When I entered console gaming, I was late to the show. Having an original secondhand Xbox, I managed to play Halo 2 without having any idea what it was. Later, I picked up an Xbox 360 around a year after it came out. In the corner of the store, I found a little game called The Darkness. While playing, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the visceral combat and deep noir storytelling. To this day, it remains one of my favorite games of all time. It entered me into a world of deep, dark storytelling, and a complex narrative. In a few passages, I’m going to try to explain how this game shaped the entirety of my future gaming experiences.
So let’s talk about the game. The story is about a hitman for the mob named Jackie Estacado. He has a voice like gravel and is otherwise an unsympathetic character. At the start of the game, Jackie is betrayed by his adopted dad Paulie and set up to die. When backed into a corner however, dark powers awaken in Jackie to slaughter the hitmen sent for him. “The Darkness” as it comes to be known, is an entity that uses host bodies to create murder, mayhem, and otherwise be a dick to people. And if Jackie has a voice like gravel, then The Darkness has a voice like two pet rocks humping each other. Anyways, the newly awakened powers in Jackie start the tailspin of events for the game, and you know the rest. This all is very cookie cutter by nature. But what sets this game apart isn’t so much the story itself, but the narrative way the story is told.
The game unfolds by a future narrative, meaning that the events have already unfolded, but Jackie is recalling them to us, the player. This gives the game a sense of poignancy, as Jackie already knows the ending. But despite being a hitman for the mob, Jackie envelops us with his personal views through each loading screen, allowing us to actually develop feelings towards him. Jackie is a tortured soul. As the game progresses, we find out more about him and the way he sees the world. Despite being granted with powers many would kill for, he brings across the fact that he never really wanted any part of it without telling us directly.
So that means that it never feels forced. The game takes place in a semi-open world environment; when you the player uses the subway, Jackie will sometimes recall a time when he and his “dad” Paulie took a trip down the subway to watch the trains. It is done organically, rather than forced down our throats with a single cutscene that simply tells us that Jackie and Paulie used to be close.
The game takes this similar approach to the other aspects of the story. In Jackie’s relationship with his longtime girlfriend Jenny, we the players see the intimacy of the relationship through Jackie’s eyes. In the beginning of the game we head to Jenny’s apartment and watch a movie with her. We sit down on the couch and will even kiss her if we stay long enough. This little piece of storytelling tells us so much more than any type of cutscene, monologue, or piece of paper ever could.
Later, right before Jenny is killed, we walk through the orphanage that both Jackie and Jenny grew up in. We see flashes of the young duo consoling each other, crying, and bonding. These are all brief, but show us a multitude of emotions that no amount of cutscenes or long backstories could show us.
The game never gives us cutscenes other than small interludes in each loading screen. This allows the story to unfold organically, and not be forced on us. So many action games, like the Tomb Raider series, will try and force some type of character development on us, usually by showing how much they have been through. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, there are a multitude of cutscenes in which we are told that Lara and her dad had a very strained relationship, despite her dad not really being a physical part of the story.
There is an old adage among writers, “show don’t tell.” The Darkness is a great game because it knows how to show the player relationships, rather than simply telling the player that they exist. Many games in today’s era will throw previous relationships into the player’s face and yell, “Hey! Look! See? They’re kissing each other, that’s how you can tell that their boyfriend and girlfriend!” Nuance is a word that has been lost on many triple AAA game developers.
One of the other main components of The Darkness’s story is the relationship/struggle of Jackie and The Darkness itself. As I said before, The Darkness is an entity that needs to inherit a body to create mayhem. But Jackie learns that eventually he will become a slave to The Darkness and will lose control of himself. The struggle between man and host is portrayed to us through the game, as Jackie literally enters the mind of The Darkness in order to control it. The Darkness has a voice of its own, and talks to Jackie throughout the game. We find it’s a creature however, and we learn this through dialogue when it becomes frightened and angered. It shows signs of being threatened and weakened, and even goes so far as to bargain with Jackie for its own self-preservation. But this all happens throughout the gameplay. There are no lengthy cutscenes to tell us; we are shown. The closer Jackie gets to controlling The Darkness, the more erratic it becomes.
By the end of the game we see Jackie fall further into the clutches of The Darkness. We even see the physical loss of control as the controls are momentarily stripped away from the player in a small gameplay cutscene. The lengthiest cutscene only appears at the final moments of the game. But by this time, the game has earned it. The denouement occurs through a small moment of dialogue between Jenny and Jackie, which ends the game in a brilliant way that leaves us with a provocative, yet melancholy ending.
The Darkness is one of the few games I have ever played that I would truly call great. It knows that long, dialogue filled cutscenes only serve to detract from the gaming experience, and do little in showing real emotional connections. 2k games have proved this successful theory through games like Bioshock Infinite, that takes the same approach to character development and story.
The Darkness taught me that good storytelling can make a game a truly memorable experience. As a gamer, I love simplistic, fun games. But I have also learned that games can truly be works of art. If you have yet to play The Darkness, I highly recommend it, although you won’t find it for any other console than the Xbox 360. But although the game has been overlooked by many, it will always have a special place in my heart.