil, but shockingly alone. The characters that take refuge in Majula are for the most part, crestfallen. That loneliness paired with its beautiful score that accentuates the mood creates melancholy. It reminds me of something in film studies called montage theory, in which two images spliced together can create an emotion that isn't found in either of those images separately. For Majula, the tranquility set against the darkness is evocative. When I'm feeling contemplative, I can load up Dark Souls II and have my character sit in Majula, and just be.
Red Dead Redemption II. Another somber safe haven can be found in Red Dead Redemption II. I love a good Western yarn, especially when they're downers. Sergio Leone had a habit of crafting frontier films that portrayed the west as rough and ultimately a grind on those who lived the life. Once upon a time in the west begins with death, and the film continues telling a tale of revenge long since deserved. Video games have not ventured into the Western genre that often. However, Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption franchise has set the bar exceedingly high in capturing what made people so interested in old west stories. Mixing a bit of the reality of the frontier's demanding lifestyle, with a dash of the mythologizing that made the stories fascinating. There are several moments in Red Dead Redemption II that strike a chord of sadness and melancholy.
Dylan Perry: I was really surprised by, I guess you would call it the method of storytelling within the camps. And in particular, the melancholy that it produces.
Kevin: Dylan Perry is the creator of the Skyrim mod pack known as Ultimate Skyrim.
Dylan Perry: I should illustrate how it works, I suppose, for anyone who's not experienced the game. Essentially you have your home base, which is the campsite. And when you revisit the campsite, you'll have fellow members of your outlaw gang just going around, interacting with the environment or playing idle animations, or in some cases they are interacting with each other. Just doing things that make it appear as though they're really living in this space and occupying the space.
So you can go up and you can speak to all of these characters at your leisure, they'll reference recent events or maybe just the personal relationship they have with your character. But as the story progresses, it's not a happy story. It's a story of the end of the frontier and the dissolution of the outlaw lifestyle, you could say. Society is encroaching. There's really no such thing as untouched frontier anymore. And people who have made their living outside of the law and outside of society are slowly being forced to either acclimate or die, essentially. And this is where the melancholy comes in and where I feel like the game is very effective.
You'll be at camp and you'll speak to these characters, and you can just ... When you hear it in their voices how things are really, really starting to get to them ... And it depends on where you are at the story. At the very beginning of the story and people are a little bit worried, but they're still fairly confident in their ability to continue on with the lifestyle that they have, the further along the story progresses, people start to ... The cracks start to show it. It feels almost voyeuristic. It's not just shoved in your face. It'll happen in ways that feel indirect. And I feel like that's the part that I feel is unique.
Kevin: Subtlety. Unspoken pressures of a life that seems to be evaporating before your eyes. The campsite and RDR II represents melancholy almost in its platonic ideal. It does this through fantastic character animation created by the people at Rockstar. The resignation and defeat to me reminds me of the Ray Bradbury short story, The Last Night of the World.
A recap, if you haven't read it. All the adults on the planet earth begin to have the same dream that the world is going to end tonight. The story centers around a couple who reveal to each other, that they've had the same dream. They quickly accepted as real given that everyone they knew has been subjected to it as well.
Kevin: Given that everyone they knew has been subjected to it as well, the end of the world isn't some catastrophic thing in the story, but rather the closing of a book. At one point, the wife asks her husband, "Do we deserve this?" And he responds, "It's not a matter of deserving. It's just that things didn't work out." The vignettes at the campsite, recall that conversation, people stuck in the between space, whether they deserve the curve balls that life has thrown at them and accepting the fate that their way of life ultimately is over.
Speaker 1: And as someone who plays Jared inaudible a lot, death is nothing new, right? I see death all the time in Jared. You know what I mean?
Tragedy strikes. That's how we kind of get the plot moving forward.
Kevin: Character deaths are sometimes considered an easy or a cheap way to generate emotion. Sometimes you can see it coming from a mile away because the story telegraphs it from the very beginning. But when they are earned, they can do an amazing job of shifting the mood or raising the stakes in a story.
Nintendo has never officially released Mother 3 in the United States, much to the chagrin of EarthBound fans. However, fan translations of the game have allowed players outside of Japan to enjoy the quirky JRPG.
Speaker 1: Fans go at it in fan translations. And when the fans want something, they get it. And Mother 3 does an incredible job making you want to cry within the first, let's say, two hours of the game.
Kevin: Lady Pelvic has a YouTube channel focused on JRPGs and wanted to speak on a scene from Mother 3 that she found particularly sad.
Lady Pelvic: So the scene I'd like to discuss is in the beginning, Claus, Hinawa and Lucas, they're all up in the mountains visiting their grandfather. And Hinawa is the mother and Lucas and Claus are two twin boys. I think they're 11. They're very young. They're playing with Dragos, which are just gentle, friendly creatures. They're like Tyrannosaurus Rexes really. And Hinawa was just such a kind and loving mother and everything's great and beautiful. Then we have Flint who's the dad. He's back at Tazmily Village.
What happens is the Pigmask Army attacks and Tazmily Village is this is wholesome loving place. And the Pigmask Army attacks the forest, which separates Tazmily Village and up in the mountains where Hinawa and her children are. It turns into Flint, the father trying to find his family and finds, I think, Claus or Lucas' shoe. They find a ripped piece of Hinawa's dress. You travel up the mountain, you see a Drago, but it's not even a Drago anymore. It's kind of bionic now. It's half machine, half Drago and you fight it. You're about to kill it or you do kill it. But this baby Drago comes to protect it. And it's like, no, kind of protecting its mother. And it's really sad.
So you find your children though. You regroup, you find your children, but you don't find your wife. But Bronson, one of the villagers, comes up to Flint and was just like, "Hey, so good news and bad news. What do you want first? Actually, no, we're going to give you the good news. We found a Drago fang, which is great for making weapons. Now the bad news... " And you, the player, know. And this is the game changer right here. You, the player, knows what happens. After Bronson says, "We found the Drago fang pierced within your wife's heart," I mean, the music fades out. And then you hear these pangs of the piano, which in my opinion, represent Flint's heart. You just hear [inaudible 00:13:19]. And then the melody spreads out and, oh my God, you just feel your heart sink with Flint.
Flint just crumbles to the ground. And he just punches the ground. And everyone around him are just kind of creeping toward him like, "Hey, are you okay?" Maybe trying to put a hand on his shoulder and he just swats it away. And his two young baby boys are right there watching this. His dad, there's a campfire in the middle, he grabs a stick and just swashes it around. And you see one of the villagers run up to Claus and Lucas and kind of shield their eyes because they shouldn't have to see their father break down like this. And they heard their mother is no longer with them.
And it's the music and seeing a real raw just genuine reaction because most of the time in JRPGs we see a character just kind of crumble, get sad or just cry, maybe hit a wall. But to fight against other NPCs or to get angry and get angry in front of his kids. And it was just so heartbreaking. And what made it heartbreaking is one, so quickly with only two or three hours in the game you fall so in love with Hinawa. She's an amazing mother. And to see this great family torn apart is just heartbreaking.
Kevin: It may seem like a common trope to build a character up only to take them away. However, Mother 3 has an added layer of nuance because of the graphics. Someone, unaware of the depths of sadness the Mother franchise can plunge into, would be completely disarmed by the art style of the game, much in the way that Dan Salvato's Doki Doki Literature Club hides a horror game underneath the veneer of a quirky and cute visual novel, Mother 3 does the same by misdirecting the player with graphics that obfuscate the upcoming emotional turn.
Disney, for example, has also pulled this trick, mixing bright and cheery animation with darker subject matter. Bambi's mother dying at the hands of a hunter. In the film Inside Out, the imaginary friend, Bing Bong sacrifices himself to save Joy and Sorrow and in turn fades from existence. And the film Up opens with a montage that begins with a childhood crush and then ends in absolute sadness, setting the stage for the melancholy undertones of the film.
In these examples, the juxtaposition of art style against the execution of the scenes enhances moments that are sad on paper. The death of a character's wife or parents on paper is sad, but the execution of the scene, and in this case, the use of juxtaposition, enhances the sadness and melancholy.
The scene ends with Hinawa walking off into the light.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Another character death used with tremendous effect is in Red Dead Redemption 2. Kate Kadowaki, co-host of the Free Play Podcast comments on a moment that she found powerful.
Kate Kadowaki: The scene that just I remember it broke my heart and soul when I saw it was this moment where you as Arthur Morgan are walking or riding along with the chief of the Wapiti Indian tribe. They were talking about having children. And at this point, you're like, well, I know that Arthur Morgan doesn't have any kids because we've been playing as him for a significant amount of time. It's never come up. And all of a sudden there's a dialogue option that shows up that says, "I had a son." And you're like, "You have a kid?" And the second part is like, wait, had.
I, honestly, in that moment, I just kind of stopped playing and just sat there. I never would have expected that moment ever in this game, ever. And then there it was. I'm like of course I have to pick that and the option to not pick it was also there. And I'm like, not pick it? How could I not pick it? And it goes so fast and you don't...
Kate Kadowaki: And it goes so fast and you don't have to pick it. That's, to me, it was like, this is such a big moment in Arthur's life that he's opening up about and you might not even choose that option to discuss with this other person. Well, of course, I'm like you got to listen to this. I mean, I need to know. At this point, I need to know. I've spent so much time with Arthur, I felt like I really knew him. I felt like I've known his family that's in the gang and where he came from and his life's beginning and his life story, and here's just this heartbreakingly real thing here. So his son was unplanned and I think it really, that experience shook him, because it kind of made him question the whole, "I'm in a gang. We travel around, we do all this kind of stuff. We don't have a home."
And I think that this relationship with this woman whose name is Eliza, started planting the seeds of something, the opportunity and the chance for something different and something better and something maybe a little more pure than outlaw life with Dutch and Hosea and the little merry band of whoever's in the gang at the moment. He would come back and visit Eliza and his son, whose name is Isaac. And I think he was, Isaac must have been about four when Arthur came back to like bring them some money and stuff and stay there for a while. And he said, "Oh, there were two crosses outside the house and nobody was home," and they were gone. And just oh my gosh, I'm like this to me Red Dead Redemption 2 is a really tragic story as a whole and this little moment was just, it just so reflected Arthur Morgan's life as a whole. Like goodness and what he wants is just right there and then for some reason, it just doesn't happen for him.
Kevin: This is new hidden information that colors our interpretation of a character more sadly. It is safe to assume that Arthur Morgan has lived a life with more sad moments than happy ones.
He spent most of it running with a gang and living on the fringes of society. This twist blindsides the player, shining a light on the depths of sadness that his life has previously plunged. I like the way this is handled. The loss of a child affects parents differently. I know of people who will continue to commemorate that child after death. An example of this is That Dragon, Cancer, a game based on the true story of a family struggle through the final years of their young son's life as he lost his fight with cancer. Created by the child's parents, the game alternates between the heaviness of the cancer diagnosis and reveling in the joy of being a child, but never for long. It isn't until the very end after his death, where the player is allowed to spend as much time with him as possible, enjoying pancakes and popping bubbles.
The game is a beautiful tribute to his life and a stunning act of remembrance of the pain and struggle the family went through. And that is beautiful. On the other hand, I know of people who are so hurt, so wounded by the loss that they burry the pain deep and they never speak of it unless something triggers them to do so. And while grief is something that needs to be dealt with, I can sympathize with how difficult it would be to have to bury your child. Typically, in media characters who have suffered that great a loss have it consistently foreshadowed. And when we learn the whole truth, it is something that we as the audience have suspected for a long while. This moment, however, rings just as true, and the revelation is even more painful for it. As Kate mentioned, the mere act of including a dialogue option in the past tense hit her so hard that she had to take a moment to collect her thoughts. It has the brevity and punch of For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Turnabout endings. The conclusion of a story is ripe for emotional impact and sometimes additional story can morph a happy ending into something much sadder. Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. Strong writing built the Phoenix Wright franchise. Aside from the point and click elements, it's the entirety of the game. Indeed, it's a bit wacky, but the snappiness of the dialogue and the twists of the mysteries make for a good time. Occasionally though, the games have had moments that have dipped into a more modeling realm for the sake of showcasing something other than the can-do spirit of plucky upstart attorneys.
Max Marriner: It's specifically the moment in which you realize that the main character of the Ace Attorney franchise, Phoenix Wright had in the time between the previous game and this one been stripped of his title, disbarred and shamed for seven years.
Kevin: Max Marriner is a video creator who produces essays on a wide range of video game and film topics.
Max Marriner: And it's like a huge shock because it comes off the back of him essentially clearing the name of one of his best friends for the third time in the final installment of his trilogy. In the marketing for Apollo Justice, you notice a few characters, like you notice one, Emma Sky in the background, you see one other gentleman whose in very casual attire with a beanie and you never notice at first, because he looks very generic and most importantly, his hair is covered up.
And then in five minutes into the first trial, Apollo's very first trial ever, it turns out this man is indeed Phoenix Wright. It's horrible. And the worst part is Apollo knows like he is our main character, our surrogate for this new era, is very aware of what happened. And what brought me great sadness is that Phoenix Wright is my favorite video game character, it was just like a shock to my system. Everything that had happened, especially in the incredibly emotional final trial of Trials and Tribulations, my favorite video game, was just undone.
Kevin: The power of blue moments is that they can be galvanizing to a player who has only been tossed between quirky mystery solving and suspenseful mystery solving for the large portion of the series.
By emotionally dipping down here and twisting Phoenix Wright's happy ending from the original trilogy of games into something sad and disappointing prods the player in ways that are interesting and unexpected. Happy endings are not guaranteed and examining the failings of protagonists after their supposed victory is juicy melancholic pulp. An example of this can be seen in Aliens. When Ripley discovers that despite her hard-fought victory in the original movie, when she wakes up from stasis, she discovers that she has outlived her daughter. By muddling and complicating the emotions tied to the original ending, when successfully done it can generate new, more powerful and nuanced feelings of sadness and melancholy.
Loneliness and inevitability, Shadow of the Colossus. one of the first games to have a deeper than surface level emotional effect on me was Shadow of the Colossus. The game sets your protagonist, Wander, off into a lonely world on a mission to slay these fantastic beasts, the Colossi, to resurrect a girl by the name of Mono. Over and over you guide Wander into different settings, seeking out the native Colossus to destroy it. It's striking in a way that stirred a sense of melancholy because after each time you fell one of the mighty beasts, you begin to consider whether you were actually on the right side of this country. Each Colossus is ingrained into its habitat. It's not an invasive species that must be ripped out root and steam, but a creature in its...
Kevin: inaudible that must be ripped out root and stem, but a creature in its own home. The game does a lot with a little. Instead of crowding the lands, Shadow of the Colossus uses tranquility to leave the player mostly alone with their thoughts. The score is sparse. The user interface is minimalistic. There is only the quest and the time to think about the nature of the pursuit. Shadow of the Colossus doesn't spoonfeed you emotional stimulus. Instead it uses the negative space, customarily occupied by all sorts of signposts to allow your mind to wander. At least that's how it worked for me.
The Last Guardian. Team Ico's works have a long tradition of creating minimalist games, occupying melancholy spaces. Their most recent game, The Last Guardian is no exception.
Megabite: The moment that I thought of when thinking about melancholy and games is kind of near the end of The Last Guardian, in fact, like right before the ending.
Kevin: Megabite produces video critiques on his YouTube channel.
Megabite: Where you kind of come face to face, you're working with Trico, the animal companion to kind of escape this ancient temple or city or something like that. And when you come to the end where you're really going to escape you end up coming face to face with this thing called the Master of the Valley, I believe is what it's called. And it's sort of this green and black, like pulsating orb that's, it kind of has that aesthetic where it's like, maybe it's part magical and mystical, but it also kind of looks almost technological, like maybe it was created or something. And just kind of coming face to face with the realization that this was what was behind everything, not only what you've experienced in the game, but also what obviously happens before the game to lead to the fall, potentially of this big city and everything. And kind of just realizing the almost faceless nature of it was just really chilling and kind of gave me that melancholy feeling.
Kevin: In this case, the source of the melancholy is the reveal that there is no anthropomorphic villain to this story, but rather an almost faceless force. There is no human connection to be made, nor is it beast. It's just there. And it is your antagonist for better or worse. This moment ties back to my dreams coincidentally. There are things in life, encounters in games and so forth with which you are unable to bargain or reason. They're just inevitable forces that are in your way.
I hope we've shown that there is no one singular way that games can demonstrate melancholy or sadness. The juxtaposition of conflicting elements, the use of negative space and design, stunning narrative twists and turns when used carefully and judiciously can all draw a player close to the targeted emotional state. Of course not everyone who watches this video will necessarily buy into the concept that games can have that raw emotional power. And honestly, I understand. There is a level of openness that you must approach games with that some people aren't comfortable doing and that's okay.
I remember years ago, after watching a film called Blue Valentine, I lamented to my old directing professor that the film was too emotionally manipulative. My professor, with his shock of white hair, wild eyes and thick Slovakian accent exclaimed, "What is the point of partaking in art if not to be emotionally manipulated?" At the time, I didn't quite grasp what he was saying, but now I believe I do. When interacting with something, whether it be art, movies, music, or games, it's important to open yourself up to the experience. For games, that means that while you play, the game is playing with your emotions, whether that's for the sake of joy, fear, or sadness, your openness allows you to experience things as intended fully.
That's all for me today. If you liked this video, leave a like and a comment down below and consider becoming part of my Patreon located at patreon.com/arcadeology. For the most recent updates on my videos, follow my Twitter at twitter.com/thearcadeologist. Again, I want to thank my guests, Lady Pelvic, Kate Kadowaki, Dylan Perry, Max Marriner, and Megabite for joining me today. You can find links to their channels in the description below. Thanks for watching and I'll see you next time.
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