Most licensed video games, particularly those based on iconic comic book characters, tend to play in the third person perspective — but not The Darkness, or The Darkness II. We spoke to the game's producer Seth Olshfski about the challenges of bringing Jackie Estacado to live in the first person.
The comic book is character driven: Batman, Spiderman, Wolverine. Suggested movement is paramount. Spiderman is light footed, limber; Batman is swift, deliberate.
So when it comes to replicating these characters in video games, it’s usually important that we see them, that we can observe them. We need to see Batman dive bomb into Arkham City, it’s imperative that we watch him efficiently dispose of goons, before vanishing into darkness.
This is why almost every single video game based on a comic book character has been some kind of third person action game.
Jackie Estacado, however, is a little different. The Darkness II is a little different.
“I think the Darkness as a comic is a little more nuanced,” begins Seth Olshfski, Producer on the Darkness II. “It's not about thesuper villains that Jackie has to go and defeat. Jackie is a complex person who doesn't always make the right decision. In fact he frequently makes the wrong decision. He often make the — quote unquote — bad decision.
“Jackie does things bad people would do. He's not a hero, he's a real human — you tell that kind of story differently. Jackie isn't a costume clad, cape wearing, traditional comic book character.
“The Darkness II is a game about a guy going through a journey. It's not about how he looks as much as it is about what he goes through.”
Look Into My Eyes
In many ways The Darkness was a great first person shooter, at the very least it innovated intelligently within its genre. Opinions may differ — but ask what the game’s most memorable moment was, and few will argue — the death of Jackie Estocado’s girlfriend Jenny at the end of the game’s first act was one of the most gruesome and outright shocking moments ever seen in a video game.
According to Seth, this moment is the perfect example of how a story driven game like The Darkness II must remain in the first person perspective.
“If you think back to Jenny's death scene from the first Darkness game,” says Seth, “it was so powerful because you had to look directly into her eyes as she was shot. If you were looking at that in the third person, that would have had significantly less impact.
“For The Darkness II we are strictly first person. You see everything through Jackie's eyes. It helps you feel like you are becoming the lead in the show. There are two ways you can tell a story — a third person story is going to be more about that character going on an adventure, first person games are more about being that guy and going on an adventure.
“For the narrative we wanted, it was important for you to put yourself in Jackie's shoes. We really wanted to tell a story to the player and have you live those experiences.”
The Poetry Of Movement
Having genuinely intimate moments play directly to the player is an undoubted advantage of keeping your game in the first person perspective, and Seth is right — Jenny’s death in The Darkness would have had significantly less impact had it played out in the third person perspective.
But there is an argument for the poetry of movement. Altair strides throughout Rome with a purposeful swagger, Batman soars through the neon of Arkham City — a move into the first person makes it more difficult for the player to engage in the performance of play. There’s something rewarding about having your onscreen avatar respond to your instructions, something about being able to watch your own performance, and be influenced by the way its represented. It’s difficult to play Ezio as anything but a visceral, efficient killing machine.
How do you replicate that in a first person shooter like The Darkness? A game driven by character and narrative — is it possible?
Seth thinks so.
“Well, you have those demon arms hanging out in front of you — and they're just as much of a character as Jackie is! You always know if it's a screenshot of the Darkness II because of the demon arms. They're definitely a way of remembering precisely who you are in the darkness,” he says.
It’s an interesting point — The Darkness II has attempted to negate the issue via increased control of Jackie Estocado’s demon arms. In a sense the game becomes a first and third person game at the precise time.
“Part of that does go back to the idea of the demon arms being their own character,” says Seth “We wanted the demon arms to have their own functions. One of the demon arms is used to picking things up — enemies, parking meters, car doors, everything. The right demon arm is a slashing arm, you can use that in a number of different ways. Those are controllable in the same way your guns are controllable.”
“That sort of poetry of movement that you were discussing, we have that with the demon arms. They’re interacting with the environment, picking up enemies, throwing enemies, grabbing one enemy by his foot, then his other foot and pulling him apart down the middle. That kind of fully controllable combat is completely incredible.”
The Darkness and its sequel are a kind of unique compromise. Players are aware of what Jackie Estacado looks like, if they are fans of the comic, they most likely have some idea of how he should move. The first person perspective gives players the opportunity to live the story through Jackie's eyes, but feeds back to the player with the opportunity for performance more in keeping with a third person action game.
In a sense it's is a rare game — one that gets to have its cake and eat it. Or, in the case of The Darkness II, have its heart and eat it.