Revisiting The Darkness

By Piotr Bajda on at

When something works well in a video game, it’s never by accident. The storytelling in The Darkness was the first thing to catch people off-guard. The comic book looks, from the outside, like schlocky goth-horror. The protagonist has a monstrously violent form at certain times, probably why it was picked up for video game adaptation in the first place. But The Darkness's lead designer Jens Andersson begins our chat by talking about characters. “In this cinematic shooter genre everything is based on the story. The story from the development standpoint is as important as the gameplay features and mechanics.”

This has not been a widely-held belief in the AAA industry, where story is often layered-on once a game's basic blocks are in place. A set of limitations within which a writer spins a yarn as best they can. But developer Starbreeze turned that process on its head.

“The first month or two we just sat down and talked through what the whole story arc would be and who the characters were,” Andersson says. And where other studios might perhaps see two months of wasted development time, Starbreeze found their game's focus. “We decided that the story would be about Jackie's struggle with The Darkness and this threat within."

“If you read the comic and played the game you will see a different tone to the game,” says Andersson. “It’s maybe a more personal experience with the game. Or at least that’s what we wanted to highlight.”

Top Cow Comics (the owners of The Darkness IP) gave Starbreeze freedom to interpret the comic book, but the team was wary of overstepping boundaries. Hence a collaboration with award-winning comic book writer Paul Jenkins, who'd worked on the The Darkness previously. “Paul became sort of a liaison,” Andersson recalls. “We didn’t really know if Top Cow would say stop at some point, so it was good to have Paul coming over to Sweden and work with him. Also we knew he was one of the ‘owners’ of The Darkness storyline, so whatever he liked would probably be OK.”

Opting for a personal, vendetta-fuelled story and casting mobster Uncle Paulie as the antagonist kept things grounded, and gave Starbreeze the room to insert more intimate moments. We'll come back to those but, with the narrative focus clear, the studio got to prototyping. “In the first four or five months we did a pretty solid prototype of a section of the game," recalls Andersson. "It had the basic shooting, the adventure aspects and some of The Darkness' powers. And that prototype mostly worked well. The weak point was the Darkness powers, and that kept being a problem throughout the whole development.”

“It's hard when you have a powerful character like Jackie to have meaningful combat and interaction when the enemies are mostly human.”

The finished product showed few symptoms of this troubled development. The combat was fluid, the enemy encounters memorable and the Darkness powers, while awe-inspiring, didn't make Jackie invincible. It all comes from a long process of iteration, tweaks, and playtesting of what felt right.

“We did a lot of back and forth trying to find what the Darkness powers should be and how they should work,” Anderson says. “We had to try a lot to get those. We also had a lot of technical problems getting that to work well. Especially combined with the idea that you were supposed to be the scary guy.”

As anyone who's played the game will know, Jackie does feel scary. Mobsters scream as they see what you do to their companions. You get a first-person view of your enemies as the Darkness's awful maws and tendrils rip into their flesh. These New York streets end up covered in blood and guts.

“We decided early on that it would be a mature game,” says Andersson. “And we had this balance throughout the development to have this scary, gory violence but we never wanted to make it glamorous. And that's a hard thing to pull off.”

Especially, it would appear, when the publisher has different ideas for promoting the game.

“2K Games bought the project from Majesco two thirds into the development,” says Andersson. “2K was also really good to work with, but we noticed when the marketing started that they pushed the violent aspects of the game.”

“For us it was the adventure and the story. That’s what stood out. The violence was fun but it was more of setting the tone for the story. We found the balance in the end where the game was presented as a strong story but a dark, violent story.”

As violent as it was, The Darkness is so fondly remembered for how gentle and personal it got in the breaks between the shootings and devoured human hearts. The New York subway system served not only as a hub between missions, but also as an intimate scene where some of the game’s finest characters played their part.

“We learned working on The Chronicles of Riddick that the pure adventure elements work really well in small segments,” Andersson explains. “So we put small quests and interesting dialogue in and spent a lot of time getting the NPCs right. They're all motion captured. All have voices. All that stuff wasn’t really common back then.”

The cinematic, low-key moments were the brainchild of Jens Matthies, the art director on The Darkness and the creative director behind the recent Wolfenstein re-emergence.

"We all wanted to see them there,” Andersson says. “We were hoping they would work. It's such a great contrast to the violence and the action. You turn around the corner and pretend to be this normal character. It makes the players think a little bit more about what they are doing in the game.”

Arguably the best of those moments transpires when Jackie and his girlfriend Jenny hang out at her flat. You can watch the entirety of a film on the sofa together — even now, a strikingly authentic moment. So few games even try to recreate the mundane-but-meaningful parts of life, but in doing so The Darkness brought its NPCs to life.

“It’s still a game. You can walk out of there anytime you like, but we've heard from a lot of people who've just sat there and some of them even watched through the whole movie — To Kill a Mockingbird — playing on the TV,” Andersson says with justified pride.

To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t the only movie playing on TVs throughout the game. Intrigued by all the spare room on the Blu-ray disc, the team (with the help of 2K’s legal team) compiled a list of public domain films and cartoons with which to enliven NYC. “Then it was just a matter of figuring where we want what and where we want it,” Andersson says.

However, Gregory Peck wasn’t destined to be the biggest star on the game’s roster. When it came to casting the titular Darkness, Andersson and the team dreamt big. "It's this really important character in the story and you never really see him. He’s in your head. How do you make a character like that?”

The answer is: you email Mike Patton from Faith No More.

“Jens Matthies is a big fan of Mike Patton, so we wrote him an email. That's it,” Andersson chuckles. “He's fun, Jens Matthies, in that sense. He has very few barriers when it comes to ‘oh, we should try this!’”

After all the behind-the-scenes wrangling with agents and whatnot, Patton eventually stepped into the recording booth. “It was one of those things that you just have to trust will work out,” Andersson recalls. “The first time we heard the voice we weren’t sure that it would. Would it be too much? Will people appreciate it? Will it give the Darkness a personality?”

The gamble paid off. Patton, incidentally an avid gamer, delivered a gut-wrenching performance that, for me, is among the most powerful the medium has had. He enjoyed the experience so much, in fact, he went on to lend his chops to a couple more games.

And that is, more or less, the story of The Darkness. But why is this a story about just one game?

“2K expected us to do the sequel, and when we weren’t interested in doing that, they were just surprised,” Andersson says. “When we were done with The Darkness, and it got delayed quite a bit, a lot of the team were kind of sick and tired. It took almost four years to make that game.”

“We were tired of contemporary New York City. We wanted to do something different, maybe something sci-fi. So they handed it off to another developer.”

That other developer was Canadian studio Digital Extremes, the creators of 2012’s The Darkness II. Jens played it behind the closed doors of the Game Developers Conference and liked what he saw.

“It tried doing different things than we tried and it solved some of the problems we had,” Andersson says, with typical grace. “It was a different team doing their thing.”

A few years down the road, and a couple of AAA games later, Andersson's fatigue manifested itself again. And this time a simple change of in-game scenery wasn’t enough. “I honestly got a little bit tired of working on huge games. It’s very different than working on small games, so I went the indie path and I'm very happy with that.”

How happy? Judging by the mood of his latest game, a colourful mix of pinball and platformer called Yoku’s Island Express, Jens Andersson is blissful. The days of The Darkness are unforgettable, of course. But they were also long ago.