One of my favourite video games – one of my favourite stories – of all time is Mass Effect 2. Partially, this is because it has robots and spaceships in it, and partially it’s because it takes the cover shooter system of Gears Of War and layers in superpowers and an RPG system, and partially it’s because it hits my very particular flavour of edgy. Edginess is a quality that has fallen out of fashion the past decade; the positivity movements that have grown roundly reject it as an indicator of quality for two reasons. The first is that these movements generally prefer stories that show the world as they would like it to be – goodness being rewarded, evil being punished, stuff like that. The second, more important and less discussed reason is because from 1990 to 2009, it felt like basically every pop culture outlet and creator believed that Darker And Edgier Is Better. Obviously, every individual’s sense of taste and their pop culture experience is different, but I can definitely say it felt like I was tripping over both Dark And Edgy crap and people complaining about needlessly Dark And Edgy crap and people enthusing over Dark And Edgy crap since I was a kid.
The thing is, I can totally understand how it ended up like this. I think went Dark And Edgy came in, it was in response to the upbeat nature of the 80s – that 80’s kids (and to an extent 90’s kids) were raised on relentlessly upbeat, optimistic pop culture. Even if it wasn’t artificially upbeat (which it often was), there was just so much of it that putting in cynicism, violence, swear words, and sexual themes was genuinely transgressive and exciting. And what happens when something becomes cool? Everyone starts doing it. More and more people want in on this fashionable edginess. The spirit of the thing is lost as people keep repeating ideas until they lose not just their original meaning but any meaning. And eventually edginess becomes predictable and upbeat optimism becomes transgressive. I believe the pendulum has finally swung in the other direction, and people are now thoughtlessly repeating ‘edgy is bad’ the exact same way they repeated ‘edgy is good’ decades ago, except this time the true underlying motivation is more obvious just because the hypocrisy is more visible (“Optimism and kindness is the best way to act and I will cruelly mock anyone who says otherwise!”).
I think unthinking optimism and unthinking cynicism are exactly as boring as each other, artistically speaking. Neither is true to reality; neither is true to the kind of person I would like to be. I look at the world and I see cruelty and evil and a darkness more vast than any individual person can deal with, and if you show me a world where people are rewarded for their goodness, or worse where the world is inherently a good place, then I’m going to show you someone ignoring reality. Mass Effect 2‘s universe is a dark place, and while the player character can’t fix it on a systemic level, they can act with personal integrity and be kind to everyone they meet, and that’s a fantasy I can get behind.