Oh the life I’ve lived. I’ve skipped across the tops of skyscrapers with the ease of a child playing hopscotch. I’ve busted out of prisons that were said to be inescapable, that were patrolled by minigun-toting mechs, among other things. I’ve completed the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs. I’ve slain Balrogs (of bothvarieties). I’ve covered wars, ya know.
The moment I remember best, though? I was sitting in a small apartment, on a couch made more of dust than fluff. Minutes earlier, I’d gunned down some 20 mafia goons, but that didn’t matter. She leaned on my shoulder, half-asleep, and we watched an old black-and-white rendition of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on a teensy television. For more than an hour.
And that’s when I thought, “This game is incredible.”
That game was The Darkness, an Xbox 360 shooter from Starbreeze studios. Sure – as I implied earlier – the game certainly had me behind the barrel of a gun (or a giant hell-borne tentacle-snake) more often than not, but even among countless epic shootouts and swelling operatic scores, that mundane moment with main character Jackie Estacado (you) and his girlfriend dozing on a couch stands out the most. It was simple. It was quaint. But most of all, it was entirely believable.
In that moment, I got a feel for exactly the sort of guy Jackie was. Of course, he was no saint. Many of his actions weren’t even forgivable. Intimidation, “necessary force,” and even murder – Jackie wasn’t afraid to sully his hands if it meant getting the job done. But he wasn’t a godless killing machine. He simply hated his enemies and loved his friends. And so, even though, at that very moment, made men were probably sporting itchy trigger fingers that only Jackie’s death could scratch, he chose to take care of his girlfriend.
That hour passed like any other. There were no swoons, no studio audiences going “D’aaaaaaaw” – not even a makeout scene. Just people being people. Still though, more than in any other game, I knew how Jackie felt about his romantic interest. He loved her. Truly and sincerely. I imagine that he spent time with her like that whenever he could. Because, when it came time for me to see Jackie’s true colors, I didn’t have to take some character’s word for it. I actually experienced it.
Too often, videogames just pass us a handful of characters and tell us, “This guy loves this girl, and this guy hates this other guy. Why? Because.” The logic supposedly holding such relationships together is about as flimsy as a young child’s game of dollhouse. It’s like when you reach the epic conclusion of a movie or TV series, and the main guy and gal finally move in for a slow-mo smooch, and all that time, you’re just thinking, “That pairing would never work out in real life.” Sure, two or however many people may have endured some huge or ordeal together, but as we all know, there’s no such thing as happily ever after. Or at least, not the knight-in-shining-armor Disney conception of the phrase, anyway.
Games, though, can let us live those little, seemingly unimportant moments that make or break interpersonal relationships. So why don’t they do it more often? Well, you could blame the relative lack of top-notch writers working in the industry, or you might point the big, bad blame finger at gaming’s perceived macho, explosion-loving, pigskin-tossing audience. After all, why put so much effort into crafting a scene that much of your audience will just write off as “mushy stuff”?
Honestly, though, I don’t find either of those reasons acceptable. Gaming’s potential audience is bigger and more diverse than ever before, so taking a little focus off the Tough Men Fighting and putting it on real character development might even help some games sell more copies. And between Valve, Starbreeze, BioWare, Bethesda, Obsidian, and 2K Boston (BioShock’s developer), I think we’re long past the days when a plumber’s quest to defeat a giant ape with a very real case of jungle fever constituted a quality storyline.
So come on, developers. Anyone can toss together a nice pyrotechnics show and some showy gun-fu, but The Darkness – along with a few other select titles – has proven that games can believably portray relationships that go quite a bit further than the typical “Ugga, ugga. You Jane. You wife” approach. I mean, look at the most recent Prince of Persia game; its main characters communicated frequently, laughing and joking like normal people. Little touches like that are all I’m asking for. But really, with all the talent in this industry, I’d be pretty disappointed if you guys only fulfilled my expectations, and didn’t blow them away.