Oh Starbreeze, how we hate you for what you did to us.
The Darkness was a first-person shooter released to Xbox 360, PS3 and PC back in 2007. Based on the comic of the same name, it had players take the role of Jackie Estacado, a small-time hood suddenly granted demonic powers after being possessed by the titular supernatural force (voiced brilliantly by Faith No More’s Mike Patton). Developed by Starbreeze and published by 2K Games, The Darkness is a rare example of a comic-book tie-in that ended up being bloody good.
There’s a number of reasons for that – we could point to gruesome death scenes where your player-controlled tendrils tore through opponents in some of the most disgusting ways imaginable. We could point to the easter eggs hidden away as in-game contactable phone numbers, resulting in a mixture of utterly hilarious and downright disturbing voice messages. We could also point to the fantastic voice acting, which was never less than excellent and ensured that the game’s story remained captivating from start to finish.
But none of those can hold a candle to the game’s true star: Jenny.
Oh Jenny, we loved you.
Jenny provides a shining light of innocence amongst all the downtrodden muck roaming the game’s streets. She knows who and what Jackie is, but never judges him for it. Her love for him is pure and heartfelt, and no matter what Jackie has done in the past, she remains both his best friend and faithful companion. In one memorable scene, you spend time simply sitting with her on the sofa, watching television. If you wanted, you could literally spend hours in that room by her side – in a stroke of genius, Starbreeze added the entirety of the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird into the game. It’s a simple scene – nothing much happens to progress the plot; but it cements Jenny as a stabilizing force in Jackie’s life, the one thing keeping him grounded and honest in the midst of the immoral lifestyle he has chosen for himself.
You care about Jenny. It’s easy to forget that she’s just a computer-rendered character, a collection of polygons and textures given life by a digital animator’s hands. Through the use of subtle moments such as the scene mentioned above, the excellent voice acting from Lauren Ambrose, and a wonderful script, the character is given a sense of life and believability that has rarely been rivaled since.
And then, cruelly, she’s taken from you.
About a third of the way through the game, Jenny is kidnapped by the game’s primary antagonist, Paulie, and taken to an orphanage where both Jackie and Jenny grew up. Wandering through the long-abandoned halls, you view glimpses of how the lovers first met – a playful push, a heartfelt and naive conversation. You see their love blossom from its beginnings.
Approaching the room where Jenny is being held captive by Paulie – accompanied by a corrupt police officer – the Darkness, the demonic force that fuels both the plot and your own in-game abilities, takes control. Preventing you from moving or acting in any way, you’re forced to watch through a closed door as Paulie and Jenny argue – her on her knees, he strutting around the room with a gun in his hand.
“Jackie was so right about you.” Jenny says.
“Shut up you dumb broad, you’re giving me a fucking headache!” Paulie isn’t used to be spoken to like that, not least by a woman.
Things get ugly. The argument escalates; Jenny gets pistol whipped and you, as Jackie, want to tear through the doorway and reap your revenge. This is your Jenny, your love, and she’s lying on the floor, defenseless, held at the mercy of a murdering psychopath. But the Darkness holds you back. Cruelly, it taunts you; it wants to remind you that you’re it’s pet, not the other way around. It wants to hurt you. It wants to feel your fear, your pain. It wants you to lose your hope.
The Darkness knows that Jenny’s gentle nature and innocent love threatens to loosen its control over you, and it doesn’t like it.
“Be still, and watch…” it taunts you, as Jenny lies on the floor, begging for her life.
Jenny lashes out at her captor, knocking him backward. You want to intervene, but the Darkness holds you back.
“Your flesh is mine… your will is mine…”
As Paulie recovers, the police officer taunts you through a locked door. For all of your demonic powers, you can do nothing but stand and watch as Jenny screams for mercy. It’s a disturbing moment, made all the more difficult to bear because of the taunts in your head mocking your helplessness.
“You broke my nose!” Paulie shouts, as he grabs Jenny by the hair and pulls her to her feet.
The police officer is still droning at you through the door, but you’re not listening; your gaze is fixed on Paulie and Jenny. You feel sick; you want to burst in and let loose, but the Darkness… the fucking Darkness won’t let you move.
Paulie turns to you. He’s frantic, ranting, waving his gun around. “You know why we’re here? Because you hurt me, Jackie,” he says.
It’s true; this is your fault. You chose this life, and now it’s hurting the one good thing you have. Jenny isn’t even looking at you; instead, her gaze travels downwards, to the floor. Is she just scared? Or, perhaps more likely, disgusted? Has she finally seen you for who you are?
Your heart breaks.
“All this blood is on your hands!” Paulie is losing it; you always knew he lacked self-control, but this is something else. Has he finally lost the last vestiges of his sanity?
You know what’s about to happen. You can feel it in your bones; the bile rises into your throat and still the Darkness is holding you back.
“Jackie? What’s going on?” Jenny asks, sobbing as she speaks. “Please get me out of here.”
You want to. How could you not? But you can’t move. You can’t do anything.
Paulie taunts you: “Do you see a happy ending here, Jackie?”
You try to bang the door down, but the Darkness holds you back. Paulie keeps shouting, now with his gun held firmly to Jenny’s head.
Oh god oh god oh god oh g-
“Jackie, this is not your fault.”
In one sickening, horrifying moment, the woman you love is taken from you, her final words ringing in your ears.
Jackie, this is not your fault… but of course, it is. It’s your fault that she became involved in all of this; it’s your fault that she was kidnapped. And it’s your fault that she now lies dead on the floor, the walls splattered with her blood.
For a moment, you can’t quite believe what’s happened. Could Starbreeze really be this cruel? Would they dare..? Then doubt gives way to shock, which gives way to anger. They took her from you! Those bastards took her away.
You get your revenge, of course; Paulie dies at your hands after a cathartic and destructive rampage through his mansion. But the victory is bitter-sweet; Jenny is still dead. Your love can’t be brought back, and the Darkness achieved exactly what it set out to achieve – stripping you of the one thing in your life that stood in its way of turning you into a cold-blooded killer.
The Darkness isn’t a game that’s going to be remembered in twenty years’ time as one which changed the medium. It certainly isn’t perfect – flaws with its controls mean that you spend as much time wrestling with the pad as you do with the obstacles on the screen. But God damn it, it’s a game with heart. Starbreeze could have just taken the license, pumped out a half-hearted first-person shooter, and left it at that; but they didn’t. Instead, they poured their soul into crafting a narrative that would tear out your heart and feed it to you – all while Mike Patton’s snarling portrayal voiced its satisfaction.
Jenny, you may be gone – but you’re sure as hell not forgotten.