The Darkness

I’ve been sporadically playing The Darkness on the 360 over the last week and while my initial impression was that of disappointment, the game has since grown on me. I’m not one to generally buy licensed games, especially those licensed on comics, but this is a game that I bought solely because of the pedigree of the developer, Starbreeze. The same guys that turned a rather lousy Riddick license and made it into the best shooter on the XBox. If they can do that to Riddick, they can do it with this no-name comic license.

Fullbright writes about what he likes about The Darkness and I agree with most of it, especially about the “texture”. When you strip it down, The Darkness is a pretty standard shooter relying on established video game conceits. You walk around a a large city, New York, but you’re pretty much restricted to a small area which is pretty much always desolate except when there are enemies trying to kill you. It’s always night and there’s no sense of time. Doors are nothing but textures on the walls except for the limited few that you can go through. There are areas where you can’t use your weapons to kill NPCs because they are there solely to give you direction and “quests”. And there are cut-scenes during which you can’t bust out your weapons and do what you’ve been doing the whole game because the anatagonists need to do their thing despite you to keep the story moving. All of it standard video game fare.

Much like Riddick, The Darkness does a good job of putting a veneer on all those generic elements. For example, whenever you go to a new section you are treated with these odd monologues. The main character, Jackie, stands alone in the dark with a single spotlight on him talking about events in the game and his backstory. At first it seems that these out of context monologues are breaking the fourth wall as they seem to be directed at you, the player. But as they progress, it becomes clear that he is (or thinks he is) talking to his girlfriend, who you do not see. There’s no placement of these little bits anywhere in the story. There’s no explanation or context for them. They’re little mysterious morsels that add to the ambiance of the whole game.

But when you stop and think about it, it’s clear that these momentary breaks in the gameplay are nothing but disguised loading screens. They bridge the loading sequences in a way that jar you from the game’s world in a way that a loading bar would. It’s this kind of cleverness that Starbreeze has done well.

The darkness itself, the demonic force that possesses you early in the game and gives you various powers, might be considered a metaphor for the game designers. There are times when it exerts its influence over you preventing any actions that could break the game. When you try to summon it in the subway, where all the NPCs dwell, it refuses while telling you the people there are “worthless” and “not worth its time”. These excuses are, in the context of the game, perfectly acceptable[1].

In a sequence part way through the game you encounter the two main antagonists. You have your guns ready to shoot but before you can do anything the darkness’ tentacles wrap around your arms as it restrains you. It wants you to watch events unfold and it holds you there until they get away. It was too early to end the story. The darkness and, more specifically, the game designers have deeper plans for you.

It’s these little nuances that elevate a standard shooter into something more. On a superficial and mechanical level, everything The Darkness does is run of the mill and linear. There aren’t any supremely branching storylines or open worlds or overly complex AI characters and dialog trees. It’s mostly point to point with shooting sequences in the middle. That’s not what Starbreeze does well; instead, they create deep, smothering atmospheres and they make clever use of that all-too-common first person perspective. They build worlds that suck you in and make you want to explore and experience them, even if they lack mechanical depth or particularly compelling stories. In that sense, The Darkness is a worthy follow-up to Chronicles of Riddick and well worth, at least, a rental.

Though there are some faults that are inexcusable:

THEY'RE not THEIR, morons
  1. Even if deep down all that you really hear is “we can’t program contingencies for killing this NPC” and “giving each NPC proper reactions to those demonic tentacles coming out of your back is a lot of work.”
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