June 29, 2009
This post contains relevant information about The Darkness, but no major spoilers. If you prefer to know nothing about a game before playing it, stop reading now.
The Darkness takes you to hell and back. Twice. In between those hallucinatory detours, the game spins a familiar mob story of betrayal and revenge set in the lower third of Manhattan. There's a power-crazed mob boss, an innocent girlfriend, a corrupt cop, and a motley assortment of savvy wiseguys, dealers, and street toughs. As a crime family story, The Darkness sticks to a well-trodden path. Fortunately, there's more to the story.
The Darkness is a character-driven game, and Starbreeze clearly lavished attention on this element of its design. The quality of the vocapped performances rises well above other games because the dialogue is exceptionally well written (script by Paul Jenkins and Mikael Säker), and every character - even the corner junkie and paranoid woman in the subway - is voiced by a convincing actor, with all the subtleties and imaginative inflections professionals bring to the process.
When a developer hires a seasoned actor like Kirk Baltz (best known for playing the tortured cop in Reservoir Dogs) to play a small supporting role (Anthony Estacado) in its game, that developer is trying hard to do things right. In The Darkness, the effort pays off. Okay, maybe a few of the collectible answering machine messages sound cheesy, but we'll chalk that up to 'bonus content' not relevant to the main story.
But let's be honest. The dialogue and characters in The Darkness are impressive for a video game. The highest production standard we can find (and this game is among the best I've seen) is the bare minimum one would expect from a film or play. When you objectively consider the game's latex-like facial animations (especially among the older characters) and dodgy lip syncing, the verisimilitude gap widens significantly. Some reviewers see "great storytelling" in this game; but The Darkness is, at best, a potboiler crime thriller with a supernatural twist.
That last paragraph was a straw man, by the way. Time to tear him down.
"I'm a contract killer. I, uh, kill people for the Franchetti crime family."
The Darkness isn't about traditional storytelling at all. Sure, it has a linear plot and characters voiced by actors, but The Darkness isn't a video game knock-off of Goodfellas, nor is its presentation especially cinematic. The Darkness is an unflinching exploration of a tormented man's psyche. It relies on the power of first-person interactivity to bring the player face to face with the seductiveness of evil. Seeing the world through Jackie's eyes enables you to explore the life of a contract killer - a man, ironically, of honor - in ways that go farther and deeper than merely pulling a trigger and watching a cutscene.
The Darkness is a shooter because that's what Jackie Estacado is. Jackie kills people for a living. He has awesome powers at his disposal because the Darkness has chosen Jackie as its vessel. These powers come at a terrible price, forcing Jackie to live in the shadows and taking control of him at the worst possible moment.
The player sits squarely between Jackie and the Darkness. We empathize with Jackie, but we need the Darkness to survive. Like the Darkness, we can control Jackie's actions, but not his mind. Like Jackie, we can hold the Darkness at bay, but never silence it. Sometimes we choose dark powers simply because of their allure. A gun would do the job...but not nearly so thrillingly.
Weapons and destructive powers rarely mean anything in games. They're tools that must be reloaded or recharged. At worst they drain mana or energy. Every time Jackie summons the Darkness, it's a small self-loathing surrender.
Video games are forever trying to integrate their gameplay mechanics with their narratives. The Darkness succeeds where so many others fail because the act of killing, especially when enabled by Jackie's malicious dark powers, functions as an ongoing dialogue between the honorable man Jackie wants to be and the hungry creature lurking inside him. At every turn you have a choice: not a choice of whether to kill, but a choice of how. In Jackie's world, there's a right way, a wrong way, and an expedient way.
"Ever been in love with somebody who was so beautiful and pure, you couldn't bear to show them your own darkness?"
Much of the game's narrative impact comes from the struggle within Jackie to confront the darkness inside him. It's possible to see the entire game as a meditation on this struggle. Jackie's trips to the Otherworld, his relationship with Jenny, his (and your) choices to accept or reject side missions - all these activities are accompanied by gameplay that informs the meaning of Jackie's actions. You can cuddle with Jenny on the couch and watch a movie, and you can shoot a man in the head, tear open his chest, and devour his heart. You will probably do both.
The Darkness isn't a sandbox game. It's a carefully authored experience, and in this context 'choice' isn't so much about branching paths as about constructing a persona for Jackie in your own head. Behaving honorably or viciously won't alter the outcome of the game one way or another, but your lingering sense of the Darkness' (and its haunting pleas for "more, more blood") will deeply affect your thinking as you make your way through the game. When you are confronted with choices, such as accepting leadership of the crime family late in the game, you will likely weigh that decision against the path you've charted for Jackie throughout the game. That choice has no meaningful outcome in the game, but it still felt terribly important to me.
"There's always a little light in the darkness."
So much more can be said about The Darkness. The locations, especially the subways, are visually terrific and full of content worth stopping for. The gleefully malevolent Darklings are hysterical ("Human flesh is porky meat!"); the nightmarish settings and characters of the Otherworld tell their own haunting story; Kirk Acevedo's vocal performance as Jackie is among the best I've heard in any game. And then there's the couch. I'll let you discover that one for yourself.
Lots of us overlooked The Darkness when it appeared two years ago. As Paulie Franchetti says, "If you know what's good for you, don't do that Jackie."