» Commentary: Games in Shadows

The advent of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s massive Internet following has lead to large amounts of fan works. Music, videos, art, fiction, and even games have been made in tribute to the show.  With any fandom, these creations have a wide variety of themes. One popular trend is to take established settings and characters and attempt to make a story that is darker and edgier, using more mature themes than those that are featured in the show. When done well, this method can be an interesting and entertaining take on the show that explores different directions. Yet, most attempts end up falling short, instead opting to be “grimdark,” adding elements such as graphic violence purely for the sake of trying to make it darker and edgier than the original creation, rather than as a dramatic device. Read on to find examples of success and failure.

I was never a fan of “grimdark” stuff, specifically in a setting where it doesn’t belong at all. Warhammer 40k is all about being in the dark, grim future of eternal and brutal galactic warfare. It becomes so ludicrously dark that it almost gets comical. Fallout takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, where there’s mutants and all sorts of nasty buggers everywhere—not to mention tons of violence and general craziness from various groups and people. Given the nature of the games it is fairly dark, but it has a constant theme of rebuilding civilization as well as some dark humor throughout. These are two examples of something where some sort of dark and gritty story, if done well, would not be out of place in their established settings.

Conversely, you have something like My Little Pony, where it’s a wonderfully happy cartoon about colored ponies, magic, and various lessons in friendship. It just does not belong at all, and so making a good story with a darker tone is much harder to do. Usually in this case, the story becomes more about having darker elements simply for the sake of having them, or just to shock the audience with how far changed the setting and characters become, usually through the use of violence.

Let me get this out there: Making something a bit darker does not make it bad. It can work, but ONLY if done well. Here’s an example from within the show itself: Hearth’s Warming Eve is centered around a pageant about the titular holiday in Equestria. The pageant depicts the three races of ponies arguing amongst each other, blaming each other over who was causing the brutally cold winter as their states were starving during the seemingly endless blizzard. This is a rather dark situation, and something that perhaps other light-hearted cartoons would shy away from, if not outright avoid, but this show handled it well, just simply using it to establish the conflict and setting of the episode.

Story of the Blanks

Story of the Blanks

Trying to utilize dark elements with something like My Little Pony that very few fan works actually do well at all. Story of the Blanks is a prime example of inserting an element of horror into an otherwise cheerful and happy setting, and succeeding. It creates a believable scenario that could possibly fit in with the setting. It takes a place from the show—the Everfree Forest—which is already a dangerous and unsettling place for the characters, and goes from there. The first half increases your tension and makes you feel uneasy at the seemingly bright and fairly cheerful looking area, as you can tell that there is something quite unusual going on, but you don’t know exactly what until you enter the abandoned home and discover a dark secret. Upon discovery, the whole area changes completely, revealing it’s true nature, and bringing nightmarish things that don’t want you to escape. It’s a short and simple story, and it works well for what it is. It makes the whole story unnerving and weird, but it doesn’t resort to making things graphic, nor does it throw cat scares at you to get its story across. Story of the Blanks is not the greatest of stories, but it’s one of the very few fan works that actually made a darker story, and done it well.

Story of the Blanks 2

Story of the Blanks

On the other side of the spectrum, we have the complete opposite: Super Filly Adventure. To be clear: I don’t like this game. The story is about an original character who comes to Ponyville to get her Cutie Mark, and immediately upon arriving, Pinkie Pie greets her and prepares a party for her, telling her to invite the Main Six ponies to join in the party. After talking to all five static NPCs once, she is given a present at the party, which has a suit of armor and a weapon of some sort. Immediately afterwards, a dragon attacks Ponyville, and only the Original Character can stop the dragon in a very unentertaining fight where you slowly maneuver to dodge the dragon’s fireballs while slowly shooting the dragon to drain its long health bar. And while you’re fighting the dragon, the final boss music to Secret of Mana is playing, as if this is some sort of grand and epic battle. It really isn’t.

Like I said, I don’t like it at all. Where this game becomes relevant, however, is in an absurdly obtuse secret ending that you can get instead. Once you complete the conditions to unlock it, you move all the way to the right, where Zecora would be standing as an NPC. It instantly becomes night, and Zecora now looks like some sort of zombie, saying something that would signify that something is wrong, except the dark background and dreary music already smash this point home with a hammer. Taking the OC into the forest, you find Princess Luna, who was banished there by her sister, and is scared of something in the forest. Move a few screens over, you find her again, except now she’s been partially eaten by something. Continue past for a few screens, and the OC is surrounded by the Things from Story of the Blanks, and is promptly attacked, leaving an unnecessary and graphic picture of her dead body. It cuts to Twilight Sparkle, who is in the Forest looking for the OC, except the now zombie OC jumps from the right and rushes towards Twilight for a cat scare, signaling the end of the “Blank Flank Ending” as the game calls it.

Super Filly Adventure

Super Filly Adventure

Super Filly Adventure’s secret ending is a good example of trying to make something darker and failing. Taking the remarkably unsubtle NPCs of Zombie Zecora and Red Shirt Woona, the original take of the Things from Story of the Blanks, and making the actual “horror” of the ending being the OC character’s violent death, it all makes for a completely uninteresting and unnecessary sequence of events. Everything I described happens rather quickly, and isn’t mentioned or hinted at anywhere outside this ending. It barely takes any sort of time to try and create any sort of tension or atmosphere, and the character experiencing this is so bland and uninteresting that you almost want to see what happens in this ending, given how boring the rest of the game is. This shouldn’t happen. Horror works best when it creates something unsettling, disturbing, and frightening, and not when it tries to do this solely through shock value.

It’s a shame that many of the fan creations that have darker elements fall under these sorts of problems. Using some darker elements can work in some cases, but it just takes a lot of effort and care to make something that actually works well.

Wasted potential, really. 

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