The dark side of the world — An examination of reality shifting in gaming

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Dark World mechanics have been around almost as long as mainsteam gaming. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was the first notable game to incorporate such a mechanic, tasking players initially with navigating a frightening alternate reality (known ironically as The Golden Realm) as a defenseless pink bunny. Since then, the Zelda has used the idea of a dark world (sometimes depicted instead as an alternate moment in time) and the idea has taken off, with many major franchises incorporating a “dark side” mechanic, including Prince of Persia, Metroid, Soul Reaver, Castlevania, Earthbound, Shin Megami Tensei, and Silent Hill.

Why do developers return to the same idea repeatedly? The reality shift emerged as a way to add depth to games, or in a more cynical view, to merely stretch out the amount of play time spent in a single area.

If you think of it merely as a way to reuse existing assets, then the dark world could be traced back as far as the NES era when games like Zelda II used “shadow” versions of the main protagonist to create an enemy with a wide range of animations without technically creating a new art asset for it.

The Silent Hill and Persona series have used the dark world as a narrative tool, to show characters characters’ more sinister sides and force them to face their darkest fears. Bayonetta and the recent reimagining of Devil May Cry use the dark world as an excuse for players to fight hordes of monsters within populated areas, without hurting innocent bystanders.

While it’s true that many games have used the dark world as a way to artificially lengthen the experience, or simply as a plot point, the best games to incorporate it force the player to think laterally to navigate an area.

But only recently have games begun to emerge that use the dark world as their core game mechanic. Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams gave players a single button to switch between light and dark worlds, at the same time altering the player’s abilities within the world. Oliver and Spike, a platformer in development by Rockpocket Games, seems in use the world swapping mechanic in a similar way. And of particular note is Quantum Conundrum, which has four different realities instead of two, but could definitely uses the trope or reality shifting as the core of it’s puzzle solving.

Part of the reason developers return to the dark side well so often is because it simply works. And while new, innovative ideas are always championed in game development, we have not yet plumbed the depths of the well to the dark side.

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