Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Time to Wake Up: The Darkness, Reflections on Comics and Games

So I'm a bit behind schedule, but also finished Lost and picked up Naruto today, and I have finally finished my reflection on the video game adaptation of the comic series The Darkness. For future reference, I will be using the comic series in Italics and the video game in Bold.

A long time ago, when I was just a sperm concerned with getting inside a vagina to bring forth new life, the comic book industry thrived along with the arcade industry. The two cultures began to mesh as the arcade industry died down and some of the steam of mainstream comics began catering to a more devoted crowd. Flashing forward a little more than 18 years, one will notice very few of the things previously mentioned have changed. The video game industry continues to grow each year, Comic-Con and other festivals expand audiences yearly, and I am still primarily concerned about spreading life. However, both cultures continue to share one trait in common: comics and video games are niche markets. On a mainstream level the fans are sterotypical nerds and geeks who dress up as imaginary characters and rarely leave the home, only for D&D night, to wait in line for the next Star Wars film, or to LARP all over someone's face. The problem is, as most gamers/comic readers will tell you, that these stereotypes are flawed and very wrong. The casual fan is just as important to each industry, and with the influence of comics in other mediums the pairing of these two previously intertwined cultures seems obvious.

That brings us to The Darkness, and while Jackie Estacado does Believe in a Thing Called Love, it's not that kind of Darkness. I am going to begin this reflection with a technical review of the game. After a fairly exciting opening chase sequence, Jackie Estacado is explained to be a mafia hit man and given two pistols from a dying partner as a 21st birthday gift. Cue generic FPS. We are given a red dot in the middle of the screen, you fire, you run, you gun...for about one hallway. Suddenly the player hears a raspy voice as some light begins to fade. The Darkness has started to take over. While the introductory level is straightforward, and can grow very tedious due to mediocre gunplay, about 20 minutes in Jackie taps into The Darkness and things start to get interesting. Sure your pistols are still there, and you even have a shot gun, but there's nothing quite like using the Crawling Dark technique to slither around a level, take out an enemy with the single tap of a button and watch as your beast literally devours his heart.

You also have minions in the game, who are all a thrill to listen to, and the one that destroys lights is helpful, but the AI in these things makes Keanue Reeves seem like Albert Einstien by comparison. Also, you can find six different outfits throughout the game that come with a different weapon and suit for the Beserkers to dress up in, automatically of course. Apparently the spawn of Hell's mind not only look like burned monkey-imp hybrids who have spent too much time studying Jack Nicholson's Joker in the first Batman film, but they enjoy a nice game of dress up before slaughtering people. Sadly there are no tea parties in this game and the tone remains dark throughout.

Three additional powers are acquired throughout the game, each with its own use and enjoyment, though the controls, in all eight hours of playtime, never fully settled in for me, despite rigorous setting tweaks. Still, the undeniable charm of unleashing a black hole, rivaling the size and destructible power of Paris Hilton's own, on a large group of gun toting mobsters is a joy unto itself, complimented by the flying bodies and debris the technique leaves in its wake. Sure, the difficulty takes a hit, but the game wants you to feel like an unstoppable bad ass capable of tearing apart an entire army single handily. The best way to go about doing this is by staying in the dark to charge up your energy, in a fashion similar to the much beloved Riddik game. Also taking a page from the Butcher Bay Book, many of the characters in the game are able to be engaged in conversation, something many FPS games lack. Side quests are provided, the reward is usually a phone number you call up to get a humorous message that unlocks hidden content, but aren't necessary to complete the game. It should also be noted that the game looks pretty good, and unlike other games the loading screens are a treat to watch, though eventually a bit tedious as I can only hear about how Jackie drives with a crazy cabbie through Manhattan so many times. Still the game succeeds on more levels than it fails on, and can overcome shoddy FPS controls because of it's story.

Speaking of story, this is where the actual reflection comes in. I have zero knowledge of The Darkness universe or how the story works in the comics, but from what I hear the game stays fairly faithful to the first arc, just breaking a few things here and there, and a couple major changes. What I find impressive about the story though is, unlike other games in this marathon, even a non-fan such as myself had no problem following the events of the story and accepting the rules of the world. The Darkness doesn't always spell everything out for you, sometimes you have to fill in plot holes, but the ability to adapt, from a base source, material so well without sacrificing engaging gameplay is incredibly impressive. As an explanation, the nature of the genre does help. Spiderman games have succeeded in the past, as have Xmen games, but the first person perspective of the title does something that I imagine even the comic would fail at doing, and that is truly engrossing the player in the world and the experience. The game never lets you forget that you're playing Jackie Estacado, but seeing things through his eyes, and hearing The Darkness whispering in your ear while it slowly takes control over your body is a breathtaking feeling that few games are able to match.

The game is short, it only took about 8 hours to complete and it wasn't that hard, on medium, but the story was highly engaging and I never once questioned Jackie's driving force throughout the game. As such, I would not only call The Darkness an adaptation done right, if not for BioShock and CoD4 this very well may be the best FPS on the 360. The interesting thing is that the game did attempt to emulate the world of the comic, but 2K smartly allowed the player to experience the events of the game, so when The Darkness renders you immobile you don't watch, you are literally in that position. Considering I have a slate of Third Person games coming up, this game was a fantastic starting point and really showed what makes a comic game work in the video game world. Just as much as the story is important, actively engaging the player and drawing them in is an incredible technique and meshes both mediums together so well. Plus, taking a note from successful films, The Darkness has perhaps the best score and soundtrack to ever grace a video game, and certainly the best of any FPS I've played. A fantastic starting point, an enlightening experience, and an important lesson in the bigger picture of blending genres and licensed games.

It is also worth noting that The Darkness has a plot that may seem fairly generic, but works because of the depth mixed with the familiar feeling. The themes are more than love and revenge, the game effectively chronicles the extremes one man will go to for justice, however warped it may be by modern standards. Jackie's bout with The Darkness adds an interesting third party to the normal man v. man setup of most games and the poignancy of this struggle is echoed by many of the residents in New York. The Darkness is about breaking away, or the idea of breaking away, only to realize that a controlling force will always be there to resist and draw you in. Much like Jackie, many need to choose to accept it or continue on, no matter how futile the end renders the means. I don't know if any of the other games in the marathon will have the type of depth that The Darkness possesses, but this game is more than a simple adaption, it is a viable piece of culture that should be studied at a scholarly level.

I'm also looking forward to jumping into the comic world of The Darkness if I have a chance, though I think the best way to describe my time with this game has already been done by Mr. Estacado during one of the loading screens. "I love these subways. I had my first kiss here. It was with a hooker named Candy. She crossed her legs, broke my sunglasses. Good times." My time with the game was short, it seemed on the surface as little more than a cheap thrill, but it meant much more than what was on the outside.

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