One Moment

What a delightfully weird game The Darkness is. There are so many strange things in it: friendly demons, full-length movies playing on the TV sets, first-person snuggling on a couch, a side-trip into a purgatory where WWI never ends and never will, and loading-screens where protagonist Jackie Estacado delivers monologues into the darkness, recalling happier times before he became a mob assassin.

I had always heard about The Darkness, mainly because you can watch the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird while hanging out at your girlfriend's apartment. But after I played The Darkness II preview at PAX East (where I watched another writer shake his head slowly, with a faint smile on his lips, as one of the demonstrators pulled a mobster apart at the spine), I found myself wondering about what kind of world it took place in. Where, outside of a Tarantino film, do you find this kind of combination of staggering violence, sadism, and cruel humor?

I was unprepared for Starbreeze's original game. The action is still over-the-top, and one would never confuse The Darkness's world with our own. But for all the comic-book violence and excess, The Darkness presents more than a stage for power fantasies. Players inhabit Jackie Estacado's life, and see it as he sees it. He becomes real to us, and so does his world.

Jackie's chief motivation is revenge against his malignant uncle, Don Franchetti, and his corrupt right-hand man, NYPD police captain Eddie Shrote. But what I enjoy about The Darkness is that it takes the time to earn that motivation. We don't just hear about the things Jackie has lost, or that he cares about them. We experience them before they are taken away, and that context changes our relationship to Jackie's revenge quest.

When Jackie gets to his girlfriend's apartment and they start watching To Kill a Mockingbird, it is the first moment of real peace and security in the game. Everything else has been mayhem and bloodshed, but Jenny gives Jackie and the player respite from all of that. She refuses to surrender the TV remote, so that Jackie can do nothing but hold her and watch a movie about two children growing up amid hard times in a tough world. It is all the more poignant because Jackie and Jenny are orphans—there is no Atticus Finch there to raise them or tell them how to be. Jackie has just turned 21, almost a grown man, and he spends his last hours of peace watching a story about a boy and girl learning about the importance of decency in a world that is crueler than they have known.

Later, Jackie walks through the burned-out remains of the orphanage where he and Jenny grew up, and it becomes a theater of memory as he watches spectral shadows of their younger selves play out scenes from their relationship. It fills in a lot of the backstory for these two characters. It also establishes Jackie's capacity for evil, and his own discomfort with it. There is a point where Jackie watches his boyhood self crying in the kitchen, hiding from everyone, because he nailed a frog to a door and he doesn't really know why. It sets up a moment later in the story, where Jackie has to come to terms with his darkest nature in order to regain control of his actions.

These asides, and The Darkness is full of them, elevate what could have been a mundane, slightly repulsive experience. Even though Jackie spends the game killing some of the most debased people imaginable in a manner that would make Scorpion proud, The Darkness doesn't just wallow in violence and power. It also presents moments of gentleness, decency, tragedy, and horror. It might be a Gothic story, but it is still a very human one, and it earns its excesses. When it ends with just one beautiful, loving moment, the finality of it all is heartbreaking. But by that point, the game has also taught Jackie that these moments will have to do. They're all we get.

Comments

Great article. The Darkness was one of my first "Next Gen" experiences years ago when I played it on my new PS3. There is a moment in that game that has stuck with me, that no game has ever been able to match.

Spoiler:

Jenny's death.

The way that scene is handled, and the player's inability to act but just watch was incredibly well done. That scene motivated me, as the player, to act and push forward in the plot in a way not many other story hooks ever had. The scene was so poignant, in fact, that at the conclusion of the game, I simply wasn't satisfied. It stole the show, and even the closure at the end of the tale was not enough to satisfy my emotional commitment from that scene.

Honestly, my biggest problem with The Darkness II is what story do you tell? The first game, to my memory, ended cleanly with no hanging loose ends. How do they start anything new from that?

ThatGuy42 wrote:

The way that scene is handled, and the player's inability to act but just watch was incredibly well done. That scene motivated me, as the player, to act and push forward in the plot in a way not many other story hooks ever had.

Agreed, although I haven't finished the game yet. But what strikes me in particular about that scene is that there is both a narrative and mechanical reason why the player/Jackie is powerless to act. It felt comparable to the revelation of the "Would You Kindly?" scene in BioShock—there was a clear sense that the designers were sending you a message not just with the story event, but also with your control (or lack of control) of your avatar.

The To Kill a Mockingbird scene is fascinating to me in a similar way, but not just because you can watch the movie, but because this is the only first-person shooter to allow you to do something as normal as curling up on a couch and smooching your girlfriend. For me, that has way more "ZOMG VISCERAL IMPACT!!1!" than slaughtering thousands of terrorists/zombies/aliens could ever have.

ThatGuy42 wrote:

Honestly, my biggest problem with The Darkness II is what story do you tell? The first game, to my memory, ended cleanly with no hanging loose ends. How do they start anything new from that?

Well, they managed a lot of comics!

Fantastic article, Rob. I always thought that the game was an underrated one, with a lot more depth and original content than it was given credit for. Granted, "mobster hitman rips stuff apart with the power of evil demons whilst shooting cool guns" doesn't steer one towards the idea of a powerful story and narrative!

From what I have read of the comics, there isn't much that would lend itself to a similar depth. There was a good arc a couple of years ago where Jackie finds himself running a small South American nation that might make for a good basis for a game, but it would lack feeling.

Ever since I heard you'd started this game I've been waiting for this article, and you didn't disappoint.

The weird dichotomy with this game is that people criticized it because the actual gunplay and action sequences were handled with mediocrity, but the narrative and the way it was delivered totally succeeded in drawing you into the game's world. The most satisfying moment for me was how the game lets you deal with Don Franchetti at the end.

This and Riddick all but prove that Starbreeze is a truly special developer. I really hope we get to see more from them in the future.

Ever since I heard you'd started this game I've been waiting for this article, and you didn't disappoint.

Writer catnip. Careful, he's going to get all attached and move in with you.

Certis wrote:
Ever since I heard you'd started this game I've been waiting for this article, and you didn't disappoint.

Writer catnip. Careful, he's going to get all attached and move in with you.

Do you have health insurance, RedSwirl? That's like writer cocaine (for those that don't use actual cocaine).

The Darkness was one of the first games I picked up for my then-new 360, and I loved it, despite my general dislike of console shooters. I was quite impressed.

This is one of those rare times I'd love to see a sequel that had limited or handwaved storyline ties to the original. I don't care if it continues the story of Jackie, that was tied up exceptionally well. The next person to carry the title Darkness is all the ties it needs if they pull off the story as well as they did in the first game.

Another +1 for the game. The aforementioned twist was exquisite, but I keep thinking back to this game more for the kind of ending it had. I felt like the end of the game was thanking me for finishing it and sticking around to see the whole story instead of abusing me with a horribly unfair and twitch-gamer-reflexes-required boss fight like so many other games *cough*Uncharted 2*cough*

Unfortunately this game was ruined for me watching my housemate play it and try to shoot down helicopters with a pistol (it's probably a video game trope that this is not possible), again and again and again.

Sounds nice, just....not on pc

Some of us in the achievement-whoring thread still play the Darkness MP from time to time. It's the only multiplayer game I've ever seen where the host can lag out.

I've picked this game up and put it back on the shelf time and time again. I think I'm actually going to buy it this time!

I played it back in 2004, and after watching the trailer for it, I don't think I will buy it. Not because it's a bad game, but because I remember the game so well since it was awesome, I don't think I could play through it again with full enjoyment.

Sparhawk wrote:

Sounds nice, just....not on pc :(

Hell it's hardly available for PS3. Just checking Amazon, the 360 version is $12, the PS3 one is $42.

Guess there weren't as many copies made or something.

Maybe if I see one used, I'll give it a whirl. Don't remember ever hearing about this one before.

The 360 edition just dropped dramatically in price and trade value since it was added to Games On Demand, as well.

Stele wrote:
Sparhawk wrote:

Sounds nice, just....not on pc :(

Hell it's hardly available for PS3. Just checking Amazon, the 360 version is $12, the PS3 one is $42.

Guess there weren't as many copies made or something.

Maybe if I see one used, I'll give it a whirl. Don't remember ever hearing about this one before.

It was published in 2007 when the print runs on the 360 of most 3rd party games were 2 or 3 times the size of those on the PS3. For games that did well, availability usually wasn't a problem because more PS3 copies were eventually pressed. In the case of the Darkness demand was fairly low, and the market was flooded with copies that fall. If I remember correctly, there was such a glut of copies that both Amazon and Gamestop gave away copies of the Darkness on 360 for free with purchases of Bioshock.

I thought the game was actually very interesting when I played through it, but it was up my alley. I generally like story driven shooters even if the mechanics aren't perfect. Unfortunately, with the exception of Singularity most FPS's over the past few years have trended towards mutiplayer smoothness and have shifted resources away from creating interesting single player games.

Overall, I thought it was a good game, but I probably wouldn't recommend it at $40.

Also loved this despite the flaws. One thing to note is that there's a lot more running on the TVs in the game than just "To Kill a Mockingbird". I was wandering past a tramp's TV in a shopping cart at the subway station, and spotted the distinctive Saul Bass titles for "The Man with the Golden Arm" (Frank Sinatra as a struggling junkie, which also has a lot of thematic relevance). As far as I know, that entire movie's in the game as well, along with a bunch of old Flash Gordon serials, martial arts movies, Popeye cartoons, and other nifty stuff.

Rob Zacny wrote:

Where, outside of a Tarantino film, do you find this kind of combination of staggering violence, sadism, and cruel humor?

Garth Ennis comics, which, coincidentally, are the source material.

I was really surprised by this game. Ended up losing a weekend to it. My favorite part happened on my way to the final mission. At this point, I have every power and they're mostly maxed out. And the game is nice enough to let you play a couple missions like this so you can enjoy the power you've achieved, so I'm actually quite adept at being The Darkness by this point. It's in this state that a man tries to mug me on the street. Not fumbling with what button controls which power, instead I react instantly and fluidly, expertly ripping the man's heart out with one of those creepy mouth tentacle things. That's what you get, mothaf*cka.