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A look at how The Darkness manages to make a more meaningful gameplay experience by using the intimate focus of its core storyline to infuse the small central characters to give the player a relate-able context for actions throughout the game.

Trent Polack

July 16, 2009

5 Min Read

[A look at how The Darkness manages to make a more meaningful gameplay experience by using the intimate focus of its core storyline to infuse the small central characters to give the player a relate-able context for actions throughout the game.]

Narrative is an essential part of any game; I don't think anyone ever denies that point. Even the most emergent game design has the goal of presenting some sort of narrative to its players. Story sets the stage for meaning (of gameplay). It frames the player's context for the actions he engages in within a game world.

When I rail against cut scene heavy games or completely non-interactive, heavy-handed delivery of a writer's script to players, it's not the story that's the problem, it's the presentation. In an ideal world, we, as designers, are not telling, we're not showing, we're informing the doing -- the actions that players engage in and the feats they undergo.

When games give players the epic scope of saving the galaxy, destroying some reawakened ancient evil, or whatever other classical portrayal of good versus evil on a grand scale, they're fulfilling gamers' power fantasies. It's hard to infuse any real intimacy into these scenarios. They're inherently "cool" and maybe some of the characters were memorable for some specific reason, but the emotional bonds with the people met and the events that occurred are so far removed from anything resembling our every day reality.

When gamers recall the events of Halo, the destruction of Halo and the invasion of the Flood. When we think about most Final Fantasy games, it's hard not to think about the generic world-ending event that was the central story conflict.

Even Mass Effect, a game which put such an emphasis on the people around the player for the beginning of the game, has its most memorable moments when some ancient alien race enters the picture to destroy the galaxy. If it weren't for the sex scene, would we, as gamers remember any of the personal events in the game?

To look at the majority of games, one might think that gamers care only about saving the world. What happened to saving the guy/girl? Having an arch-nemesis that was bad because he was a believable form of corrupt human being that didn't have a final form that takes up numerous screens?

When I think of The Darkness, I think of Jenny.

I recently finished playing through this game and while the premise of the game and the game mechanics is the existence of The Darkness -- a thoroughly corrupt, evil, other-worldly force bent on death and destruction -- the story was about love and vengeance. There is an absolutely brilliant scene in the beginning of the game where the game's protagonist, Jackie Estacado, sits on the couch with his girlfriend Jenny.

She makes some comment about it being her apartment so she gets to control the television remote control and she puts "To Kill a Mockingbird" on. At this point, Jackie and Jenny simply relax and watch the old movie. Jenny gets cold and cuddles up with Jackie, the two hold hands, and eventually she falls asleep. The player, at this point, can choose to just sit with Jenny as long as he wants and watch the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird.

At some point, though, the player has to progress with the game and the story, and the mere choice of getting up and leaving Jenny on the couch while she sleeps is actually kind of a hard decision to make. Any player who allows himself to get immersed in the game should feel a sense of security and love during this scene while understanding the complete violence that lay ahead for the player and Jackie once the choice to leave the apartment is made.

Soon after, the game makes a stark, wide-reaching tonal change and becomes a story of revenge against a pair of, admittedly, very two-dimensional villains (though the villains remain very human, defeat-able foes). Despite how crazy The Darkness gets, the theme of the real-world portions of the game remain not only grounded in reality (aside from the player's Darkness abilities) but focused on traditional mafia movie values of family, tradition, and respect.

The game utilizes the fantastical nature of The Darkness to externalize the protagonist's inner struggle with violence amidst a profound love he feels for Jenny. The Darkness (the entity) also happens to serve as the player's entry-way to some fascinating and enjoyable gameplay mechanics.

The Darkness works so well as a game due to its focus and cohesion. Despite actually sending the player to an unbelievably insane vision of "hell" (it's not hell, but it's a good descriptor for people who haven't played the game or read the source material), somehow it never feels like the player is blowing up the Death Star.

It remains grounded in the conflict of its four central characters: Jackie, Jenny, and the two villains. It's an intimate story that expertly informs the entirety of the player's gameplay experience.

And as a result of that intimate focus, The Darkness is one of those games that will stick with me.

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