All men must die. All stories must end. There must be bad to cancel out the good. Dark fantasy is a very specific subgenre often coupling horror and fantasy themes. It typically takes place in a dismal setting, with an omnipresent gloom or sense of dread lingering in the air. Dark fantasy can be crushing, sobering, and intense. But all of the gloom and dread still does something to captivate and enthrall. Because all of the crushing darkness is countered by a small shred of hope. One hero, one group of people, or one idea. It’s the long shot we like; the horse with the worst odds and the highest payout.
It’s also one of the most unforgiving. Game of Thrones in particular is infamous for its cold disposal of main characters left and right. No heroes are safe, and no one gets out alive, especially in the great conflict for the Iron Throne.
Dark fantasy offers a few unique possibilities for storytelling. A mixture of horror and dread especially serves to draw out unique responses and actions from the characters involved. Trauma and despair effect people in different ways, and seeing their reactions to hardship both reflects our own thoughts and tendencies while also keeping the small, faint light of hope alive.
Naturally, video games have long embraced dark fantasy and used it to craft memorable worlds. To celebrate the upcoming returns of Game of Thrones and Dark Souls, here’s a look at some standout games embracing dark fantasy to great effect.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
One of the more divisive Legend of Zelda games, Majora’s Mask is dark, twisted journey in a doomed world. Filled with the imagery of death and cataclysm, it’s an eerie and notable part of Nintendo’s beloved franchise because of its very distinct tone and style.
That's probably why it’s so divisive. Whereas other Zelda games take place in bright worlds popping with light, airy color, Majora’s Mask is a setting awash with dark tints and ominous colors, its scenery filled with bizarre features and a garish moon staring menacingly at a world in fear. It’s evocative; a fear of impending failure adding weight to the one person likely to be the world’s savior from destruction. Every ounce of the world’s weight is placed solely on his shoulders, giving each of Link’s actions a greater amount of importance than before.
A series so dark, they included it in the name. Really, you can take your pick of ay entry in the Dark Souls series, because all of them are practically a master class in crafting a dark, fantastical world.
Dark Souls as a series is all about despair, every inch of its ruined buildings and vicious bosses practically shouting taunts at a player’s character. “Come and try to defeat us. Your world is doomed, and no sword can save it, no matter how sharp it might be.”
Which is probably a large part of why it resonates with players. When they’re able to take on wicked, unforgiving bosses and come out victorious, they’ve proven their worth and validated their position as the unlikely hero of this world.
Bloodborne also deserves a notable mention here, since it takes dark fantasy in a different direction by borrowing Lovecraftian themes and weaving them into a bleak, gothic world filled with decay. It jut doesn’t get much darker than that.
A fantasy game combining elements of gothic horror and classic monster movies, Castlevania is one of the earliest video games to embrace dark fantasy and make it into something all its own.
It’s different from other types of dark fantasy, thanks largely in part to its adherence to more classic tropes found in old vampire movies and books. But the trappings are all there, and taking on hordes of baddies in haunted mansions while combating a greater evil is amazingly satisfying, especially when you’re one of the few good guys around able to do anything to stop it.
Darkest Dungeon/Dragon Age: Inquisition
Both of these dark fantasy games have one thing in common: they focus heavily on the characters and how the world’s conflict has taken a toll on them.
This is seen in a very blatant way in Darkest Dungeon, where characters can be affected in numerous ways that can either break or dominate in battle. Watching people deal with the aftermath of dealing with horrible creatures in equally horrible situations sheds an interesting light on the ways we’re harmed or left changed in some way by trauma.
Dragon Age: Inquisition has similar ideas, but it approaches them in a more personable way. Relationships are an important element of most BioWare properties, so a large focus of the story is built upon how characters deal with the weight of cataclysmic destruction and continue pressing forward through hardship. It strikes a neat balance that not only causes the story to have more depth, but also leaves lasting impressions on the player long after the final boss is defeated.