How To Kill A Loved One - The Darkness
From a very young age, popular culture teaches us that women are beautiful creatures that must be destroyed. For the vast majority of history women have been regarded as a kind of communal property, and thus the death of a woman has historically been portrayed as a tragedy for the community first and foremost, with the accompanying fact that it was also a tragedy for the dead woman coming in a distant second. We're slowly emerging from this worldview, albeit with a great deal of starts and stops and setbacks and complete reversals, but it's so deeply ingrained in the stories that shape our society that it's a damn hard paradigm to shift. The very form of drama stymies our attempts to address the issue. If you have a story about a damsel, she needs to be in some kind of distress, otherwise there's no story to tell. It's easy to condemn stories that ineffectually try to wring cheap drama out of situation by threatening or killing women—I certainly do it all the time(condemn it, I mean)—but women really are threatened and killed every day. It's part of our reality and should be addressed in our narratives, the question is where the dramatic license expires and exploitation begins, where females stop being characters and become props to drive the narrative forward, existing only to die in order to provide motivation for the male characters.
Lord knows, the problem isn't only confined to women. Lazy writing is an equal opportunity story-crap-taker-onner. My favorite example of this phenomenon occurs in Red Faction: Guerrilla. Most people probably don't remember Red Faction: Guerrilla's story, with good reason. The hero arrives on Mars, meets his brother, the Earth Defense Force kills his brother, he joins the rebellion. What I've just written is far more detailed and nuanced than what happens in the game. We meet the brother in minute one, and he's dead in minute seven, giving our hero license to destroy millions of dollars worth of property and kill thousands. It was utterly forgettable, which is the very reason I remember it. The sheer clinical, businesslike disinterest with which Red Faction: Guerrilla introduced and immediately killed off its main character's only living family was so rote, shallow, cynical and lazy that it made me laugh out loud.
At least relationships between the likes of Mario & Princess Peach and Link & Zelda are vague enough to let you imagine some kind of genuine emotion stirring beneath the surface of their lives of endless crisis management, not to mention the steamy homosexual tension between Link & Gannon.
The beginning scenes of Red Faction: Guerrilla seemed deliberately engineered to nip any such narrative inferences in the bud. Instead of getting killed the hero's brother could have been captured and the game could have been about trying to save him with the hero driven forward by a sense of obligation and guilt that's slowly revealed as the story progresses. Maybe it started when their father went to Mars to eke out a better life for his sons, and his eldest decided to make the trip, yet arrived on Mars to hear that his father had been sucked into the terraformer and reduced to his constituent elements, and suddenly the burden of providing for his younger brother and mother back on Earth fell on him, and he really wanted his younger brother to be the first one in the family to attend prestigious Earth University, only that dream vanishes when the mother is arrested for protesting against the government and the younger brother has to flee earth since they're rounding up all her known associates, and also there's ninjas. But no. Red Faction Guerrilla's story is: Arrive Mars. Brother Dead. Hulk smash. He's not only killed, he's essentially erased from the universe, he's never mentioned again lest his memory distract you from all the glorious asymmetric warfare, which consists of smashing things in the name of freedom and the occasional buggy race.
Since Red Faction's Captain Deadmeat isn't female his demise can't be attributed to sexism, but must rather be folded into the rich corpus of narrative laziness curated by video games. To accuse video games of expressing contempt for human life with their violence is to beat a horse so dead it's more like churning a kind of horse butter at this point. It's pretend; it's dumb; let us move on. Far more insulting is video games' contempt for humanity—for human emotion, human reactions, human frailties. Watching a loved one die is apocalyptic. Volition Inc. had faith that their destructible environments would carry the day, so much so they felt it didn't matter that their story sucked, sucked bad, sucked the devil's thorny schlong. Admittedly, them buildings fell real nice-like, but the medium is capable of so much more. I never thought I'd see a moving portrayal of grief in a game until I played 2007's The Darkness.
If we just look at the broad outline, The Darkness' plot appears no less exploitative than Red Faction's. Jackie Estacado is a violent mobster, a fact he hides from Jenny Ramano, his girlfriend. Jenny is kidnapped by Jackie's enemies, mob boss Paulie Franchetti and corrupt police chief Eddie Shrote, who kill her. Jackie then kills Eddie and Paulie in revenge. From this description Jenny seems as disposable as Red Faction's brother character, a hollow prop that's destroyed in the process of excusing the main character's homicidal tendencies, then forgotten forever. The difference, as is always the case with these things, is in the portrayal. Jenny is a person. Her murder is the game's defining moment, and if anything her presence is more acutely felt after her death, a sadly accurate trait of human relationships.
We aren't introduced to Jenny until we're half an hour into the game. At this point Jackie has established himself as a mafia hit-man who's killed dozens and is being hunted by his former boss Uncle Paulie. With the arrival of his twenty-first birthday the Darkness has awoken, a supernatural parasite of extraordinary power that feeds off the blood and misery his lifestyle engenders. Only after all this is presented do we, as Jackie, visit Jenny in her new apartment, and for a few bittersweet moments all of it melts away. The contrast between the carnage of Jackie's life on the streets and the serenity of his time with Jenny is so stark that it's immediately obvious why he loves her, as well as why he's lied about what he does for a living. The two of them alone in her apartment as Jackie blows out the candles on his birthday cake forms a disarmingly poignant image. This moment of domestic kindness, planted in the midst of run and gun gameplay, brings the reality of who and what Jackie Estacado is crashing down like a ton of bricks. Killing NPCs by the truckload was easy, but lying to Jenny after a display of such earnest, undeserved kindness suddenly becomes too much. After blowing out the candles it's possible for the player to attempt to come clean and tell Jenny the truth, but she laughs it off, refusing to believe Jackie. Part of this is no doubt due to the necessities of linear gameplay, but it also fits into a larger narrative framework. They're orphans. All they have are each other, and Jenny can't afford to believe Jackie when he tells her he's a contract killer for the mob. We don't get to see Jenny Ramano's life away from Jackie Estacado, but it's a testament to the undercurrent of vulnerability Lauren Ambrose invests in her voice performance that we get the feeling Jenny needs this bastion of normalcy as much as Jackie does, needs him to sit on the couch and watch To Kill A Mockingbird with her as she falls asleep. By building this moment, by allowing it to breathe, by making it difficult to get up, go back out and kill, Starbreeze Studios makes the relationship between the two characters real, they make Jenny real. Then they make us watch her die.
The Darkness will not abide being a passenger in Jackie, the Darkness wants to drive. Partially to elicit a smörgåsbord of suffering, partially to sever his connection to the world, and partially to show him who's boss, the Darkness restrains Jackie as Uncle Paulie holds a gun to Jenny's head. At this point we're in the orphanage Jenny and Jackie grew up in, rendered a bombed-out ruin by Uncle Paulie in order to make a point, and we've experienced two flashbacks to Jackie and Jenny's childhood. It's difficult to understand what initially drew Jenny to Jackie given his childhood hobby of torturing small animals, but she clearly saw some redeeming characteristic in him, something she was capable of drawing out and nurturing, something the Darkness needs to destroy. It is here that Starbreeze Studios breaks a cardinal rule of video game narratives: if you're going to kill someone, stop cultivating the relationship between them and the protagonist, lest you foster some kind of emotional response. Starbreeze Studios knows how we've been programmed, knows we've been taught it's only okay to kill women to prove how mean a bad guy is, provide the main character with motivation, or end the story on a tragic note. Killing Jenny now wouldn't do any of those things, so we expect Jackie to break free of the Darkness' hold, Jenny to escape from Uncle Paulie, an ally to swoop in and save them both, some kind of deus ex machina to sustain the linear narrative path to which we've grown accustomed.
Then she dies.
Jenny says this isn't Jackie's fault moments before she's murdered, but we know better. Faced with the result of his union with the Darkness, Jackie does the only sensible thing, and kills himself.
You know that falling sensation you get when you lean back too far in a chair? An earthquake provokes that same feeling, but draws it out to an obscene length. You keep waiting for the rules you live by to reassert themselves, but they don't, and a part of you keeps falling and falling, even though you know you haven't moved. Grief is a lot like that.
Everything that follows in The Darkness is viewed through the shattered lens of Jenny Ramano's murder. The Darkness needs a host and can't let Jackie die, so it quarantines him in its own world while it reassembles his body. The world inside the Darkness is a vision of a perpetual World War One, an eternal Western Front where the guns never fall silent and the soldiers are stitched back together every time they're blown apart. The blasted landscape has discharged so much dirt into the air that the only light is a sickly red haze that seeps through the blighted sky. This is where the world came together to know grief as one for the first time, it is life without life and death without death, it is what's left after everything that made existence worthwhile has been stripped away; a barren landscape dedicated to its own impossible annihilation. Jackie will eventually escape back into the real world, but the nature of the violence he dispenses, as well as the entire game, will have changed entirely. There is nothing left to save and nothing left to lose. There nothing but sharing our pain and loss with those who deserve it.
When Jackie finally exploits a fortuitous eclipse to storm Uncle Paulie's mansion, any pretense at controlling the Darkness has vanished. As he wades deeper into the tide of blood he's unleashed the Darkness begins asserting itself, moving beyond the player's control to tear through walls and rip a helicopter out of the sky. When Jackie has Uncle Paulie at his mercy it's a moment that's meaningful for all the wrong reasons. Paulie yells and rants and curses Jackie to hell as he always has while squirming like an insect trapped in a spiderweb, yet the emptiness of killing him has never been more apparent. Killing to relieve the pain of loss is revealed for the delusion it always was. The anger at Jenny's murder that drove Jackie forward like a wind at his back is suddenly gone, and in it's place there's... nothing. Just this raging old bastard who's barely worth putting a bullet in. Then Jackie is alone in the Darkness.
We, the player, do not know if the scene at the end is a delusion, a memory, a fantasy, or something supernatural. Jackie apologies. Jenny tells him that her death wasn't his fault, and we want to believe her so badly it's like a clenched fist in our chest. The moment is fleeting. All we want is to stay, to remain in this moment. She tells Jackie that he's dreaming, that he has to wake up. The game ends.
When I decided to revisit The Darkness, one of the very first games I played after buying a Xbox 360, I was afraid that my memory had inflated its emotional impact, that the intervening years of Halo and Mass Effect and Kinectimals had taught me what real feeling was, and The Darkness would seem sophomoric by comparison. I was wrong. Wrong as balls. (the most wrong one can be) The facial animations and aspects of the gameplay haven't aged well, but the sad tale of Jenny and Jackie is evergreen--I got a little choked up just writing about it. Starbreeze Studios had the benefit of being ahead of its time when it took care to build a genuine relationship into a video game adaptation of an obscure comic book property. The rest of gaming is just now catching up, with titles like Telltale Games' The Walking Dead and Naughty Dog's The Last of Us putting similar emphasis on building an emotionally cathartic experience.
Starbreeze Studios would not return to the The Darkness IP, instead producing the mediocre cyberpunk shooter Syndicate, though the upcoming Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons appears promising. After long delays a sequel was finally released by Digital Extremes in early 2012. The Darkness 2 made a noble effort to maintain the emotional resonance of the original, and while their success is debatable their effort should be commended, especially considering what they could have done with the franchise.
Video Games are still a young medium, and we're still learning what can be done with them--hopefully we'll never stop. Due to the vicissitudes of design and demographics there will always be dumb games like Red Faction: Guerilla, but the best examples of the medium seem to be inching ever closer to the Darkness. I think we'll like what they find there.