The Darkness Interview

Following the release of its acclaimed movie tie-in The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (Xbox, PC), Swedish studio Starbreeze Studios became something of a sudden and unexpected hero of independent game development. After all, Riddick represented one of those exceedingly rare instances in which the game is widely considered to be superior to the movie--but, more importantly, the game was a fine achievement in its own right, a successful blend of genres with a well conceived and unique first person melee system, all with some of the best visuals the Xbox had yet produced.

With a reputation built on the solid reception of Riddick, Starbreeze is now working on another adaptation, a supernatural action title based on Top Cow's comic book series The Darkness. We got a demonstration of The Darkness during E3 this year, and you can read our impressions from the show. This week, during the San Diego Comic-Con, we checked back with Starbreeze to take a look at another section of the game.

The E3 demo began after the game's introductory sequence, which Starbreeze elected not to show at the time. This week's demo consisted of that previously unseen intro in which player protagonist and Mafia hitman Jackie Estacado has his twenty-first birthday and, coincidentally, acquires The Darkness. The Darkness is a a force that possesses Jackie and gives him various frightening powers, including summoning the impish Darklings, controlling huge fanged tentacles rising out of his back, and opening small gravity wells to suck in any nearby objects or people. The game begins with an impressive and lengthy first person car chase sequence that feels a bit like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, except everyone in the car is in the Mafia and they're opening fire on police officers.

Of the three Mafiosos present in the car at the beginning, only Jackie remains by the end, but thanks to a less than welcome birthday gift he soon finds himself unconscious. Upon awakening, he has been possessed by The Darkness. Appropriately, The Darkness can only be activated when it is dark, meaning the player must frequently shoot out the lights using Jackie's dual-wielded pistols. To control the dual-wielding, the game uses two reticles, one for each gun, rather than simply having each weapon converge on a single point. Admittedly, this mechanic seems like it could use a bit of work; watching the game being played, it sometimes seems difficult to quickly focus on a small object such as a light fixture or a far off enemy, since rather than being centered on the screen they must be positioned slightly off center to fall under one of the reticles. Fortunately, it seems like a great deal of the game's combat is done up close, where enemies are susceptible to the brutal Darkness powers--they can be maulled by the huge tentacles, attacked by the summoned Darklings, sucked into a vortex, or crushed by a car or other huge object effortlessly picked up and thrown. For those who still want to use their guns, the game has a melee system that will pull of a brutal point blank finishing move with the pistols if the player is in close enough proximity to the enemy.

Some other interesting features were described as well. Designer Jens Anderson spoke of Starbreeze's new "vocap" system, which allows developers to record motion capture and voice acting simultaneously so that actors can essentially deliver a straight performance rather than have it composited by developers later. He also showed off a few examples of what will be showing on the in-game television sets; in addition to news broadcasts that further the plot of the game, public domain works such as Popeye and classic horror film Nosferatu will be airing if players want a bit of a break.

Following the demo, I had the chance to have a quick chat with Anderson and concept artist Mattias Snygg about their experiences working on The Darkness.

Shack: When doing concept art for The Darkness, do you deal at all with any of the artists from the comic, or are you working independently on your own materials?

Mattias Snygg: Well, we don't have any direct contact with them, but we hear from them through 2K and before that through Majesco, how they feel about what we're doing. Mostly we just use the comics for background material and draw from that.

Jens Anderson: We got an initial reaction from Top Cow. They wanted us to do our style, to redefine the comic a bit, so we experimented a lot, and then you did a lot of different tests.

Mattias Snygg: Sure.

Jens Anderson: For instance, the Darkling. We went through a lot of different designs for that one, because we felt that we really wanted to try something different, but we weren't sure what, so we have a whole bunch of different designs. The final one is what you see on the floor today with the costume, walking around.

Mattias Snygg: It turned out pretty cool, actually.

Shack: Are there any major ways in terms of story or atmosphere in which you're deviating from the original comic?

Jens Anderson: To some extent, we are retelling the core story of The Darkness, much in the same way they do with X-Men the movie, and Spider-Man. We wanted the most crucial story element to be when Jackie gets possessed. We tell it in a quite different manner, but the core elements are there, there are a lot of the characters there.

Mattias Snygg: We've done it darker than what they did. In part because we feel that it suits us better, to do something like that, but also when you bring a very stylized comic into a very realistic rendering with our engine, it immediately becomes grittier and darker.

Shack: Speaking of that, at the time Riddick came out, you guys were not as well known as you are, and it was this big surprise. People were saying "Look at these Starbreeze guys, where did they come from?" What's it like now, working on a game when you have all these expectations, coming off of that release?

Jens Anderson: It's more fun, actually. We showed off this demo at E3, we had a great reception. A lot of people came in and said, "We were dying to see this game because we loved Riddick so much," and they wanted it to have a lot of similar elements. And as you saw, there are a lot of similar elements, with the genre being quite similar, and stuff like that. From what I've heard, very few people are disappointed, and, well, it feels really good to have Riddick to stand on. People are more interested than they were when we showed Riddick for the first time.

Shack: Have you gotten any feedback from fans of The Darkness, who maybe aren't familiar with video games?

Jens Anderson: There are...a lot of them.

Mattias Snygg: A lot of them are here. [laughs]

Jens Anderson: Yeah, a lot of them are here. We had a situation at E3. One guy came into the booth, he came up and said [deep voice] "I'm one of the biggest The Darkness fans, so don't fuck this up!" [laughs] So he sat down and watched the presentation, and he looked all sour, but in the end he was up and he gave us a nod of approval and walked out.

Shack: Well, there you go.

Jens Anderson: Yeah, so I hope... Well, we do a lot of stuff differently, but I think most important is to make a great game and have the core elements in there, and from what I've seen people are happy about it.

Shack: So obviously one of your great strengths is taking an established property and melding it to fit better within the confines of video games, and maybe better within your own style and vision. Do you ever seen yourselves going back to original material and creating original franchises?

Jens Anderson: Definitely. It's more of a random thing that we have been working with licenses so much. Enclave was original, the thing we did before Riddick. Then Riddick was a great experience for us. Doing a comic license is very different, especially now working with Top Cow who is so open with giving us freedom to do a lot of stuff that we want to do. Of course, there's a great charm in doing original concepts as well, and we'll see with our next project.

Shack: How did you end up with this one? Did you approach them, or did they approach you?

Jens Anderson: It was a lot of talk between one agent we've been in discussion with. After Riddick, we wanted to work on a next-generation title, and it was basically most publishers wanted in-house teams to do that because [the systems] were so early in development, so we didn't have so many options. So we worked with this agent, who had just gotten the Darkness IP and was approaching publishers with it, and it fitted with us perfectly. We worked together with them to design a concept that we liked and pitch it to publishers, and Majesco got hooked on it. Sadly Majesco couldn't keep it, but 2K is great for us now.

Shack: Finally, any chance this game will make it to PC?

Jens Anderson: Probably, I would say, but they would kill me if I said for sure. [laughs] No, we're focusing on the console versions and as you know, in Riddick after the release we did a port for PC, so I hope we will see it.

Shack: Great, well thanks for talking to us, and good luck with the game.

Jens Anderson: Thank you.

Mattias Snygg: Thanks.

Starbreeze Studios' The Darkness is set to ship for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2007.