The Darkness II Interview – We Wrap Digital Extremes in our Demon Arms
Written Saturday, January 28, 2012 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
The Darkness II is almost with us, so to pre-empt the impending release, we headed on over to 2K Games' UK headquarters to chat with the game's Project Director, Sheldon Carter and Senior Lighting Artist, Cliff Daigle about the art style, the importance of story and retaining the legacy of the first game and the comic books.
We also found time to talk about the FPS genre as a whole, multiplayer, picking up the mantle from Starbreeze and whether Witchblade will ever get a look in as part of 2K and Top Cow's series in an extensive interview. Read on!
Was it an easy handover from (original developer) Starbreeze Studios when you started work on The Darkness II or was it a difficult transition?
Sheldon Carter: About three years ago we got the project from 2K, and we were all really big fans of The Darkness, and because we were it was really exciting. We all love the comics, we all love the first game and then we had the writer Paul Jenkins, who started work on the project and had worked with Starbreeze on the first game and was going to work with us as well. That was pretty amazing and a nice bridge between the two games, and in the process of making the game we've been lucky enough to run into Starbreeze a few times and they've been really supportive.
Has Starbreeze had any direct input at any point during development on The Darkness II then?
SC: No. Other than coming to see it at E3. They just came by at E3 and they were really supportive and cool. It's one of those things where they're very focused on the game (Syndicate) they're making too though.
Multiplayer in The Darkness was kind of a tacked on thing, so what was the core remit for The Darkness II's multiplayer mode?
SC: When we first started building the game, we knew that one of the things we loved so much about the first game was the narrative and the story, so we wanted to hold on to that. Our development goal has always been in the service of story, so we looked at what we could do with multiplayer and realised that we had to put it through that filter of story, which is what made us think we want a campaign that people can play through by themselves or with friends and that's how we created Vendettas. We sat down with Paul and came up with these four unique characters who have their own skill trees and stories that you can explore as you play the game. We also thought it was really important to have it be kind of linked to the single-player, so you've got this campaign where you're kind of filling in some of the cracks or holes that aren't necessarily crucial, but help you understand elements of the single-player story better for playing the multiplayer.
And do you get to meet or encounter any of the characters from Vendettas in the single-player story?
SC: We introduced them, but we didn't actually want to have Jackie interact with them because his story is so focused. In the very first hub of the game where Jackie tells Vinnie that he needs to get Johnny Powell, which is where Vendettas opens up with Vinnie going to those guys and telling them that this is what they were brought together for, and need you to get and get this guy, Johnny Powell. It's a small part, but in the single-player story you tell Vinnie to get Johnny and there he is next time you come back (to the mansion). In Vendettas you'll be able to find out where Johnny Powell was and how he was brought back.
Do find out how the Vendettas crew were brought together and do you get some backstory on those guys?
SC: Yeah. You get lots of background on each of those characters and how their hatred of the Brotherhood drew them to Jackie through playing Vendettas. We kind of treat Vendettas like a dark comedy. If the single-player is action drama then Vendettas is an action comedy, as there are a lot more humorous elements to it, but again it's all about the story driving it forward.
What were the other key aspects besides multiplayer that you felt were lacking from The Darkness 1 that you wanted to build upon in the sequel?
SC: The thing that we most wanted to hold onto was the story. We felt that the narrative in the first game was really well executed and we wanted to have our own take on those types of moments in the game. Everything else we looked at and said “how can we improve this?” Our combat and quad-wielding came out of the end of The Darkness 1 where this pretty great, cinematic moment where Jackie's using both the demon arms, ripping down things and slicing guys, using his powers and we thought, “wow, we wish that could be playable”. That became one of our jump off points: how can we have combat that crazy for The Darkness II? We looked at the gun combat too and looked to improve that... Really everything, aside from the narrative, we saw places where we could really improve.
I suppose being able to control the Darkling is an offshoot of that then, replacing the Creeping Dark demon arm that would slither through ventilation shafts in the first game?
SC: Yeah totally. The Darkling is a really good example of something we added in service of story, because in the first game you had Darklings you could command as gameplay tools. In The Darkness II, we thought this is a story game, so why not have a Darkling as a fully-realised sidekick that can be with you, help you out, and you can control him. In combat he pulls guys out of cover and so on, and as you play on through the game, you'll learn he has an expanded role and is even more critical to Jackie's journey through The Darkness II.
Is there anything in The Darkness II story-wise that ties directly into the comic books as a fan service?
SC: For people who love comic books, they're going to see a lot in The Darkness II that they recognise, but there's nothing too overwhelming for a new player who isn't familiar with the source material. We're very careful to stay faithful; like the Brotherhood are an entity that actually exist within the comic books, but the Brotherhood in the game is slightly different, with different abilities and they understand how the Darkness works in a deeper way. If you're a fan of the comics, there are lots of winks and nods to you; if you're a new player, you'll still enjoy the game.
It'd be cool to have Witchblade in the game too...
SC: The Top Cow universe is awesome and there are so many great characters I'd love to see in games as well, so who knows?
Do you think Top Cow would be supportive if you wanted to add Witchblade in a DLC expansion or something like that?
SC: I'm not sure. They seem like they'd be cool and they want good things so...
Witchblade would fit into your Darkness universe wouldn't she?
SC: Yeah, for sure. If anything, The Darkness is a regular character in her universe.
You're doing something a bit different within the FPS genre, but do you agree with Hideo Kojima's statement that demand for first-person shooter is effectively stifling a demand for anything else?
SC: I'd have to read his statement and fully understand it to give a true comment on it, but on the subject of whether there's room to innovate within the first-person genre, I think there absolutely is. What we've done with The Darkness II and quad-wielding, I think it's something new and a way to experience the FPS that hasn't been done before. And I think there's tons of room for us as storytellers for delivering experiences to players and we can continue to innovate. I think I can understand where Kojima is coming from, but I think you can still innovate with an FPS title.
Do you think it's getting increasingly difficult to find new spins on the FPS genre though?
SC: Personally I don't, because I think that there's so much you could do, but it's just what's popular right now. The example I'll use is everyone though the action movie was over, then The Matrix comes along... Everyone was sick of World War II games, so the military shooter was considered done, then all of a sudden Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare comes out and it just opens the floodgates for a whole new wave of military shooters, and maybe some people are now getting tired of that style of game. I'm sure there'll be a new idea coming from a new team, someone out there that's going to change the military shooter genre again at some point.
And I suppose The Darkness II also sets itself apart as you're grounded within the environment and not just a floating gun. Was that an important thing; to feel grounded within the world?
SC: Yes, absolutely. We want you to be connected to the character, which is why we have the monologue moments too, so you can always identify with Jackie. The game is played in first-person, so we want to give you the ability to understand who the character is and what you're doing.
You'll explore a lot of Jackie's past too, through flashbacks and whatnot, right?
SC: There are lots of moments in the game that give you a better insight into the character and better insight into the world beyond The Darkness.
Has it been a challenge to get the emotional beats and the pacing just right in the story?
SC: I think the emotional beats and the pacing are probably the things that you just have to care about and you have to always be thinking about where the player's emotions are. You have to almost chart it, map it out like here's the player's emotions and the adrenaline they're feeling right now in this combat sequence and how intense it was, and now we're bringing you back down, so what are we going to hit you with on an emotional level? Then there's also the fact that sometimes you just have to let it breathe. You just have let the player wander around the mansion hub for a little while and talk to a few characters and hope that they get to know those characters, so that later on when we do something in the story, there's an emotional impact.
You also seem to play around a lot with what's real and what's not real in Jackie's world, and it seems that you and the character are never quite sure.
SC: When you really get down to it, he's a guy who has an evil voice in his head, so he 's struggling with that and he ends up questioning reality and we play with that throughout the game. But I don't want to spoil anything.
Does the game also go to some fantastical, unpredictable places like the first game did?
SC: Yeah. As Jackie becomes more powerful and fantastical, so too do the locations. What we've shown so far has all been set in New York and in the seedy underbelly to really establish that location for you, but as Jackie's power amps up and you understand what the Darkness is, that gives us more licence to get crazy with the environments.
Speaking of the environments, you were telling me earlier that the cel-shaded style was actually added retrospectively. Does that mean you were going to initially continue with the art style from the first game?
Cliff Daigle: Exactly. We did start off on that path, as it was the obvious path to pick up where things left off, but one thing we found was that a game taking place primarily in the dark can get quite monotonous. The first game looked really good for what it was, but that was also five years ago and things have changed. It's a little harder to stand out now, so we wanted it to have a unique, powerful style and we wanted to tie-in with the comics as much as possible. So we did a lot of investigating, tried procedural methods of making it look more hand-drawn and more organic.
We wanted it to be more colourful. Even though it's dark, we still wanted it to have a variety of colour and stuff like that, and so we eventually came up with the process you see in the game now. It ended up being fairly labour-intensive, but it was obviously the right look. When our Art Director finally got there, the whole team really got on board and it was what we wanted to do, although it took a lot of time for a lot of people and we had to go back and rework a lot of stuff. But it was definitely worth it and I think a lot of people were excited to do it.
So, presumably every texture is hand-drawn and unique? You'll never see the same thing twice, right?
CD: That's correct, yes. Because of all the light work, you couldn't really do it procedurally. It had to be done on a 'per surface' basis, so that was a lot of work for our texture guys. They ripped it up and did a great job.
SC: It's not that often you have the opportunity to work on a game that has this huge back catalogue of art. There's lots of franchises where they'll start off making it look like a movie or whatever, but someone hasn't actually drawn it or coloured it, and so it's inspiring when you look at all of the comics that Top Cow have created and think 'how can we make that into a game?'
Has The Darkness artist Marc Silvestri seen the game then, and if so, what does he make of the look?
SC: Well, yeah. He's a great guy and on top of being a great guy, he's got great taste! (Laughs) He's seen the game quite a few times and he's just been great. It's been really fun for us a team to have someone like that who we all revere, really like what we're doing.
When most people initially saw the cel-shaded art style, they all immediately drew comparisons with Borderlands. What do you make of that?
SC: Well, we're humans. We're pattern-matching machines, so when you look at something like that, you automatically look to the nearest thing you can compare it to. As soon as people start seeing the game in motion and start playing it, they'll realise there's a lot of detail. It isn't really cel-shaded. It has normal maps, so you'll see all of the richness in the world and hopefully we'll be the pattern-matching benchmark for whatever the next game is.
It also makes sense for a game based on a comic book to adopt a visual style like that.
CD: I think it helps with the extraordinary level violence in the game too, that the visual style perhaps makes it a little less disturbing and more fun.
SC: Yeah. Instead of being completely bleak all of the time, you have the big splashes of colour. If you start looking at the comic books that's what they do there too.
The fairground level for instance looks like it was lifted right out of a comic book.
SC: That's a great example of one of those levels where we started to go down a wider path.
When you're making a game like this, based upon a comic book property, are you given a set of rules or limitations from the IP owner. In this case, did Top Cow impose any restrictions?
SC: Top Cow have just been really cool. They really understood that we care about the things they care about. Like, we knew we wanted to have a really great story and realised that would be something very important. Then having Paul (Jenkins) involved from the very beginning of the project at least, doing the writing, Top Cow felt like, 'okay, Paul's there and these guys know what they're doing, so that's the way to go.'
What are you hoping players come away with then, having played The Darkness II?
SC: There's lots of things I hope, I guess. Our key pillar was in service of story, so I hope they come away saying, “wow, I just got told an amazing story and I've just did things that I've never done in a first-person shooter before.”
CD: I think that's it, really. The quad-wielding gameplay is really something different, and once you really get into it and you've got all of your talent trees maxed out and all of your powers rocking, you can just tear through guys like a human meat grinder. That's a pretty unique experience, and that coupled with the story... Storytelling in first-person games has been hit and miss, so I'm hoping that we're going to be pushing story to a new level.
The Darkness II is out on February 7th in North America and February 10th in Europe.