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Interview: Sheldon Carter from Digital Extremes on the many changes of The Darkness 2

by Xav de Matos, Mar 07, 2011 6:30am PST

Three years after The Darkness was introduced to gamers around the world, a very different looking sequel is in the works from a completely different developer.

Canadian developer Digital Extremes now steers the ship labeled The Darkness 2, adding a graphic novel flair to the visuals and focusing on the personal story of Jackie Estacado.

After being pleasantly surprised by the GDC 2011 demo, I discussed what nearly four years, a completely new engine, and a totally different developer can do for a series like The Darkness 2 with Digital Extremes project director Sheldon Carter.

Brutal executions are now available via Jackie's horrific Demon Arms.

Shacknews: How did Digital Extremes get involved with the development of a sequel to The Darkness?

Sheldon Carter: 2K Games came to us about two-and-a-half years ago. They came and they just said, "Hey, are you guys interested in working on The Darkness 2?" We're huge fans. We love The Darkness. So, we jumped at the opportunity.

Shacknews: Though The Darkness 2 is a sequel to the original from developer Starbreeze Studios, the game has adopted a very different visual style. Whereas Starbreeze used a more realistic look for the first game, Digital Extremes is going for--what you called in the presentation--a "graphic novel-noir" style. Could you explain that decision?

Sheldon Carter: I guess, you know. It's been interesting. We have this great foundation from the first game that we wanted to pull forward, in terms of the narrative focus of the game. We love that part of The Darkness and we thought there were lots of opportunities to go places with the demon arms and how they work.

Artistically, being fans... You know, I grew up reading The Darkness. So, for me, I was kind of inspired by the comic books. That's our whole team, to some degree. We kind of took the graphic novels and we're flipping through it and you get all these pops of color and this high contrast lighting. You can see it in the images, the hatching that comes from hand drawn art. We just felt like that was true to the source material.

If you're making a game like that--and I take nothing away from the style that Starbreeze used--but for us, we were inspired by that for how we wanted to make the game. So, we decided to bring that forward in the art style.

Shacknews: For Digital Extremes, this is the first original and complete game you've worked on in a few years. Previously, you worked on the multiplayer for BioShock 2 and will soon ship the PC version of Homefront. Now you have The Darkness 2. What made this the project your studio decided to work on?

Sheldon Carter: The last project we fully did all the way was Dark Sector and that was about three years ago. So for me, it was kind of coming off of Dark Sector and we worked a little on some of those projects you mentioned but our core team, that was actually the next project we jumped to. We were just really excited about it. We were fans.

I played through The Darkness... I think I bought it day one. I have that kind of "fanboy" side to me too, so I was really excited. I love Riddick as well, so I really wanted to play a Starbreeze game. When it came to us we were like, "What would we do if it was our game?" And I think the decisions we made were on, "How can we make the demon arms more exciting for the players to use?" For the darklings, we felt like they were interesting as a gameplay tool but we felt there was a huge opportunity to add personality to them and be a part of this great narrative.

Shacknews: There were some specific functions the arms had in the original game. There were elements like going through vents as the arms to accomplish tasks. Is that still the idea behind the demon arms in The Darkness 2 or do they serve a different function?

Sheldon Carter: I'd say one that one of the things that we've put more of a focus on is the action elements and those action elements being close to you. Like, you actually are physically right in the heat of combat. Things like the "creeping dark" from the first game, that's kind of a more stealth focused gameplay mechanic, which is cool but it's just not what we wanted to do for this game.

Shacknews: So, this is more of a "full-blown" action-focused experience?

Sheldon Carter: Absolutely, from that perspective. Like I said, the pillar above all for us was in service of story. So the stuff that we really wanted to keep--and I mean really wanted to keep--were these great moments in Darkness 1 when you're sitting on the couch with Jenny and you're watching To Kill a Mocking Bird or being held back by The Darkness while Uncle Paulie is killing Jenny. These narrative moments we thought the first game did such a great job of letting those moments breathe and actually let the player experience them.

So, Paul Jenkins was the writer on the first game and he's the writer of the comic books. He's also the writer of this game. We really worked closely with him because we want to have that same experience. That's core to the experience people want when they're going into The Darkness. The stuff that they want is this personal story that's not rushed through like so many shooters kind of are. (Carter frantically taps his finger on his hand in a line) Like, plot point... plot point... plot point.

We want to give you that time to identify and know who the character is in a struggle. But in that combat stuff we wanted that to be exciting. So that's why we have that "quad-wielding" that you saw in the demo. "Snap: grab a car door, shoot through a window, slash a guy if he gets too close, throw the car door, and cut him in half!"

We want it to be this kind of "comeback concert" where you have a lot of notes you can play.

Shacknews: Is every element of the "quad-wielding" mapped to the triggers and shoulder buttons/bumpers?

Sheldon Carter: Yeah. So if you're dual-wielding the guns the two triggers are shooting. Left bumper is your grab, so that's all the environmental objects or even guys when you get them into a stun state. Slash works with the right bumper and the right stick. So what you can do with that is gesture. You can slash up or down. Slash pretty much anyway you want.

It's really expressive, I guess.

Shacknews: That's one way to put it, I suppose! "Oh, I cut a guy in half. I've just expressed myself. They have been expressed."

Sheldon Carter: Yes. That's expressive. (laughs)

Shacknews: The first game explored a lot of the "lineage" behind The Darkness itself. There were a lot of World War I flashes, for example. Does The Darkness 2 explore these settings too or is this a look at how Jackie Estacado is now dealing with the changes in his life: the loss of Jenny and his new role as the Don of his family.

Sheldon Carter: That's kind of the base idea. You're the Don of the family now, you're in New York. But again, that's what is so cool about this game is that you've got this demon inside of you so you should kind of expect to have some kind of fantastical elements and not just on the character. The character has a fantastical element with demon arms and darklings, but then the environments have to... you have to sometimes travel to other places too. I won't get into too much about it, but yes. You should expect more than just you.

Shacknews: The darklings: are they A.I. controlled or do you guide them?

Sheldon Carter: It's actually funny because he is the darkling. He's your sidekick.

Shacknews: Right, it's just the one. With a Union Jack t-shirt.

The lone darkling in The Darkness 2 will automatically defend his buddy, Jackie.

Sheldon Carter: Yeah. He's a British guy. He's really got his own character and personality. He helps you in combat. You get to influence him. He is A.I. controlled but there is influence. I guess we're not talking about the progression system yet but there are ways of influencing his behavior.

Shacknews: We've talked a lot about the narrative direction, which would imply a wholly single-player experience. Is that the focus or is there a plan to expand it into something more? Remembering the history of Digital Extremes, your company has a fondness for multiplayer.

Sheldon Carter: That's a good question. I guess at this point there's no comment on anything other than the narrative experience that we've put together.

Shacknews: Focusing then on the single-player. It seems that Jackie is haunted by what happened with Jenny. Is that--and I've never read The Darkness--but is that progression going to be familiar to those who have stepped into the world of the graphic novels?

Sheldon Carter: Well, what's so awesome is that we have Paul, so if we want to deviate from that... I mean the comic isn't necessarily canon. It's more of a guide. Even from the first game, it kind of deviated from the comic but it kept the core ideas. So, we're doing the same thing.

Jenny was such an important part of The Darkness 1 and such an important part of The Darkness I.P., I guess. She has a huge role to play in this game. She's like a returning character that is in a kind of a... I mean, in the demo it's hard to say what exactly she is. But she's a returning character.

There's a few returning characters. In the demo we mention Aunt Sarah. But there's also new characters. (In the demo) you see Vinny, who is kind of your sidekick in the mob. He drags you out of the restaurant trying to get you to the dark because he knows what Jackie can do. There's a big cast in this game.

Shacknews: I want to return to the graphical style for a second and get your opinion on something. The Darkness 2 is ultra-violent, at least that's what I gather from the demo, and the first game was pretty violent too. Does this graphical style give you more freedom to explore some of the more outlandish executions, for example, or does that mindset not even enter the equation?

Sheldon Carter: Using the comic books--like I was saying--if you flip through them, all you're going to see are these huge splashes of blood. I mean, that's what The Darkness comic is. Every other screen is Jackie ripping a guy, or "The Darkness" ripping a guy in half. When we go with this high-contrast and these color pops, it goes from being so muted and I think that's when it becomes fun. It becomes vibrant and it's something you can see.

Shacknews: The Darkness 2 is set to launch on the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 later this year.

Sheldon Carter: Yeah. Yeah, we're getting close. We just signed Mike Patton. He's coming back to do the voice of The Darkness. We're really excited about that. I'm a big Mike Patton fan. Voice recording is starting in a few weeks for most of the cast. So, we're getting close.

Shacknews: Do you do that all in London (Canada, where Digital Extremes is located)?

Sheldon Carter: No. I wish man. It's all in Los Angeles.

Players will return to some familiar locales throughout Jackie's latest adventure.

Shacknews: Digital Extremes has a lot on their plate right now. Homefront is about to ship. You have this. Your studio is pretty big. You have thoughts on where to go from here?

Sheldon Carter: I guess we're always thinking about what's next. An independent studio, right? You're always thinking, "Where's the next meal?"

Shacknews: (laughs) Yeah, that's one way to put it, sure.

Sheldon Carter: Right now we're pretty focused on this. I mean Homefront we're excited and can't wait for that to ship and then the studio's main focus right now is getting this done.

Shacknews: You guys must walk around really depressed all the time. I mean, This Darkness 2 is violent and a little psychotic and Homefront is super grim. Do you have on staff psychologists?

Sheldon Carter: (laughs) Yeah. I guess that's why, again, for us you compare and contrast those two games. Both are really grim. We try to be a little more colorful. The color palette in The Darkness 2 is more vibrant, so you don't have that oppressive feel. Not to say it isn't gritty, it's just a little more fun to play.

Shacknews: Here's the million dollar question I don't like asking but people want to hear it as early as they can. Are there plans for this game in terms of support following its launch?

Sheldon Carter: Yeah. I don't think... I'm not sure if I can talk about any of that right now, but we definitely have plans for it.





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