The Darkness: The Line Blurs

I experienced The Darkness II before The Darkness, and going in that order was quite striking.

Gameplay-wise, it's honestly pretty straightforward; The Darkness is making limp-wristed efforts at an open world game, but when it gets down to it it's just as much of a linear shooter-with-plot as The Darkness II, just less aware of and committed to that design, and so overall worse at pulling it off. There's a few other wrinkles, like how The Darkness has a whole Imp-summoning mechanic that The Darkness II gets rid of... because it's a cool idea that works out quite poorly in practice. Straightforward, like I said. Overall, the thing I found most striking/interesting is how The Darkness II is, now that I've had a chance to compare it to The Darkness, quite obviously making an effort to make it so you have cause to use your demonic tentacles in combat; The Darkness kind of ends up being a straightforward shooter with a minor gimmick of having your regenerative armor go away if you stand in the light, your Darkness powers mostly not being that influential on the gameplay. Even so... straightforward.

No, what was striking and interesting was the narrative and worldbuilding end of things.

See, the first game's plot is carefully constructed so that the story leaves one uncertain, in a subtle way, exactly how real the events you're experiencing are meant to be. There's the obvious, straightforward interpretation: a mafioso has inherited literal Darkness powers from his father, ends up in hot water, his girlfriend gets killed, and he goes on a roaring rampage of revenge backed by his supernatural powers. Everything is as presented, don't worry about it.


... there's another, much more grounded interpretation, and it's quite interesting.

See, The Darkness' plot works as the personal experience of a man who viscerally experiences the events in the way the player experiences them, but where the supernatural elements are all in his head, metaphors for how this all feels to him. Jackie inherits a dark power from his father -am I talking about The Darkness, or am I talking about being a mafioso? Jackie constantly fights against darker impulses, striving to be a better man than those impulses -are said impulses actually a literal elemental evil he happens to be host to, or is the sinister voice in his head his own? Jackhie loses his girlfriend and tries to kill himself, surviving only because his dark side refuses to let him kill himself -is that a latent elemental evil not wanting its host to kill itself, inconveniencing it, or is that a man warring between a desire to avenge his girlfriend and a desire to follow her in death, with vengeance ultimately winning out?

This is rooted into the game in all kinds of subtle ways. Enemies, for example, never directly acknowledge Jackie's Darkness powers in dialogue. They say things that are easy to interpret as a direct acknowledgment of such, such as telling each other that Jackie is only strong in the dark, or calling him 'a monster', but if you set aside assumptions for a moment... actually, their dialogue works just as well whether they're freaking out over one essentially ordinary man proving to be terrifyingly effective, or sure yes freaking out over a man having overt supernatural powers.

Nor do any of the core plot events truly demand that the supernatural elements Jackie experiences are provably real. The story, from start to finish, works just fine if you assume Jackie suffers auditory and visual hallucinations (The man's under a lot of stress, you know) and everything related to The Darkness that Jackie experiences is a supernatural exaggeration of something that actually happened, an event that occurred purely in his head and in no way supernatural (eg the weird fighting-The-Darkness-in-his-soul-via-World-War-imagery sequences), or otherwise in that general vein.

There's elements of the plot I could take issue with, but I'm genuinely impressed at how effectively The Darkness walks this line, especially because the game makes no effort to explicitly draw the player's attention to the possibility that what you're experiencing is, in-universe, not entirely real, because it relies heavily on consistency in tons of little details.

A concrete example: The Darkness and The Darkness II both involve Jackie's head ending up with a bullet through it, which fails to kill him. In the second game, it's essentially irrefutable that this is an event involving supernatural powers: there's multiple witnesses who attest to Jackie having an open wound that visibly healed over. In the first game, by contrast... there's no witnesses. There's no evidence. Did Jackie commit suicide and The Darkness revived him? Or... did Jackie hallucinate committing suicide, have a psychotic break, and snap out of the whole thing later with a chunk of his memory missing and convinced he totally did kill himself but it didn't stick?

That's a specific example, but the contrast in the two approaches each game takes seeps into everything. I mentioned earlier that enemies in first game never explicitly acknowledge Jackie's supernatural capabilities; by contrast, the second game goes out of its way to have enemies freak out over your assorted supernatural shenanigans. Not only that, but Jackie's trusted confidantes take it as a given that Jackie did, in fact, bust out supernatural abilities back in the first game, no questioning his sanity or anything. Jackie's crew hires underworld mercs who have their own Darkness relics/abilities. You've got a guy who is an expert on Darkness stuff. And of course the core villain of the second game is explicitly trying to steal The Darkness from Jackie, so its plot fundamentally is incompatible with a 'none of that's real, Jackie' undertone.

(It was, incidentally, interesting to realize how many characters in the second game who act like they were present in the first game absolutely were not)

Which makes it pretty strange that the second game tries to invoke 'hey, none of that is real' doubt moments...

In general, seeing the first game in action heightened my issues with the second game. The second game is probably better and more fun when it comes to the flow of combat, but it's pretty clear the second game doesn't get the first game on a number of levels. A particularly blatant example is Jackie's monologues that I complained about in The Darkness II; turns out that in the first game, these actually made sense. First of all, they existed to hide loading screens/make loading screens less boring. Second, the first game has a very clear, consistent notion on who Jackie is talking to; Jenny. Third, and related to the second, is this is all stuff Jackie can't say to Jenny, initially because he's afraid to bring her fully into his life, and then later because she's dead, but he's still talking to her because she really was the most important person in his life and his vengeance quest is about her.

Related to all that? There's an excellent moment in the first game where you're interacting with Jenny, a moment in the conversation crops up that's a natural opportunity for Jackie to share the whole 'I'm a maifioso' thing, you get a button prompt to choose whether to do so or not... and if you pick to share, Jackie starts to try it, and then loses his nerve partway through.

Jackie in the first game just can't bring himself to share this side of his life with Jenny. Not even the almighty Player Choice In A Video Game can overcome this fact.

Whereas the monologues in the second game are... clearly there because they were in the first game, with no understanding of why.

So yeah. If you want to see a game carefully straddle the line between supernatural reality and metaphorical delusion with high competency and with no compulsive need to bang you over the head with the uncertainty of reality, The Darkness is worth checking out. It's far from perfect, but it's plenty impressive.


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