I think The Darkness II's Jackie Estacado deserves an award for being more utterly screwed in a single instance than any other videogame character in history. So here's the tale of the tape: I – playing as the main character of all first-person shooters: camera-glued-to-the-main-character's-forehead – was locked in a dark, dingy room while a horde of vaguely supernatural mob goons turned my mega-mansion (and my horde of vaguely competent regular mob goons) into a gory pile of mob goop. “Mansion under attack, lol #firstworldproblems,” I could almost imagine Jackie tweeting if he hadn't also been, you know, crucified at the time.
Then one of my none-too-subtle foes wheeled a TV inches away from my eyes so as to – both literally and figuratively – rub my face in what was to come. “It's your own personal snuff film,” he proudly announced. On the screen were two of my particularly talkative underlings – beaten, bound, and on their knees, with backs mercifully turned away from the pistol pointed in their general direction. “One lives, one dies. Pick.” And I should have cared. I really should have.
But I didn't. Not in the slightest. So, what changed between the original Darkness' masterclass in characterization and this sordid tale of heartlessness and heart-eating? Simple: time.
And I'm not referring to the intervening period between Darkness I and II's respective releases – nor, for that matter, one of the most well-known songs off Pink Floyd's “Dark Side of the Moon.” Rather, I'm shining the demon-snake-disintegrating spotlight on in-game time or, in this case, lack thereof.
See, the first Darkness is, in my opinion, among the few games that have really leveraged one of the most underused gadgets in gaming's arsenal: the lack of a predefined time limit on our experiences. There's no clock ticking things away – the hours that make up a dull day, for instance. A book's pages will eventually run out. Films have to squeeze all manner of meaningful plot and character development into the cramped confines of a couple hours – a task I imagine to be much like putting a ship into a bottle the wrong way. And, of course, all good TV shows inevitably get canceled by Fox.
Games, however, are free to paddle down the timestream at their leisure, hard drive/disc space willing. So The Darkness crafted the now-infamous sofa scene. In it, players were given the option to stow their guns, temporarily shut off the portion of their brains scientists are now calling “The Rambo Cortex,” and watch a movie with Jackie's girlfriend, Jenny. For an hour-and-a-half. As I've written countless times, it was brilliant. I spent real-life quality time with a human-shaped stack of zeroes and ones, but it felt entirely authentic. There were no cars, rockets, or Kool-Aid Men crashing through walls. The screen never faded away into infinite swirling abyss of black that is the jump cut to another scene. It may not have been real in the strictest sense, but it was damn close.
The Darkness II, meanwhile, is akin to a rollercoaster ride that abruptly and haphazardly leaps onto other rollercoasters. It barrels forward at breakneck pace, pausing only briefly between levels to let you chat with your motley crew of meticulously dressed mobsters at Jackie's mansion. Admittedly, even throwaway conversations are very well-written and acted, but when I had to choose which friendly mafio-so-and-so to execute on the spot, it felt like I was indirectly splattering the brains of a casual acquaintance – not someone I'd rather take a bullet for. And most certainly not a close friend I'd worked with and fought alongside for two years. Because, in truth, I'd been around these guys for a combined total of roughly two or three minutes. I barely knew either of them.
All of The Darkness II is like that. It jumps from action-packed-event-to-action-packed event, rarely bothering to take a meaningful breather. I never got a chance to settle into the world or feel like I was part of something larger because, before the game was even done setting up its pins, it was already screaming at me to knock them down. And then the credits rolled after about five hours, and I looked back and realized that I had no idea how many in-game days or weeks had passed over the course of that story. The whole experience was disjointed and choppy, dashing madly for the finish line and blatantly ignoring my desire to stop and smell the roses.
The Darkness II is hardly the only game that deserves to do time for its crimes against time, though. Skyrim, for instance, bases its entire existence on the idea that you'll eat, sleep, and breathe it for days or even months – probably at the slowly fatal expense of eating, sleeping, and breathing. And yet, even as in-game years fly by, nothing changes. Seasons stagnate, cities neither rise nor fall, and the world's inhabitants may as well be starring in Groundhog Day. It's jarring, to say the least – less like a living world and more like the occasionally writhing corpse of one.
And I'm only singling out Skyrim because it's a recent and relatable example. Truth be told, I can count the games that put detail into the passage of time on a single hand, and one of them's a farming simulator. And that's a damn shame, because the few who've opted to buck this industry-wide trend have given gaming some of its most memorable moments and worlds.
Mafia II, for example, may not take home an Originality Award for its plot and characters, but its world was a brilliant slice of 1940s nostalgia. So – given that the game's sort of called Mafia – you commit some crimes, get your hands a little too dirty, and wind up behind bars. Until 1951. When you finally emerge, the world's a different place. Car models, music, fashion – nothing's the same. It reminded me a bit of Shawshank Redemption, but less horrifically depressing. More importantly, though, it filtered old-timey Chicago through a brand new lens, lending it an entirely different personality.
Then there's Dragon Age II, which – in spite of all its flaws – did an excellent job of conveying changes in culture, race relations, and politics over the course of roughly a decade. Sure, the structure of Kirkwall – and, in many cases, people's freaking clothes – remained largely unchanged, but DAII still deserves credit for tackling social issues in a believable manner, both by way of interesting allegories (Mages vs Chantry echoes battles for both gay rights and racial equality, for instance) and marked change over time. And while the player wasn't exactly the catalyst for a lot of that change, other games – like Microsoft's Fable franchise – have used the passage of time to demonstrate the direct consequences of your choices.
And finally, let's not forget To The Moon. It narrowed its focus down to two people but widened its net to fit an entire lifetime. It also made me cry.
Most games, however, seem content to leave this rich vein of potential quite a bit more than six feet under. Whether it's thanks to a torrid love affair with constant Hollywood-style scene cuts or sheer, willful ignorance of time's ability to alter anything other than the little numbers on the calendar, games constantly leave time out of the equation. Unless every game developer on earth is secretly Han Solo frozen in carbonite, there's simply no excuse for this. Everyone ever in the history of history has experienced time. And the above examples barely even scratch the surface of its potent possibilities within games. So let's stop wasting time. Standing still is boring. Let's move forward.