So let’s talk about Jackie Estacado and The Darkness

Some games stick with us because they’re classics, legendary accomplishments that changed the face of gaming forever. Other games memorable because they’re terrible and broken. But there’s a third kind of game, a sort of game that might not be the best or the worst, but does things that make it a fascinating case study. These overlooked games can provide some of the most interesting and enjoyable experience in games, but you have to know what you’re looking for to find them.

The Darkness is one of these games. When it released back in 2008, Starbreeze’s first shooter since the Riddick games saw decent reviews, but most people forgot about it as the seventh generation went on. Shooters like Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 had already set the tone for the rest of the generation; The Darkness’ innovations would be almost entirely forgotten, which is too bad, because The Darkness is one of the most interesting shooters ever released.

When we hear the phrase “first person shooter,” we tend to start thinking about shooting. It makes sense; after all, “shooter” is right there in the name. It’s easy to think that because shooters are all about shooting, every single level should be about shooting. But what if that weren’t true? What if someone made a shooter where you weren’t always shooting?

Every game has something called “verbs.” A verb is, to put it simply, what you do in a video game. In Canabalt, you run. In Mario, you jump. In Doom… well, in Doom, you shoot.

Doom seems simple enough: it gives you a gun, puts you in a room with some enemies, and tells you to shoot them, but there’s so much more to it than that. From room layouts to weapon differences to monster variety to puzzle solving, there’s a whole lot going on in Doom that makes it shine. The shooting is just one small part of the formula. Doom isn’t so much a game about shooting as it is a game about moving through a space; its mechanics are all about getting you to move and think about moving. Shooting is almost secondary.

For years after Doom’s release, it seemed like id had found the winning formula, but something was missing. Something wasn’t quite right. Most of the Doom clones were busy sticking with what worked, but as graphics technology improved, fans started clamoring for more and more realistic environments.

As cool as Doom’s level design was, it never really made any real-world sense. Exploring a level like E1M1, you never get the sense that it was a place designed by humans for human use. It’s an abstract thing, an idea of a structure more than anything. Over the years, game developers attempted increasing realism, but it still felt like a piece of the puzzle was missing.

Then, in 1998, Valve released Half-Life.

Most of Half-Life is the blend of puzzle-solving and shooting that you’d expect a shooter to have, but Valve peppered the world with weird little details, like a scientist who leaps through a window or a giant tentacle monster grabbing a security guard. These moments helped bring the game world to life, making the world feel more real than any shooter that had come before it.

Half-Life laid out the blueprint for the shooters that followed. Shooters weren’t just about good gunplay anymore, they were about making the world feel real, too. That said, most shooters ignored one of Half-Life’s best parts: its introduction.

When you start Half-Life, you’re on a tram making your way into Black Mesa to begin an experiment. It sets up the game by positioning you as someone late for work. People recognize you, ask you how things are going, remind you that you’re late. You can even mess with a microwave and blow up a man’s lunch.

Valve recognized that making a game that looks real means having to make it feel real too. By putting players in a world.

And then… everyone kind of ignored it.

Don’t get me wrong: Half-Life is still one of the most influential shooters of all time, it’s just that everyone looked at the cool scripted sequences where spaceships flew past and giant monsters killed enemy troops and decided that’s what they wanted to copy. The seemingly-unnecessary, combat-free, gameplay-light part was ignored by pretty much everyone. It’s a shooter. You’re here to shoot.

For most of the early-aughts, shooters stuck to the shooting, though sometimes, games like No One Lives Forever would try a lengthy stealth sequence or friendly NPCs. Plenty of shooters introduced scripted sequences like Valve’s, crafting memorable moments that made game stories more dramatic and exciting. But Half-Life’s combat-free introduction, as awesome as it was, seemed largely forgotten by game designers…until The Darkness came along.

Based on a comic book from 1996, The Darkness follows the story of Jackie Estacado, a hitman who becomes possessed by a supernatural entity called The Darkness. This entity gives Jackie all sorts of powers, which is great, because his boss just put out a hit on his head.

The game’s opening is traditional shooter fare; the player finds themselves in combat right away. After fighting their way through hordes of mobsters, the player eventually unlocks the power of The Darkness, uses it to defeat the mobsters, and escapes into the subway.

Here’s where things change.

In 2007, most first person shooters were still doing the linear level thing. Enter at one point, fight your way through a bunch of enemies, exit at the other. With The Darkness, things are a bit different. Rather than a series of linear corridors, The Darkness features a series of interconnected maps with various entry and exit points. In some cases, you need to ride a subway train to get to them.

The subway system itself is awesome. What could have been a convenient fast travel system turned into something more. Each subway station is full of civilians. Some of them know Jackie, and if you talk to them, they can tell you important things about the world. Others give Jackie simple quests, like getting back someone’s harmonica. The collectibles you find in the game world give you telephone numbers to call, and while they don’t have much to do with the game’s plot, but they’re fun to listen to. Throughout the world, you’ll find television stations that play public domain television shows and movies.

All these little details might not seem like much at first, but when you’ve just come out of an intense gunfight with helicopters and cops shooting at you, these moments of downtime can be a relief. They give you room to breathe. Shooting everything all the time can get exhausting, after all, but more importantly, they underscore the reality of Jackie’s world; this isn’t just a place to shoot guys in, it’s a city with a life of its own. The Darkness was one of the first games to include motion capture technology, and it showed. Starbreeze’s characters had a sense of personality that was entirely new to games at the time.

As fun as games are, one of the most difficult challenges a creative team faces is with motivation.

It’s easy to put a game on a shelf and say “play this,” but if the audience doesn’t care, they aren’t going to stick with the game for very long. Why finish a story you don’t care about? In the early arcade days, when games were short, motivation could be simple: the President has been kidnapped. Are you a bad enough dude to save the President?

Game complexity increased, but story objectives rarely did. Too many games, even the biggest and best ones, send you to a quest giver that puts the main quest on hold while you complete boring chores for characters you don’t even know. Is it really that fun to collect ten different rock samples or find fifty audio logs around a brand new galaxy you’re exploring? Probably not.

The Darkness tried something different. It didn’t just put you in a world that felt real by letting you walk around non-combat zones, watching TV and using payphones, it also gave you relationships, like with your friend Jimmy the Grape, an old mobster with a sense of honor, or your girlfriend, Jenny.

Jackie loves Jenny. It’s in their dialogue and body language. She’s all he thinks about. One of the first objectives in the game is to find Jenny, and when Jackie arrives at her new apartment, she invites him up and has him blow out the candles on his birthday cake. That’s not something people normally do in first person shooters, but in The Darkness, you do.

You can chat with Jenny, telling her about what’s really going on, or protecting her from the truth. Either way, she’ll invite you to watch a movie, flop over on the couch, take the remote for herself, and eventually, if you let her, fall asleep on your chest. If you want, you can watch the entire movie — it’s the 1962 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” starring Gregory Peck — or you can leave at any time, wander off, and proceed with the rest of the game.

Not many video games would give you that moment. There’s no action, it doesn’t drive the plot forward, it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose at all. Why not just do it in a cutscene and get it over with?

Remember what I said about games having verbs? Those verbs put you in a mindset. Give a player a gun, and they’ll feel aggressive. Give them a bonsai tree, and they’ll feel a certain kind of zen. Put players in a room with their girlfriend and give them a quiet moment of peace, and they’ll empathize with a character. By putting players in Jackie’s headspace, The Darkness is getting players really invested in what happens to Jackie.

So, when Jackie’s enemies kidnap and kill Jenny in front of him, the players are invested in that too. Now they want Jackie to get revenge. They want Jackie to go wild, killing everything in his path. Jenny’s death lets players empathize with Jackie’s murderous descent into the underworld. We’re right there with him.

After all this, you might be wondering why The Darkness isn’t a more widely regarded game. While the non-combat design and storytelling of The Darkness is incredible, the gameplay can be a little rough. Switching weapons is slow, the controls aren’t as responsive as you might expect, and the difficulty can be needlessly punishing.

While The Darkness gives you interesting powers, they can feel fiddly at best, and while it’s fun to watch a darkling you summoned kill a mobster, other powers, like the creeping darkness power, can feel disorienting to control.

The resulting game is one that never really feels great as a shooter. It’s best as an adventure game, where you’re focused more on the environment and the people within it. The shooting works, but at its worst, it detracts from the adventure. The Darkness doesn’t work without shooting; Jackie’s a violent person and his powers are driving him to darkness. He must combat it and the mob in order to survive. The Darkness needs shooting, it just needs shooting that feels more engaging and conveys the power that Jackie now possesses.

When you’re playing a game, ask yourself why you’re doing things. Are you completing quests just to get experience points or loot? Is running around getting ten goat skins really that fun or memorable? How many of your favorite games gave you time to breathe, to inhabit the world?

The Darkness works because it gives us time to breathe. It shows us the world Jackie could have had. It’s a shooter, sure, but it’s a shooter that works because it gives everything emotional weight. The shooting isn’t that great compared to its contemporaries, and if the story wasn’t good, it would be a genuinely bad game. By letting players spend time doing stuff other than shooting, The Darkness gives us an emotional connection, and that’s why it’s a classic.

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.