Grim genres and gory games are getting a makeover. Hardcore titles like Hotline Miami, X-Com 2, and Day Z also exist in far more mainstream and family friendly versions — and that’s a good thing.
The most obvious and blatant example can be seen in the battle royale genre. The one vs a hundred game type exploded into the mainstream with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a game with real-world weaponry and gritty textures. But Fortnite took that gameplay and made a mega-hit battle royale where John Wick fight a giant banana.
In Hotline Miami, I can grab a boiling pot of water off a stove and throw it against a goon’s face. The animation is prolonged and gruesome. I never thought I’d see a PG-rated version of a game like Hotline Miami, but the indie brawler Bloodroots comes close. Aspects that previously defined Hotline Miami, like intense combat with a huge range of weapons, can be found in Bloodroots too — but instead, I’m performing combos with a carrot, not a machete. The action is more over-the-top and dynamic, but there’s still that same great gameplay loop of die, learn, repeat, succeed, and die again.
In X-Com 2, strategy slip-ups lead to me watching in horror as an insectoid Chryssalid gores my my poor front-line medic into a pulp. But I could also enjoy the same joy through Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, which is a surprisingly solid tactics game that has absolutely no flesh incubation. Kingdom Battle still has me considering cover, flanking, and scouting … just with a Mario cast.
Day Z, meanwhile, was a gritty shooter where I can have tense stand-offs with other players, who often behaved in bizarre and unexpected ways. I played with my brother, and I learned to put on a sweet voice and pretend as if I were a new player in desperate need of help. Once the bait was set, we would ambush our enemies and walk away with pockets full of loot.
It was, at the time, an unprecedented metagame of manipulation and social engineering. Even though the game constantly cursed me with broken legs when I tried to climb a ladder, or with long stretches of monotony, I still stuck around. I didn’t have any other options for games like this.
But now, I can get the same thrill of Day Z’s manipulative, sometimes downright rude gameplay in Sea of Thieves. Sea of Thieves’s pirate-themed, treasure collecting adventure is bright, colorful, and kid-friendly ... but I still get the same pleasant shiver up my spine when I have an intense encounter with another crew. I can still lie and manipulate my way into their good graces, only to pull out an explosive barrel and ruin their day. The same core experience is there, but the fresh coat of paint is very welcome.
Sometimes, these more wholesome takes on grim genres are a better way to share something I love with friends and family who might be intimidated by the complexity of the denser versions of the same idea. Once I’ve introduced them to the concept, it’s sometimes easier to bring these folks into the wider fold — and some of their skills will carry over. I’ve sold a friend on Bloodroots by talking about how the action was so good that even failure could be a lot of fun. Once the bug bit, it was easy to transition them over to Hotline Miami once they ran out of Bloodroots to binge on.
Can every bloody game inspire a colorful, child-friendly successor? Probably not. I can’t imagine a Dead Space look-alike that doesn’t come with streamers of guts and horrific animations, or an EVE Online that isn’t in a stark environment of backstabbing and sophisticated propaganda. But when real life is a whole lot, and I’m looking for an escape, sometimes it’s nice to spend time in a friendlier, brighter world.