Villains come in a wide variety of flavors, from the good guy led astray to the murderous psychopath. The more complicated the relationship between the villain and the hero that fights against him, the more interesting the conflict. The idea of two opposing forces, whether individuals, organizations or a mixture of both, is a familiar one in film, literature and games. But what do you do when your worst enemy is an inseparable part of you, something that you can neither run away from nor fight?
Based on the Top Cow comic of the same name, Starbreeze Studios’ The Darkness casts you as Jackie Estacado, a mafia hitman who turns 21 on the same night his adoptive uncle and head of the local family, Paulie Franchetti, decides he’s had enough of Jackie’s defiant attitude and orders a hit on him. As Jackie is being chased through a graveyard by his uncle’s goons, the shadowy tendrils of the titular demonic being erupt from Jackie’s back, giving him the strength and resilience to escape his pursuers. At first, the plot seems pretty clear: Jackie must take his revenge on his uncle using his newfound supernatural powers to tip the scales in his favor. But as you progress through the game, the reality turns out to be much more complicated. The Darkness proves to be a catalyst for more violence rather than a tool to end it, and the longer Jackie survives, the harder Paulie tries to hurt him.
Jackie is best described as a noble villain. He’s a violent man, certainly, but one with certain lines he will not cross and a code of ethics to which he strictly adheres – relatively common traits in the often romanticized tales of organized crime. The Darkness spends much of its first act establishing Jackie’s flawed but well-intentioned character and his relationships with others. He frequently meets with older members of the family – none of whom seem particularly fond of his uncle – and he shows a great deal of respect for them. More importantly, the game takes pains to underscore Jackie’s love for his girlfriend Jenny: He calls her often to check in, meets with her frequently and, in perhaps the most contemplative “level” to ever appear in an FPS, spends a quiet evening with her at her new apartment.
That scene in particular stands out from the rest of The Darkness. Jenny has gotten Jackie a birthday cake, but before they sit down to enjoy it, she senses something is bothering him. She’s unaware of what Jackie actually does for his uncle, and frustrated that he’s keeping secrets from her. Instead of fighting, the two resolve to make the most of their evening together by sitting down to watch a movie. At this point in the game, you can choose to stay with Jenny as long as you want – in fact, you can watch the entirety of the movie To Kill a Mockingbird while Jackie and Jenny hold hands, idly chat and occasionally kiss. The normalcy of the scene is a marked change from the frenetic violence of only a few moments earlier. It’s touching without ever being tedious, and it encourages you to associate Jenny with peace and sanctuary. She’s more than just another set of dialogue trees; she represents Jackie’s fading humanity.
In stark contrast to the violent but very human Jackie, the Darkness is a monstrous creature, a bestial and savage thing that devours the hearts of its foes and endlessly thirsts for conflict. But it’s the fact that it’s a part of Jackie that makes it so insidious. The Darkness draws on the classic archetype of the “poisonous whisper,” which includes everyone from Iago in Othello and Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as modern fears of dementia and mental illness – the game hints Jackie has always heard the creature talking to him on some level – to create a character that is conceptually terrifying. Not only is the voice in Jackie’s head constantly telling him to hurt people, it can take matters into its own hands should he show restraint.
The relationship that Jackie and the Darkness share can at first be described as symbiotic: Jackie needs the Darkness to get his revenge on his uncle, and the Darkness needs Jackie because without him it cannot enter our world. However, while Jackie must continually tend the Darkness by sticking to the shadows and extinguishing lights – a deeply symbolic act if ever there was one – the Darkness has no such compulsion. It wants Jackie in pain, haunted and hurting, pushed to the edge and relying on its power to survive. It needs him alive, but not necessarily whole.
But you don’t truly begin to resent the creature until it forces you to become a passive participant in Jenny’s death. After numerous failed attempts to kill Jackie, Paulie resorts to attacking the people he loves, first by burning down the orphanage Jackie grew up in – while it was still occupied, no less – and then by kidnapping Jenny. In most games, you would simply burst through the door at the last minute and use your supernatural powers to save the girl, but not so in The Darkness. Instead, the creature knocks your weapon from your hand and holds you back, forcing you to watch while Jenny is brutally slain in front of you.
Paulie may be a cruel and cowardly man, lashing out at innocent people in an effort to hurt you, but his need to save face and exact revenge are at least understandable. The creature , on the other hand, wants to make Jackie suffer for no other reason than to prove that it can. It’s at this moment, when the former source of your power actually renders you powerless, that The Darkness stops being just another run-of-the-mill shooter and becomes a compelling storytelling experience.
That pivotal scene was something of a gamble for developer Starbreeze. You have full control over the Darkness up until that point; wresting that control away from you in order to force you to experience something unpleasant could have easily felt like a cheap shot. But because the developers spent so much time and effort into establishing the characters and allowing you to emotionally connect with them, the moment is devastating rather than simply infuriating. Aside from raw emotional impact, Jenny’s death has a symbolic meaning as well: It represents the loss of Jackie’s humanity, making his eventual submission to the Darkness and its accursed power inevitable.
It would have been easy for Starbreeze to have made The Darkness into just another supernatural action game. But by valuing the story as much as the gameplay, it created a unique experience: a game in which the very source of your power is the thing you most hate.
Logan Westbrook is a News Correspondent for The Escapist. Very occasionally, he updates his blog at http://www.verbscience.com.