Have you ever done something that you knew at the time was absolutely, unequivocally wrong? I’m not talking about anything criminal. I’m talking about cheating on a significant other, or revealing a secret you promised to never tell, or beating up the wimpy kid in fifth grade, or smoking a cigarette after you promised to quit, or inflating the American housing-market bubble using subprime loans, or even just eating a chocolate chip cookie when you swore a blood pact with your best friend to rock a weeklong juice cleanse together. Usually, we can delude ourselves into thinking that the bad things we do are somehow justified — no one ever feels like a villain in their own life.
But we all have moments when we do something we know is bad — bad for us, or bad for our loved ones, or bad for society — and then we do that bad thing anyways. Maybe because we’re weak. Maybe because we’re bored. Maybe because there is something lurking inside of us that loves the thrill of evil. When we do those bad things there’s always a sudden out-of-body experience — a brief but potent feeling that we’re not entirely in control of our own two hands. You could argue, if you were a smarty-pants atheist, that the whole idea of religion was invented by pre-psychotherapy human beings who were attempting to define the forces inside their head: the better angels that guided them towards the light, and the evil grinning face pushing them joyfully into Darkness.
In the last decade, there has been an explosion of videogames which allow you to choose between two branching pathways: light and dark, or good and evil, or Paragon and Renegade. But at the same time, there’s been an equally fascinating — and, I would argue, vastly more interesting — rise in games which specifically play with your lack of choice. These are games which set you on one specific, predetermined path. You assume that you’re following the path of goodness — because, the protagonist of a videogame is always the good guy, and because we always think we’re the hero. But gradually, you find out that the path you’re following might not be so good, after all — which means you also don’t entirely know who you are supposed to be.
That was true of Shadow of the Colossus, of Braid, of the God of War trilogy, and it was especially true of BioShock, a gorgeously art-directed superpowered first-person shooter with one of the great twists in videogame narrative history. BioShock came out in December 2007. A few months earlier, 2K games had released The Darkness, an adaptation of an Image comic book created in the go-go ’90s, when every new superhero looked like a renegade from an H.R. Giger fever dream. The videogame Darkness was well-received, and it had a few intriguing tics. (You could, if you were so inclined, watch the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird with your digital girlfriend.) I never played the original Darkness, but the just-released sequel seems to have very little in common with that first game: new developer, new controls, a somewhat retro new visual aesthetic.
At its best, though, the sequel does feel like a game attempting to grapple with the same unsettling questions brought up by BioShock. In The Darkness II, you play as Jackie Estacado, a mob don possessed by an ancient force known as the Darkness, which manifests itself in a number of curious ways: tentacles, black spooling energy, a tiny black munchkin with a Guy Ritchie accent. When the game starts, Jackie suddenly finds himself besieged by a mysterious force known as the Brotherhood which apparently wants to control the Darkness. The villains are all mad zealots who talk too much. Actually, everyone in this game talks too much; Jackie is constantly proclaiming his inner thoughts, in an extremely vague Mafia accent. (Suffice it to say, I lost track of how many times Jackie talked about “duh Darkness.”)
The game proceeds on a surprisingly short campaign, with levels that feel straight out of How to Make a Shooting Game, 2002 Edition. There’s a subway level, and a cemetery level, and a strip-club level to really earn that M-for-Mature rating, and even a carnival level. (According to the CarnEvil Doctrine, all supernatural-themed videogames must feature at least one carnival level.) None of these settings feel interesting or vivid. Heck, at one point, you literally go to Hell. Now, the notion of the Hell has been the source of some of the most incredible and haunting artwork in the history of our species. Here, Hell is a series of glowy caves with rocks that occasionally explode.
But The Darkness II is interesting for two reasons. First, because of the game’s central mechanic: The fact that you can fire guns while also controlling the pair of supernatural tendrils emanating from the region of your shoulder. It essentially feels like you have four arms, and two of those arms used to belong to a squid. There are a lot of shooters now that grant the player superpowers — another echo effect of BioShock — but the tendrils in Darkness II have a real presence. There are a few firefights in the game where you’re slashing with one tendril, grabbing and throwing random objects with the other tendril, and dual-wielding revolvers with your boring human hands. It quickly becomes clear that the game doesn’t really have a lot of good ideas for what to do with the tendrils. And the regular parade of undifferentiated, unthreatening villains makes the game feel a little bit like a birthday party at a slaughterhouse, where you can pay extra to participate.
More importantly, though, The Darkness II deserves credit for grappling with some genuinely interesting ideas…and demerits for doing absolutely nothing with those ideas. Jackie is haunted throughout. He keeps on seeing visions of his dead girlfriend, Jenny. All of Jenny’s dialogue is flashback boilerplate along the lines of “Oh, Jackie, it’s so much fun to be in love and alive!” But there’s a moment early in the game when Jackie has a vision — a memory? a hallucination? — where he dances with Jenny while the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You.” For most of this scene, you’re looking down at Jenny’s forehead, and the feeling of genuine intimacy is striking.
In a fascinating twist, Jackie is doubly haunted by a series of horrifying visions: At random intervals, you wake up in a “level” that’s actually an insane asylum, where all your friends are fellow inmates, and the doctors constantly assure you that you’re hallucinating the world of the Darkness, and Jenny is a kindhearted nurse who just wants you to become well again. The asylum subplot is a fascinating thread, and you can see a version of Darkness II where the question of Jackie’s sanity really becomes an essential part of the game, and where the bipolarity at the center of this game’s universe — good and evil, shadows and lights, sanity and insanity — becomes an essential part of the gameplay.
That doesn’t happen, though. Instead, Darkness II is a mishmash. It’s a fun mishmash, and it’s got a dynamite ending, and it’s short enough that you can rent it or borrow it from your friend and polish it off in a weekend. (The multiplayer did absolutely nothing for me, but life’s too short to get upset about every new shooter with a lame multiplayer system.) The Darkness II is a real game, and not just a franchise-extending mechanism for stealing allowance money from fifth graders, like Call of Duty. But it’s also a real game with lots of real potential left really, really untapped.
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