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.