There will be no specific bent to this entry, be warned. Instead, consider this my ‘review’ of The Darkness, which I completed early last week; you might also consider it a ‘debriefing.’ I’ve now had time to sit back, read my notes (I’m taking notes while playing games now, which is another point over which I need to ruminate), and just sit back and think on the experience. Since many other sites and critics have given an appropriate review for the title, this will not cover most of the same issues.
The first few minutes of playing The Darkness were completely jarring. First, I’m waking up in the back seat of a car with two mobsters talking at me. It took me a moment to realize I could look around, and as soon as I did I realized the problems that would be arising as I saw us careen past police cars. My unease was equal parts learning a new controller and jumping into the first person perspective again, which always scratches at an uncomfortable feeling for me when starting a game. Quickly adapting to the view, I muttered a few choice words when I kept having to retry the beginning sequence in the cemetery, after your uncle Paulie has tried to blow you up in a trap. Fortunately, the difficulty curve was fairly simple, and this presented the largest obstacle.
This was not a game about testing the player, or at least I didn’t feel the game was constantly throwing new tools at me to present one-time challenges. Instead, every time I received a new Darkness power, I just viewed it as a way to use a different set of tools to progress the game and generally be a living terror. This is a horror game, though I was never the one frightened. Instead, it was constantly the shouting of my enemies, screaming, “Did you see that thing?” and generally decrying my lack of humanity. I am the terrifying element, and these guys are scared out of their wits. Thinking back, I can’t recall many games in which an armed enemy has had this reaction to me.
Even in games where I have the choice to be evil, townfolk and regular citizens are the ones who may be terrified, but my enemy will not shout and present me with fear driven shooting. What is most amusing is the irony that I know that my protagonist has a good heart, albeit one mired in mob dealings. These same enemies did not see the loading screens between maps, where I would be speaking to my now dead girlfriend, explaining the part of my life with which she only became aware as she was being pistol whipped and eventually shot.
Which was a brilliant moment in gaming history, brought to my attention by Mitch Krpata. My desire to play this game was spurred on when Mitch Krpata posted a small list of game cinematics a while ago, showing the YouTube video above. Despite the fact that I had seen this particular moment before, being wrapped up in watching it with controller in hand, it still struck me with a powerful jab. He is perfectly apt in the observation that this scene is juxtaposed quite well in the only really long-term interaction you have with your girlfriend. Sitting on a couch while watching To Kill a Mockingbird with her felt weird at first, but that probably has to do with my own romantic failings. Instead, I kept being tempted to see how long this game would let me sit there, and it did not disappoint, as I sat there for half an hour before deciding I’d had enough (even my patience has its limits, and I was not interested in the film).
In both situations, the sitting on the couch and watching her being killed, you are stuck in the same perspective. Instead of watching the couple snuggling on a couch, you have to look around and see Jenny on your shoulder, reaching up at one point to give you a kiss. Then, instead of watching the protagonist’s face (Jenny meant much more to him, as I was still barely familiar with her), you watch as the Darkness holds you back and mocks you. There you sit, controller poised to intervene at any time, and watch as your girlfriend is killed in front of your eyes. The difference is that I could not stop the latter at any point I chose.
This scene also proved to cement my actions henceforth. I was furious for a multitude of reasons. Unlike Final Fantasy VII’s fabled Aeris moment, here I was given a reason for not having control (or being able to use a Phoenix Down). I was partly furious because I watched an innocent die because of my own actions, but mainly pissed at the Darkness for the control it had over me. When the game shifted to gaining power in the Darkness’s own domain, I was gleefully attendant to the task.
Which would lead to one of my gripes, an extremely personal one, of the game: in a game set in modern times without the sensibilities of a Third Reich that somehow survived, suddenly I was facing German soldiers in a World War setting. I would like to play more ‘realistic’ (I use the term loosely, but it references the setting) shooters that don’t feature the same ad nauseam adversary. You see, having family that died in World War II casts a curious perspective on it for me, as my relatives who died were on the front, forcefully conscripted teenagers and retirees. My great-grandfather would survive, which is more than I can say for the rest. I was not surprised to find that the game had been edited for Germany (including elements of violence, which is yet another post in the wings). For me, whenever I see these references, I think back to the family stories about my relatives, who were not some mindless automatons with intent of evil, but men caught up in an inescapable situation.
The one thing that gave me pause was the fact that these soldiers fighting in the trenches were animated corpses. In the case of the German soldiers, fully resurrected husks of bodies, akin to zombies. This creates an intriguing question of the command these soldiers have over their own actions. On the English front, they were Frankenstein’s monster conglomerations of skin stitched together, one notable memory in my mind being the soldier whose face had been stitched together from two separate halves, creating differing eye colors and skin pallors. These soldiers were locked in a seemingly neverending struggle, as neither could kill the other. It serves as a useful metaphor (as well as being literal) for the Darkness which you are fighting. Yes, for a rails driven plot shooter with some side missions, this game has layers.
The game had its frustrations, but it also did some things extremely well. Because of the lack of a really difficult game (Castlevania: Order of the Ecclesia is providing that in droves), you spend the game feeling like what you are–a human with extraordinary powers on a mission of vengeance. Which is unfortunate when you reach the end of the game and watch your powers being used in ways the game’s engine does not support, merely pausing to move places and perhaps off the few stragglers that survive your onslaught. While it would frustrate me, this was the point at which I realized that I was a living terror. What these men saw was a force of death visited upon their heads, whom I saw as a man who had a reason. The game stops at a moment when Jackie is in flux, again on many levels, the ending giving a bittersweet moment of contemplation.