Games are a rapidly emerging interactive media and art form. With the arrival of each terrific, terrible, and mediocre title are a dozen lessons to learn about what to do and not to do in a video game. This week the lessons of a game I have played recently boil to the surface and show up in an Examiner article, as a break from the usual news reporting. These lessons are ones I hope many people and even developers might take to heart so that we may all appreciate an art form, even though flawed, and sometimes not perfectly executed.
The Darkness 2 was released in the past few weeks and since then has been received well for the most part, many did not like the controls and saw the game as one that has a terrible ending. The Darkness 2 in fact tells a simple story extremely well. I went over this a bit in my review, however I want to go over a few smart things this sequel does in regards to the story. Spoilers will be taking place in this analysis, the bigger ones coming as I dive deeper into what some of the elements of the story do and the ending of the game in particular.
The first game told the story of how Jackie loved his girlfriend Jenny and stumbled across a demon called The Darkness living in his back. The Darkness took control of Jackie, making him watch Jenny be killed in front of him. Jackie gets revenge, becomes the head of a mafia and The Darkness 2 sees Jackie unleashing The Darkness again. The plot sees Jackie tracking down a couple members of a cult attempting to kill the Darkness, or take it for their own good. Their motives do not matter besides their desire to see you dead. However the true heart of this game’s story is Jackie’s relationship with The Darkness and his own self-blame for Jenny’s death, whether or not Jackie will obey The Darkness’ will.
The Darkness 2 does two specific things in a unique or interesting way. It takes a simple story and twists it with questions about reality, and it makes players choose when the game ends.
First it takes the simple story and twists it with questions about reality. There are a few scenarios in the game where your character is mortally harmed. He gets hit by a train or is shot at point-blank-range, and he wakes up in a loony bin with all the characters he knows in his real life. Jenny, his lost girlfriend, is portrayed as the head doctor in the psycho-ward. Yet instead of being the girl that makes Jackie calm and happy, Doctor Jenny is insistent that Jackie really is sick in the head. She upsets Jackie nearly every time they meet in this reality.
You get to see your room in this hospital and you can see writing on the wall from yourself, but it could easily be parts of your mind splattered on the wall like a dream. Unlike Inception the story does not keep getting deeper, Jackie’s insistence on getting out and saving Jenny gets stronger. And while this reality card has apparently been played out multiple times in TV shows and movies and games, The Darkness 2 does not do it wrong. The execution is not overly flawless and unique, but it works. When players learn this hospital exists as a container to keep Jackie alive whenever he nearly dies. When Jackie defeats the bad guy and obtains the very object that could let The Darkness consume him and let it rule the world, he instead stabs himself in an attempt to kill The Darkness and free Jenny. Jackie was not a slave to The Darkness all along, even though he was repeatedly told he was.
And then there’s the second matter about making the players choose when the game ends. There are some important elements in regards to the ending, much of which also pay into how the storytelling mechanics are designed.
Unlike Bioshock or Fallout or Mass Effect, the developers did not try to squeeze lore about the universe onto every ounce of every section of this game. Extra information about this world is there to be learned in each artifact you find hidden in the nooks and crannies of the maps. These are not a necessity, but you do get extra points to spend on powers. And the game actually is improved by this lackluster feature. The relics and the backstory are so unimportant except in one spot that I focused on the story and Jackie’s development with The Darkness more than anything. Something with less design made me focus on another thing with more.
However The Darkness 2 breaks away from Half-Life and the faceless grunt attempt at video game narratives. Jackie is a character, not the player. He has a voice. He decides to bring in other characters and determines the goal of his life. The goal of course is Jenny, it always is. You have a few choices to make through the game, only one makes a giant impact on the end result.
A lot of the time killing off the lead character’s motivational sources would be frowned upon. The developers make an excuse in the case of Jackie seeing Jenny held prisoner by The Darkness. Exceptional? No. But it gives Jackie reason enough to continue going through the plot and fight very pestering enemies. After all the struggle Jackie gets to choose between the strange hospital reality and the possibility of being stuck there forever or attempting death, real death, in a risk to get Jenny out of the clutches of The Darkness if she is stuck there.
Choosing to go with Doctor Jenny results in the player dancing with Jenny back inside the hospital. No other explanation is given. Perhaps Jackie really is just insane. Or perhaps Jackie is sane however he refuses to risk his own life for a Jenny that is in danger over a Jenny that seems eternally safe. The hospital ending is the safe one, a sense of mystery stays in the air. However if anyone really wanted to see the truth of it and had a good grasp on Jackie, he would reject this hospital reality and chase Jenny into the realm of Darkness.
And so you fall into darkness to save Jenny and defeat The Darkness’s hold over her. You hold each other and kiss, and Jenny tells you that the two of you do not have long together. In the first game there was an ending similar to this and left questions in the air. The Darkness 2 explains why you only have so long, but first does something simple, remarkable, and extraordinary. The credits roll with calm nice music as Jenny and Jackie hold each other, and then after the credits are done we return to Jackie looking at Jenny as they hold each other. The calm music continues to play and on screen the players are shown a simple direction:
“Press ‘E’ to let go”.
I sat there for a little bit thinking about this.
The Darkness 2 did not have the most memorable characters. Alyx Vance is not in this game, nor is Garrus or HK-47. Everyone has this moment though, that moment that keeps repeating in one’s mind. Everyone experiences those moments where they tell themselves, “It’s time to get up, it’s time to stop typing this article and study for that exam. It’s time for me to stop hugging my partner and go home.” Everyone experiences those moments where they keep putting the next moment off as much as they can to hang onto something better. I sat there looking at my monitor, at that moment, completely relating to Jackie. I also knew that the moment I pressed that button, the story would end and Jackie or Jenny, or both, would pass.
Of course I was wrong. But the cliffhanger of an ending is just a good setup for The Darkness 3 if this sequel makes enough money. The second and more important part of this game is that it made me choose to let go. And when Jenny turned into Angeleus, an angel of light that exists to destroy The Darkness, I was somewhat disappointed that the developers decided to let the game have a moment where Jackie is given hope again. Sometimes things are better when made final, however the developers still have one more chance. Angeleus told Jackie that Jenny is inside her before leaving him to rot in Hell, perhaps the developers can create something rather simple and stirring in a third game about Jackie’s relationship with Jenny now instead of The Darkness. But the video game world already tried that in Dead Space 2. It involved a girl screaming at the protagonist a bunch and annoying the ears of the players. I’d rather stick to this game’s story and imagine the Angeleus part never happened.