Back during the Game Developers Conference, I came across a game starring a Mafia hitman, that lets you summon demonic tentacles to attack your enemies and imps to pee on the dead. That game was The Darkness II, developed by Digital Extremes.
A supernatural shooter, The Darkness II stars Jackie Estacado, who wields an unholy (I’ll say) power called “the Darkness”. We caught up with Digital Extremes to talk to them about their horror shooter and what they draw inspiration from while developing it.
I remember you guys made Dark Sector and now Digital Extremes is working on the sequel. How do you feel about picking up where Starbreeze1 left off?
Tom Galt, Lead Designer from Digital Extremes: In terms of this right now, it’s an honor to work on The Darkness II. Starbreeze knocked the first game out of the park. It was such an emotional roller coaster ride. They were one of the first studios to create a really great narrative within a first person shooter. There were some moments in the first game that were gut wrenching, it was one of those games where you cared about the player character, Jackie, and Jenny, his girlfriend who gets killed.
The job they did was fantastic, both in terms of storytelling, but also the dark & light gameplay. They made you feel like a badass when you played the game. We were ecstatic when 2K approached us to do it and it’s been an amazing challenge. It’s not easy making light & dark gameplay with the darkness power. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s challenging – more challenging than making a cover based shooter, you know?
1Starbreeze is developer of the first game based on The Darkness.
Were you able to use any of Starbreeze’s assets to jumpstart development?
We were able to use a lot of their assets for reference purposes, to get a feel for the characters and that. The tech is our own, we’re using our Revolution engine. All of the art content is new that we’ve created to match with our new graphic noir art style.
Since The Darkness II is based on a graphic novel. What content from the source material will be new for The Darkness II?
I think… what’s going to be new… I don’t know if there is anything I can talk about now that’s new from the comic books or graphic novels. I think the biggest thing is our art style. I think that more so from The Darkness 1 we make it feel like you’re playing a graphic novel. Our art team did a great job of bringing the comic books to life. That’s what we’ve been focusing on a lot.
We’re using those for inspiration for character development, in terms of who the characters are, and the moves Jackie has. We haven’t taken anything directly from the comics, but just from reading them they’re very violent. Jackie is a very, very mean guy in the comics. He does a lot nasty things to people. He throws the lights and when they come back on in the graphic novels everyone is dead, blood is everywhere, and bodies are in pieces. That’s kind of the inspiration we took from that and we tried to nail that with our hitman executions and demon arm ones too.
From what I saw, The Darkness II is a visceral game. You demonstrated a move called the "wishbone" where you rip an enemy up with the dark tentacles and the anaconda where one of the arms impale a character. How do you imagine these kinds of finishing moves?
[Laughs] You know we have just a lot of creative people.
So, do you have someone in the office with a pet snake testing different ways to kill things?
Just about, just about! [Laughs] They take inspiration from snakes, reptiles, whips, and that kind of thing. You know, a lot of times we just let our animators loose and say we need a demon execution where you grab a guy by the torso. They give us tons of ideas and when we see these for the first time we’re always astounded by how graphic they are. [Laughs]
Was there anything too graphic or over the top?
You know what, I don’t think we’ve found anything yet! [Laughs]
In the first game, Jackie could take on sidequests in the Otherworld where you could see some compassion in his character if you chose to help resolve issues between people connected to both sides. Are there elements like this in The Darkness II?
We’re very focused on the narrative and letting the narrative drive the action. We keep the player focused on the core story to deliver the emotional beats we want to too. Jackie, as a character, yeah he’s a don of the Estacado crime family, but he’s not really a bad guy, himself. I think that shines through in the story and what his actions are which you learn when you play through it. We don’t want to portray Jackie as an evil guy. He is the don, but in his heart he is human and a good natured guy.
Are you going to have some of the other Darkness powers like the tendrils or the Darkness gun, because today we just saw the demon arms.
In the demo, we showed the grab demon arm and the slash demon arm. That gives us quad-wielding where you have two guns you shoot at once. With the right bumper, if you hold that down and turn the stick, you can control the direction of the slashing. The left bumper controls the grabbing demon arm. So, you can do all of that at once and that’s our core gameplay.
But, then we also have the Darkling we showed here too, who is your sidekick companion. As you saw in the demo, he killed a guy for me. He also bring you ammo and helps keep you orientated to story goals. He’s a fully realized character in the story. Beyond that, we do have a lot of really cool things that build on that foundation that I can’t talk about yet.
In terms of the creeping dark, we decided that we want the demon arms to fulfill this gameplay action role. What was the creeping dark in the first game, is our slashing melee attack now. We decided to focus on up close melee combat for this one.
Speaking of the grabbing arm, we saw it pick up parking meters and a car door to use a shield. What other elements can you grab in the background?
Yeah, there are a lot of things you can grab that unveil themselves in later levels. We really created a visual language around what you can interact with. We’re using the form and shape of objects to help the player learn what they can interact with in the environment. You notice I picked up rebar at one point and impaled a guy then I did the same thing with a parking meter. Generally, you’ll learn objects around this size and are cylindrical are going to be something I can throw like a javelin to impale a guy with. Things shaped like a car door that are square and long are shields. You start to learn this language as you play through and there are lots of things with different effects.
How do you design levels with all of these shapes? What makes it different from designing another game in the same genre?
It’s a really interesting challenge. It is definitely an iterative approach you have to take. You kind of design the core gameplay of a level and you think about the environment. As we work, we start layering in the light & dark gameplay, something that has to be thought about very early because, of course, lighting plays a huge impact. You don’t have your powers when you are in the light. You don’t heal when you’re in the light. How an environment is lit and the time of day all have a big role in the gameplay. That is in fact something they have to think about very, very early when they start designing a level.
Then we look at the environment its in and start brainstorming – hey OK what kinds of objects are going to be dynamic here? We want to make sure players can grab cylindrical objects to throw like javelins. So, what’s going to make sense here. Obviously, parking meters aren’t going to make sense if we’re in a building, so we’re going to need something else. Yeah, it’s a really iterative process where we start with the core gameplay we want to hit, with light & dark, as well. And we start layering in and populating with dynamic objects. We also do adjustments as we go with the gameplay and the characters we want to involve.
Can you talk more about the shapes? I’m guessing you have more items to grab. Can you tell us what these do?
All I can talk about right now is what we have in the demo. The main ones here are the shield-type objects which you can throw like a Frisbee to cut enemies in half. Then there is the long slender ones like rebar, which you can throw like a javelin.
Then you have some general objects like trashcans. They aren’t as powerful, but when you throw one of these they as powerful, but they knock things down. So, if they’re behind cover you can knock them down to invalidate the cover. And then there is other stuff that we haven’t shown yet, which is pretty cool too.
The original game had films within the game to watch like "To Kill a Mockingbird". Will The Darkness II have these kinds of Easter Eggs?
It has been something we’re looking at, but we’re not ready to make any final decisions or talk about this yet.