Top Cow's "The Darkness" comic took on a new life in 2007 when Starbreeze Studios built a compelling video game around the franchise, introducing an entirely new audience to the exploits of superpowered New York wiseguy Jackie Estacado. The game's first-person mixture of stealth and action was an immediate hit, owing no small amount of thanks to the developer's talents in fusing great gameplay with an involving narrative.
Now, we're months away from 2K Games' February 7, 2012 release of "The Darkness II," which picks up two years after the events of the first game. There's a new developer in the mix this time around in Digital Extremes, and some new ideas being brought to the table with regards to how the game looks and plays. CBR News sat down to discuss those changes with Sheldon Carter, the game's creative director, and Marc Silvestri, Top Cow Productions founder/CEO and co-creator of "The Darkness." Here's what they had to say.
CBR News: How do you evolve from the first game into this new one and make it feel like something fresh?
Sheldon Carter: One of the things we looked at when we started working on [}The Darkness II"] was, what were the parts of the [first] game that we loved? Probably first and foremost was the narrative, the emotions that it created and how it set you on that path of revenge in the right way, so you were mad about it, even as a player. You'd have that kind of emotional connection.
The second thing we really loved about [the first] "Darkness" was the end. At the very end of the game, the Darkness has basically fully possessed [Jackie] as he's stalking down Pauly. He's got both Demon Arms going, he's ripping things apart, he's throwing around black holes, but it's all kind of semi-cinematic. You're not really in control of any of that; it was just a pretty long non-interactive moment that was amazing.
So we thought to ourselves, the evolution of this game is to start the game like that, start the game being able to do those kinds of things. That's where we came up with quad-wielding, as we're calling it. That really just means being able to have a game, an action-focused game, where you've got a Demon Arm that you can use to grab, [another that can] slash and you can shoot both of your guns at the same time.
It really creates this dynamic combat system. Then, on top of it you layer in these powers, the Darklings, stuff like that. So that's kinda what we thought, that the evolution of the [sequel was built on] the power ramp you see in the first game. We started from the top end of the last game's power ramp and built from there.
Marc Silvestri: I love the first game. I say this all the time, but we're -- Top Cow -- we're so thrilled and we realize how fortunate we are that, not only did we have Starbreeze kick off the franchise, where everything could've gone wrong, and we've seen that millions of times in video games, but then to have these guys come on to do the sequel -- it's cool.
Not only is Digital Extremes [making] logical choices for the sequel to ramp up, but [the comic's writer] Paul Jenkins is writing the game again, and the sequel picks up exactly where it should, right after the first one. Which is great. It's kinda like "Godfather" 1 and 2, "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein." There's just a magical equation that feels really organic and really satisfying.
With the Starbreeze game, one thing a lot of people talked about-- I'm thinking of the first game's scene where you're still technically "playing," but you're actually just sitting on a couch and watching a movie with your girlfriend. There was a lot of discussion about what that meant in the larger picture of video game storytelling. How does "The Darkness 2" call back to moments like that? Is the game still open-ended in terms of exploration with a main hub and the like?
Carter: To talk about the narrative, like Marc was saying, Paul wrote the first game and he wrote the second game. So we all, when we sat down, we realized that that type of emotional connection, those types of moments where you let the moment breathe and let the player live as the character, are important.
Absolutely, we think that that's signature [for the series], so expect moments like that in "The Darkness II." Now, we have to do it our own way or else it's going to feel contrived. We're not looking to duplicate that scene from "The Darkness." It stands alone. We hope to have our own standalone scenes as well, but at the same time we feel that scenes that let the player get emotionally invested in the world and the characters are super-critical to why it pays off. To have demonic powers and [be] ripping guys apart, you have to have that emotional build-up.
[As for hubs], the first game had the subways as hubs and you could move around. This game takes place two years after the events of the first game. Jackie is the Don, now, of the Estacado family. So there is absolutely a hub in this game, but I don't think we've revealed too much about it yet, so I can't really give you details.
Absolutely, there are central locations that you return to and where you interact with characters. We have a full dialogue system, just like you'd expect from the first game. You're meeting characters, you're talking to them and when you come back from different missions, they've got different things to say and such.
I guess since Jackie's the Don now, he's going to have some decisions to make at some point. I don't even necessarily mean grand-scale game-changing decisions; I mean the day-to-day responsibilities of running a criminal organization.
Carter: The added responsibilities of being the Don of the family are quite a bit different. In the first game, Jackie is a hitman and so he doesn't have to worry about any of the other guys. He gets advice from Jimmy the Grape and he gets advice from different characters, but now they all report to him. He has day-to-day mob problems that he has to deal with.
That's the first tier of problems that Jackie has to solve. He's got some other problems too, obviously. Jenny is still a factor in some capacity, and we've introduced a new enemy type that can take the Darkness power from Jackie, so there's a lot of levels there and increasing complications.
Silvestri: It's great. In this sequel, and why it feels so organic, I think it's genius that Jackie's the Don now, because Jackie's very proactive. In the first one, for a while, he was kind of a victim of the Darkness and a victim of his surroundings and his family and all the betrayal. [He's] held this Darkness in check for a couple years, but now it's back out. [So he resolves] to do what he needs to do and be a hero here.
Marc, as co-creator of the character, the idea -- this started life as a comic book, and then the game introduced it to a wider audience and the upcoming movie will do the same for another wide audience. The series has essentially transformed into something much bigger than where it started. How has that growth influenced your view, as the creator, of the bigger picture?
Silvestri: It's only taken 15 years! [Laughs] It's kinda like we find ourselves in the perfect storm, now, where we can do this sort of transmedia thing. 20 years ago, that work didn't exist, multiplatforming didn't even exist. We've been really lucky, but we've also been pretty aggressive in our partnerships as far as quality is concerned.
One of the reasons why "The Darkness" took a while to get out into other media is we were really in no hurry to screw it up. Same thing with "Witchblade" and such. Because, look -- I don't make movies and I don't make video games. I'm just an idea guy and this lowly little comic book artist, so you kind of have to do some research, do some homework, look at the pedigrees of your partners, give yourself some choices and then narrow it down to who has the best vision. To a certain degree, you kinda make your own luck by being cautious and being proactive in looking for the right partners, and then hope that the partner that you want actually wants to work with you.
In the case of "The Darkness" franchise, in the gaming, we're really happy that we've been fortunate. Starbreeze was lightning in a bottle, no one had ever made a comic book game directly out of a comic book before with no other media attached to it. Especially one that doesn't have a Bat-signal emblem on the front. So it was a big risk for all involved. And 2K stepped up, they threw the money in there and they believed in it, and the end result was a really compelling and groundbreaking first game.
I think that same attitude exists with Digital Extremes, that these are literally the best guys for the job. There's no question. These guys have put their own stamp on it while at the same time respecting the first game. From my perspective, even cooler is the respect paid to the actual source material. All the way from using Paul again, who writes the comic, and digging more into the mythology of "The Darkness."
So far, the stories being told in the different mediums, the comics, the games, the movie -- based on what's been said about it in interviews -- are all overlapping, putting their own spin on Jackie's narrative rather than following a continuous straight line. Do you have any plan to sort of tie all of these stories together and eventually come to one cross-media narrative?
Silvestri: We're actually working on another project that is doing exactly what you describe from the ground up. With this, I think as we go forward in entertainment, the audience obviously gets more sophisticated and they demand more variety in the way they get their entertainment, the delivery systems. I think we'll be able to blend more and more real-time fun with the games, tweeting and whatever's going to be coming up in the next few years. I think with social media, there's going to be the ability for us to tell these stories that all intertwine.
The video game is "The Darkness." It's Jackie. In the same way that the Batman movie is Batman. We're not limiting ourselves to anything. We're anticipating having a lot of fun with the fans, and I think they're going to have a lot of fun with us.
Like we already talked about, Starbreeze did a great job on the first game. Was there any feeling at Digital Extremes that you had something to prove, or was it just, "Oh my God, we're doing the second Darkness game. That's awesome!"
Carter: From a studio perspective, [the first game] was one of those games that came out and it pretty much just rocked our studio. We loved the game so much when it came out. So from a studio perspective, we just jumped when 2K came to us. We were pretty excited. I've told Marc this before, but me, at 17 years old, I was reading the first few issues of "The Darkness" and I was listening to Faith No More on my Sony Walkman cassette deck, so it's kind of like a dream project from a lot of perspectives. And a lot of people here at the studio feel the same way.
That's the reason why we came up with things like our 'graphic noir' art style. It would have been really easy for us to just mimic the style [of the first game]. But the thing is, we have so many massive fans of the comic book in the studio, we were like, 'How do we make it look like this?' That [visual style] is putting our own stamp on it, but that is also being true to the source material.
Let's talk about that graphic noir style. By far, every moment I've spent with the game, that stands out immediately. It's a really cool visual effect, and even the name, graphic noir, fully captures what's going on on the screen. How did you do that, make it look so comic book-like?
Carter: We've had a lot of stuff. We just concepted and concepted. The game, at least in the initial stages, we didn't know exactly what we wanted to do. So we started building a base of the game and we figured out what were going to do stylistically over the course of [development]. Over a lot of months, we just kept trying different takes on our assets.
Our engine, it's our own, proprietary engine that we're using, so it's just kind of the way you'd make normal video game. We have normal maps and we have all these graphics features in the way you build models, so it's just the normal way of building. And then all of a sudden we thought, "Okay. What we need to do is we need to bring cross-hatching into this. And we need to bring in a higher contrast to the textures, and we need to make them feel more hand-painted."
As much as you want to say there's a technological solution, maybe that's cel-shading. For our game, the way we wanted it to be, [with] the complex palette, the higher contrast, the bigger lighting, you can't get away with that in a cel-shading environment. So we had to get the graphics guys to think up a great algorithm that would make it look beautiful. They couldn't do that, so we had to go back to hard work.
Really, every texture you see in the game has been hand-painted by a team of artists just to look like that. Instead of pulling any technological mastery, we instead put labor at it.
Silvestri: And the result is just beautiful. We're fortunate that we hooked up with a bunch of lunatics. Hell, that's good for us. We'll take it -- go ahead and don't sleep for three years. For me especially, I come from that illustrator's background and I look at this, and I look at the work ,and there are people who kind of have to categorize [the visual style] as cel-shading because there really isn't a category for this yet.
We're excited to see the reaction [people have] when they play it. The fact that these guys hand-painted every texture -- these guys not only did not take a shortcut, they created a completely new way, and a difficult way, to do a video game.
"The Darkness II" is slated for a February 7, 2012 release