ByOliver Culling, writer at
An English lad who loves video games too much, and will use any excuse to talk about them. More here:
Oliver Culling

When you stop to think about it, tone is kind of a curious thing in video games. To put it in its simplest form, the tone is how something presents itself, whether that presentation is serious, more comical, or anything in between. There are a lot of different facets that affect a medium’s tone, from individual characters to something as simple as the use of color in the environment.

Why Let Prejudice And Slaughter Get In The Way Of A Good Joke?

Video games are in a weird place where their tone is partly dictated by the player. Because the player is the one controlling how events occur, they are having a direct cause on what kind of tone is being presented. If, for example, you made an otherwise serious character run and jump repeatedly into a wall in an otherwise serious story, the tone would take a nosedive into the comical.

This particular thing isn’t something a developer needs to worry about, since each individual player will find whatever tone is best for them, but it is worth looking at how certain developers use a particular set of tones in their games. Mostly because, in a medium where they can never be 100 percent sure what tone the player is currently experiencing, looking at how a developer tries to ensure a certain tone is being received is interesting in itself.

Take the tones used in the Drakengard and Nier games as examples. Both series are the creation of Taro Yoko, a somewhat eccentric Japanese games director/writer, and both have this odd balancing act going on. Drakengard is a franchise known for its extremely gritty worlds and liberal slaughter, and the Nier games are known for their beautiful, but also very melancholy stories, and yet both try to inject some levity between their more serious moments. is a tale of one woman’s quest to murder her sisters while desperately trying to stave off a disease that will kill her slowly and painfully, but is also the tale of one woman desperately trying to stop herself from strangling the life out of her silly, silly dragon.

Even Nier: Automata gets in some funny jokes, which is pretty impressive considering it’s a game that brings into question where artificial intelligence ends and sentience begins, and where humanity factors in to the matter. Despite having to spend a lot of time questioning if you’re even doing the right thing, the game still boasts a couple of lighthearted moments to break things up. A memorable early example is when 2B and 9S — the game’s rather clinically named protagonists — are escorting a robot child. Despite the fact she’s bigger than both her escorts, the girl is full of questions as a curious child would be — including one that is really adamant about dodging.

Striking A Balance

It makes sense that such serious and tragic games have such silly and comedic moments. If something were serious or dark every second of its runtime, it’s likely the audience would quickly become overwhelmed by it. I’m an optimist, and I like to think that everybody is naturally caring and sympathetic to some degree, but even I know that a person’s charity can only extend so far. Just asking an audience to sympathize with a character’s crappy situation isn’t enough by itself; you have to give them a reason to root for those characters.

By extension, if the tone of something is unendingly bleak, then you’ll quickly run out of your audience’s good will. But if lighter moments were sprinkled throughout, the audience will be disarmed; a heavy-hitting, emotionally tragic scene is made all the more effective because the audience has seen the characters in better times.

A good example of this comes from the very first , with its unnamed primary protagonist and the supporting protagonist Weiss. These two really go through hell and high water before the game is over, but you’re already emotionally invested by that point because you’ve been won over by their banter. If the game had lacked this comical component, it might have been somewhat more difficult for the characters to truly endear themselves to the player, and thus making the task of the writing all the more tricky.

They look a serious twosome, but 2B and 9S have some endearing interactions. [Credit: Square Enix]
They look a serious twosome, but 2B and 9S have some endearing interactions. [Credit: Square Enix]

It doesn’t just have to be comic relief that provides these lighter moments. The original is devoid of goofy humor (outside of that one time the main protagonist kicked a praying old man just to shut him up, that was chuckle worthy in context), but nevertheless has moments where it lightens up. In a world with very few good people and where the main character is a murderous psychopath, his relationship with his dragon is engaging and nice to watch develop. It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of the game’s tone, but it’s difficult to not appreciate how the two grow closer despite their initial hatred of each other. Although, that might only be because every other relationship in the game is in a varying degree between screwed up and, "Oh God, why, why, why?"

Caim and the Red Dragon, in a rare moment where they aren't being murdery as heck. [Credit: Cavia]
Caim and the Red Dragon, in a rare moment where they aren't being murdery as heck. [Credit: Cavia]

I’m not saying this is some kind of hard and fast rule that all pieces of entertainment need to do to be taken seriously, especially since it’s something that certain products aren’t even going to require. A horror game that has more lighthearted, comical moments isn’t going to succeed in its primary task of freaking out the player. Imagine if took a break from its pants-wetting terror so you could watch some asylum patients do some sort of gag — it would take you right out of the tension. While something like a horror product will have moments of levity where it is less scary to build up to the really terrifying stuff, its tone shouldn’t move too far away from its oppressive and tense atmosphere.

Reminding You To Smile

Video games are in a strange place where the creator can’t be sure that the thing they’ve created is always going to have the tone they want it to, since a single glitch or exploit can turn an experience into a farce. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be an accident; some people don’t really care about the context of a video game and only want to see the gameplay, meaning they’re almost completely out of reach of the designer. However, Drakengard and Nier are good examples of the games where the player might not always know what kind of tone to expect.

The games sell themselves on their grim and morally gray worlds, so it can be a surprise to come across their more lighthearted sides. It only adds to the appeal of the games, not only because it helps to bring out the darker tones, but because it adds such a strange but appealing variety to them. While he’s hardly the only writer who uses such techniques, Taro Yoko really is a pro at this kind of thing. That, and maybe some kind of wizard. That’s the only explanation I can think of for how he manages to be both a creative lead on multiple projects (despite none of his games making a huge amount of cash) and manages to hit it out of the park every time he does.

Taro Yoko is notoriously camera shy, and thus often wears a mask based on one of his favorite creations when at events or interviews. [Credit: Yoko Taro/Square Enix]
Taro Yoko is notoriously camera shy, and thus often wears a mask based on one of his favorite creations when at events or interviews. [Credit: Yoko Taro/Square Enix]

Of course, these are only two examples of the vast and numerous types of tones that video games take. What kind of tones do your favorite games take? Would they be radically different if they had taken a different set of tones?


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