We’ve been telling creepy fireside stories throughout the ages. Glowing embers might be much harder to find these days, but a luminous screen will do just as well: Here’s a recap of three beautifully designed, morbid games that cater to a our weakness for fairy tales…

Limbo: a massively popular puzzle-platform indie video game by Playdead, first released in 2010 for XBox Live Arcade

Pretentious Game: a deceptively simple platforming game for tablets and smartphones by Bulkypix and Keybol, first released in 2012

Dumb Ways to Die: a touch device game, and a catchy song with an affable choreography: a Melbourn Metro Trains rail safety campaign by advertising agency McCann Melbourne turned viral in 2012

You can check these out below (spoiler alert). Following that, my answers to these questions: What makes them so alluring? And why the earlier comparison to fairy tales?

1) All three games are relatively short

Fairy tales – as do other short stories – retain much of their suspense from the fact that events are not overtly explained or drawn out (Hello, Hollywood).

While minimalist aesthetic has been trendy for some time now, it also fits well with the philosophy to say just enough and leave the rest to allusion.

2) We’re both shocked and consoled by the violence

Joan Acocella concludes her discussion in “Once upon a Time: the lure of fairy tales”, a New Yorker review on the Grimm fairy tales, with the following lines:

Even people who have never known hunger, let alone a murderous stepmother, still have a sense—from dreams, from books, from news broadcasts—of utter blackness, the erasure of safety and comfort and trust. Fairy tales tell us that such knowledge, or fear, is not fantastic but realistic.

People die and get hurt in games all the times – just to be revived in order to try again. Platform jumping and speed games rely on this mechanism especially: You miss that critical jump, and feel a tangible, gut wrenching feeling of falling. You just sense that your time is running out. (You just found a dumb way to die)

3) It seems so pointless a tragedy that it feels good to release the strain through a joke

A fairy tale might have a strong moral point to push through – or leave you wanting for one. Are there any circumstances under which you could condone a boy being left alone in the woods?

For the better or worse, black humor is a way of acknowledging the raw and the unjust. Whimsical humor revels in contrasting messages. Acocella also recounts her own, conflicted experience:

In “The Twelve Brothers,” a king who has twelve sons decides that, if his next child is a girl, he will have all his sons killed. That way, his daughter will inherit more money. So he has twelve coffins built, each with a little pillow. Little pillows! For boys whom he is willing to murder!

4) We are listening in

Each of these games exceeds in setting an atmosphere through sound. Just like fairy tales, they are often most enjoyable when performed aloud: we might not be able to smell or touch what is happening in the story, but our imagination is fed by what we hear.

A young woman spinning straw talking to a old goblin-man

Rumpelstiltskin strikes his bargain with the miller’s daughter. Illustration by William Crane, 1886