Grief and Evilness

I recently saw the Saw movies. Yeah, I know they are horrible. The first movie was just silly. The first sequels were embarrassing. But as the series nowadays consists of 6 (!!!) parts and gathered a solid fanbase, it’s hard to deny that they are doing something right. And indeed all the movies in the series follow a well developed formula. After an initial shocker scene the movie alternates between two storylines. One of them is just a series of scenes where people are being tortured and killed in the most gruesome but spectacular ways. The other storyline is boring filler that mostly centers around the police trying to capture the killer. The second storyline sets up the surprise twist ending. You know, the “ZOMG! It was him all along” kind of ending.

It is a solid formula even if all the constituent parts are shallow and gimmicky. The torture scenes are pointless, impossibly contrived and excessively brutal. However, their voyeuristic appeal is hard to deny. They create almost a kind of a core mechanic. You know what you are in for when you watch a Saw movie. The twist ending is utterly pointless. Often, the revealed information neither makes any sense nor any difference to the plot. However, it does a good job at creating a sense of closure.

One interesting detail is that due to the excessive amount of sequels, the series was able to create quite a mythology. Especially the latter entries have almost a soap opera feel to them. It’s clear that they were made for an audience familiar with all previous episodes.

But what I want to discuss today is something different. Some of the characters in the series stuck me as unbelievable in a special way. I realized that the same mistakes are often done in completely different stories. One of the mistakes are characters motivated by grief. In Saw 3, one of the tortured characters has lost his son a year ago or so. He is completely obsessed with that loss, abandons his other child and indulges in fantasies of revenge. A similar character is the protagonist of Heavy Rain. It’s a father whose life fell apart after he lost one of his sons. Even after a year, he seems utterly depressed and unable to continue his social life and career.

That’s bullshit.

When something terrible happens to a person they will grief but only for a relatively short period. After a couple of weeks they will get over it and continue with their life and maybe only occasionally remember their loss. There was one study where they compared the subjective happiness of people who won the lottery a year ago and people who became paraplegic a year ago. Guess what. Both were EQUAL. Why? Because there is just so much going on in everyday life. There are constantly new events happening that require one’s attention. It’s impossible to concentrate on grief for such a long time. You get bored and distracted after some time.

Of course some people may continue to be depressed for longer periods but that is the symptom of a medical disorder. As it happens I had a severe case of that condition in my family. Such conditions can be triggered by traumatic events but people, who suffer from them make up for poor movie characters. Movie characters usually undergo a so-called arc. They start with a certain flaw and eventually overcome their weakness to become a better person. This doesn’t work so well for clinically depressed people. Their condition doesn’t improve by itself, it needs to be treated, mostly with medicine.

So grief makes up for a poor and unrealistic motivation for a character if the triggering event happened a long time ago. Grief over recent or ongoing events is more plausible.

A different, less common mistake is the portrayal of “evil” characters. In the latter Saw movies, some of the victims are tortured because of some ruthless acts they committed. The are people like over-zealous insurance agents, con artists or loan sharks. When they find themselves in the deadly traps of Saw, they immediately recognize why they deserve the torture and admit that they were “evil”.

Again, that’s bullshit.

The world is not just back and white. There is no such thing like “evil”. But more importantly, nobody ever thinks of themselves as being evil. Even the biggest asshole in the world always creates a plausible explanation for his actions. This can’t be just a shallow excuse but something they deeply believe in. For example, a violent racist genuinely believes that his victims are lesser people who deserve abuse. When confronted with a situation where they are punished for their acts, such people would never recognize themselves as being “evil”. Instead, they would stick to their beliefs and always think of themselves as being innocent and merely misunderstood.

Hey that’s no fair. What if he has iron deficiency?

Of course this model of human psyche undermines the very idea of Saw. In this movie the killer sets up the traps to convince people to stop being “Evil”. If the assholes would behave realistically, the entire purpose of the movie would be defeated. On the other hand, if a story works only when characters behave unrealistically, that’s a sure sign that the story sucks. And yes, I’m looking at you too, Heavy Rain.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

One response to “Grief and Evilness”

  1. One A Day Picks of the Week – 26th July to 1st August « rudderless

    [...] favourite post of this week, however, is Krystian Majewski’s majestic dissection (and there is surely no more appropriate word given the subject matter) of the Saw [...]


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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