Fresh Perspectives On The Heart Of Darkness

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.


    Jenny's death in the first game would have had much more impact if I had more than one scene to actually get attached to her. And if it hadn't been totally predictable from the start.

      MAybe I'm just a total sucker for romance but the part where you sit with her to watch a movie and if you sit there long enough she kisses you... that really got me. And even then I said to myself "she's soooo gonna die", but the way it was done made me angry. Not bad angry as in "grr, I hate this stupid game" but "I want revenge, and I'm not holding back anymore".


        I think maybe since I knew it was going to happen, I was subconsciously reluctant to connect with her.

        Some close calls and heroic Jackie moments to help build the bond, only to have Paulie off her right at the end, would have been an excellent trigger for the "I will murder everyone/blackout" montage.

        Also, kissing in a first person game is weird.

        And on a totally unrelated note, it's a different voice actor for Jackie now, right? He sounds more gruff than I remember...

          The old voice actor has been replaced by (surprise!) Nolan North


    'Quote unquote!'

      Believe it or not it's the first time I've ever written that!

      Every day is a school day I guess!

      Quote Unquote? Excellent,an excuse to post this

      Voiced by Mike Patton (The voice of The Darkness)

    Played the demo over the weekend and could not put it down..

    Jackie is definately a bad ass anti-hero with crazy powers. I wanna check out the comic series. It sounds like a mix of Goodfella's and Spawn lol.

      Agreed. The demo was awesome.

      I was a huge fan of the first game, and the new features look and feel promising.

    So, what does Seth think of his artwork being butchered for Australian children? Because we're certainly not mature enough for the game in its intended form.

      After having played the demo, I'm happy to say that it's still reasonably gory.

      The Wishbone attack is still there, so once again I'm prompted to ask "How did X game get classified while Mortal Kombat was refused classification."

      X in this case is The Darkness II.

        My mistake, the "modified" classification was due additional "sexy" scenes being added to the game. Seems its still suitable for 15s with sexy-time content also.

        The first one made me wonder that as well. Particularly the scene toward the end involving torture with a power drill to the face. How was that not refused classification?

    Nice piece Mark and I wasn't going to say anything but my urge to correct is just too strong! "Altair strides throughout Rome with a purposeful swagger"... I'm sure you see it.

    The only thing I know about The Darkness II is it's the first title to have Australian price gouging on Green Man Gaming.
    It's annoying, as GMG was one of the few sites remaining that didn't price gouge. >_<

    I know what you mean by conveying impact through first-person rather than 3rd person - games like Batman and Assasins Creed had to rely on cutscenes to do this. Ie the actual "game" side of things has to stop in order to put forward any sort of emotion or interaction in a truely meaningful way in 3rd-person, while in 1st- person those sort of scenes generally have to be conveyed in-game (not always the case, it depends on the flexibility of game engine I guess). There's always exceptions to the rule of course.

    I thought this was an article about the PS One game Heart of Darkness, but the article was still well worth reading.

    I'm amazed how much media attention this game is getting, compared to the first one kinda flying under the radar and being one of those "sleeper hits" or "cult" favourites.

    I bought the first one because I've been collecting the comics since day 1 :)

    On a bit of a tangent - If developers could get the physicality down as well as Mirrors Edge did, I'd be all over a first person Spiderman game.

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