The Darkness II Developer Interview
Before our Darkness II interview with developer Digital Extremes, we were lucky enough to have hands-on with early code of the game. Check out our Darkness II preview here.
Going into The Darkness II project, were you wary of people's expectations following the original game developed by Starbreeze? How ingrained was the first game in your mind when approaching the sequel?
I mean, we played the hell out of that game and we put everything through what we call the 'Digital Extremes grinder'. You know like, what are we going to change, what are we going to keep? I think the thing we wanted to match was the narrative focus. The first game is one of this rare, first-person shooters that is still a true shooter, but has an amazing, emotional story.
It was quite a rare game for the time, given the amount of depth given to the story.
For us, it was about making sure that we have those key story moments. It was great because we have Paul Jenkins, who was the writer on the first game, and now The Darkness II as well. It was all about sitting down with him and talking about how we were going to get these key moments, like in the first game, sitting on the couch with Jenny, or being forced to watch her die as Jackie is held back by The Darkness.
The aim was to find those emotional moments that hit a similar chord with gamers. When it comes to everything else, I mean, we loved the first game, but to everything else we kind of said, 'OK, we think we can either put a new spin on this, or improve it'.
We saw some common threads between the comics and the section of gameplay you've showcased, but how closely does The Darkness II follow the arc from the comics?
It doesn't really. I mean, the world that was created in the first game was what we're the direct sequel to. It kind of riffed on the comics, so we're furthering that. There's a lot of little nods and winks to the fans, so if there's people who are hardcore Darkness fans, this game probably does more winks to them than the first game did.
I guess if you are a fan of the comics, and you know the canon inside and out, you would know how the game would end if you guys made it follow it to the letter?
Yeah exactly, I mean, because it's a comic book series that's been going for 15 years, obviously the creators have changed direction and gone down lots of different paths. So I think this is kind of keeping with the idea that we're doing our own offshoot of that same world.
One thing I did notice while playing the preview build was a sign in front of the restaurant that read "Angelus", which is also the name of Jackie's eventual nemesis in the comics. Can we expect to see the Angelus appear at some point in The Darkness II?
The end of the first Darkness has Jackie storming Paulie's mansion during a solar eclipse, which augments his powers and shows him doing lots of insane moves that the player doesn't get to control. Was it your aim to liberate players and let them do all of these things, rather than watch them?
We felt the exact same way about that sequence. We thought, 'woah! This is awesome! This is what I want to do, tear stuff apart, destroy the environment and so on.' we wanted to be able to do that in the heat of the moment. There's lots of reasons why Starbreeze did what they did in that scene. It was still a powerful moment so I still liked it, but I wished I could control it. We kind of set that as our remit, like you're going to be able to do all of those things that you saw there, but in the gameplay.
We saw the new street level, followed by the subway section that really smacked of the subway system of the first Darkness. Are you able to free roam the subways again, or is there a hub that can be explored at will?
That's a yes and no. There is a hub and there are elements that we're still waiting to reveal that relate to how you take part in the story beyond the main narrative, but the core story is what we're focused on right now.
Going in to the subway during that scene and having it blow up was kind of metaphorical because the feedback we saw of the first game threw up a lot of things people liked about the subway areas, but ultimately disliked. We have a hub in the game with conversations with returning characters like Aunt Sarah, Jimmy The Grape. You're still going to go up to those people and talking to them, but its not quite like the subway in the first game.
How does your new format differ?
Well there are a lot of reasons. Jackie is now the don, so he doesn't need to wander the streets or take the subway to get around, because he has a driver to do that for him. He can just call someone and they would take him wherever he wants to go. It's like our fiction doesn't even support a wandering Jackie any more, he's no longer the hunted, he's the hunter.
Is New York going to be the only location within this expanded world?
No. There's a lot of stuff that's prominent in New York and I think that's cool. That's what makes it interesting. You kind of have this mob fiction, with this kind of Cthulhu overlay on it, and we wanted to keep it grounded in some ways because it fits the tone of the setting and the series, but then again you have supernatural things like the Darkness, your Darkling sidekick and it gives us a license to expand a bit.
You mentioned NPC conversations a moment ago. Does this mean that there will be side quests as in the first Darkness?
I have to skirt that question as we're not announcing anything on that yet.
There's also a Bulletstorm-style trick and reward system at play, giving you experience points for stylish kills. Do you feel this is counter to straightforward shooting games that all play sort of the same?
I think, for us, we thought the first Darkness had this great system that let you eat hearts and that would level you up, and give you new powers to help progression. So while we haven't talked about all the powers that Jackie gets, the way that you kill guys and eating hearts is kind of the currency of the world.
We also saw the villain, Victor Valente explored in great detail for the first time today. How prominent is he in the comic books?
You do see a little of him. I mean, this is a different take on that character. He's the same by name but ultimately is a different character. There's a whole new fiction for him, but the way that we refer to him is he's the inverted mirror image of Jackie.
He shares a lot of characteristics with Jackie, but Jackie is concerned with the mob family and has those protective values, while Victor has none of that whatsoever. He selfishly wants the Darkness for himself. It's interesting because Victor is a villain to an anti-hero, which is sometimes tricky, but he actually works very well.
That's interesting though, because in the first game, Jackie was almost parental, defending family values and of course Jenny. So even though he's risen up to be don in The Darkness II, would you say he still holds these values or has it all gone to his head?
Totally, in fact the family becomes a bigger part of it because he really is looking after all of them. The hit that takes place on the restaurant at the start of the story caused massive ripples throughout the plot. Its all questions like, 'who did this? How many of Jackie's family died?' and so on.
But I think this plot point gives us a license to be hyper-violent in the game, because Jackie has the context and reason to be mad you know? When somebody hurts your family, you're going to go after them. You're not going to pull back because they killed members of Jackie's family in that hit. He's pissed, and that's what made a lot of the stuff in the first Darkness so great too, because you had a real reason to be mad and want Paulie dead. We give you similar reasons to want to be violent in The Darkness II as well.
We've touched on The Darkness II taking Jackie beyond New York. Will you go into the memories of the Darkness again, like in the first game?
The struggle between Jackie and the Darkness allows you to, not just go to different places that are in the physical world, but in the metaphysical world as well.
Also, was that Nolan North doing the voice of Jackie in the sections I just played?
He's a good catch, and he's helping us out, but he's not necessarily cast as Jackie. We haven't actually announced our Jackie casting yet.
But you got Mike Patton back as the voice of the Darkness. Did he come visit you guys?
Oh, I would have loved to have have him visit us, but he does his sessions in L.A. And San Francisco, but you know, he's all for the game, he loves the script and I love that he wanted to come back as that character.
He was great in the first Darkness, and he didn't speak much which made each line something special. Have you downplayed the amount of Darkness dialogue again to make the lines rarer and more memorable?
Yeah, we looked at that too. There's definitely a feeling of, 'I want him to talk more', you know? But I think the fact that he doesn't speak that often and that his lines are very cool when he does, makes it more special. I can't say that I physically have my hands on a script to take a line count, but he definitely talks more in this The Darkness II compared to the first game.
The art style is incredible too. Until today I didn't realise that it was all painted by hand then scanned into the environment. That's a massive undertaking. Did you have to pitch that before it was approved?
When we first did it, we had graphics programmers go, 'you know, I think I can just do this, and code you something that just adds this effect across the game automatically'. But we went in and looked at it and said no, it actually looked like someone procedurally went in and applies a little bit of cross hatching to everything.
That wasn't going to work, so we then said, 'let's look at what we've got, and how many assets there' are we dedicated a crack team of texture artists to this one job, and this is literally what they've been doing for the past eight months.
That's a massive job, and a lot of dedication to the art direction.
I'm sure by the end, they're going to be sick of it, but we had to pitch the style too. We had to show the rest of the team how it was going to work, so we had one of the artists make a city block in the style to showcase how we'd do it. They we're like, 'really? This is what the whole game is going to look like?' and we were a bit like '…yeah.' [laughs] We had to admit that it would take a long time, but to the team's credit, they've pulled it off.
You can always pitch an idea, but it seems that without something tangible, or a working prototype, you will never get beyond the pitching process. Is that fair to say?
I think to do something like this, we started with one asset, then a corner of a scene, then the Little Italy street section you played through earlier. We ended up with a whole city block in that style, and it took us longer to come up with the final style we wanted, than it did to paint all of the game's assets. So yeah, prototyping is definitely the way to go.
It seems that from your first tech demo to where the game is now, there has been a significant, almost evolutionary leap in terms of the technology at hand. Did you have to chuck a lot of stuff out along the way too?
Oh, a lot. Its hard, very hard. [laughs] Once we had our vision nailed down, it was unanimous because we were all then reading the comics and the style there, and our own style seemed to be a natural fit in the end.
Finally, what, in your mind, is the single greatest challenge facing the games industry today, and if you had ultimate power. How would you fix it?
For me, even though we're on the cusp of digital distribution, I think the challenge in the industry is that, we do deal with a pretty huge 'black market'. We have to deal with used games and rentals which, I totally understand why people would want to rent, or buy second hand, but at the same time I look at how much work we put into our games and it's disheartening.
I mean, take the first Darkness. I'm not sure of the final numbers, but although millions of people played, they did not sell millions and millions of new copies. I think, until we switch over to that digital age, I think the biggest challenge is getting people to buy a product for the fair cost that is proportionate to how much it costs to make.