A breakdown of 2K's methods of overcoming ludonarrative dissonance in a very dark, conflicted plot. Spoilers abound.
Clint Hocking once used the phrase ludonarrative dissonance to describe the times when what you’re doing in a video game in terms of the design does not merge with the plot. It’s an old post and I hate to drag out the Bioshock analysis but it could just as easily reference GTA IV or any other game. What do you do when what the game design and thus player input allows does not really make sense for the character? 2K’s The Darkness explores this question by creating a three-way relationship between the protagonist, the demon controlling him, and the player. Yes, the game’s lip animation is a bit off and the Trent Reznor-looking protagonist is a bit dated. But past the Uncanny Valley is a very sharp game design that draws the player in and supports the narrative. Given that the game is about a man losing his soul for the sake of revenge, it is quite a feat that by the end the player is just as guilty as the protagonist.
The game opens with what will become the principle theme throughout the game: the player is dragged into increasingly dangerous actions that he can only loosely control. You awaken in the backseat of a car with a driver who is fleeing the cops in the Lincoln Tunnel. As the driver steers into incoming traffic while maniacally laughing, the player is immediately frustrated at not being in control while insane mobsters are operating the car. The fact that the game design lets you swing the camera and take a few shots before the crash only reinforces this helplessness. The game then transgresses into being an FPS similar to the Call of Duty duck and cover play style. You have no explicit health bar, ammo must be checked by tapping a button, and things proceed generically until the demon (The Darkness) manifests itself. Although it has been a weird voice-over for the opening levels of the game, when it takes over Jackie’s body control is literally jerked from the player. The swarm of mobsters that have surrounded you are horribly killed…but it’s all done from a Half-life 2-esque perspective that looks exactly like how we play the game. It again establishes the theme of having control yanked away from the player, only this time it is now performing actions that the player themselves, within the context of the game design, are capable of doing. Contrast that to a cutscene of Kratos doing a bunch of flips that would be impossible to implement in regular controls: the game design is flaunting your possession just as the character of the Darkness, narrative-wise is doing the same thing.
Alone this would be nothing but a fairly gimmicky narrative/game design device. What the game does is then flesh this violation of control out with a combination of Deus Ex-style dialogue sequences and load-screen diatribes. In regards to the latter, it’s simply the protagonist giving a short speech about his feelings towards the story. Imagine Bioware’s tactic of telling backstory in load screens taken to a much grander scale. Whether it’s the protagonist talking about being beaten by his Uncle or how much he loves his girlfriend, it gets in talking time without making the player sit still more than they would anyways. As for the dialogue sections, Jackie can move around New York City and receive various side quests from homeless people, old mobsters, and friends. What makes these extremely interesting is that there are no benefits in-game for doing these missions. You get some unlockable content that can be viewed if you quit (usually a comic book), but there’s no money, weapons, or change to the plot to be had by doing this. You are also expected to behave respectfully in-game. If you walk away while someone is talking, they get upset and ignore you. If you point a gun at them, they get offended. By having no reward for these somewhat demanding side-missions the game presents an interesting option: are you such a good person that you want to actually help someone for no personal benefit?
Yet having non-rewarding missions is just one way that the game explores your eventual self-destruction, it even goes so far as to present an option for sitting down and not killing people. Just think about an FPS featuring that and you appreciate what a bold move it is. It starts with the options presented with your interactions with Jackie’s girlfriend, Jenny. Since all of the loadscene diatribes are founded on Jackie talking to Jenny (in darkness), we already have begun to develop ideas about our relationship with her. That she isn’t there to respond facilitates the player putting their own impressions on her. When you actually do meet her, the player is confronted with explaining to her why he is in trouble with the mob and the people you’ve killed. The options are startlingly frank: ‘Protect her from the truth’ is one while ‘Tell her the truth’, if selected, puts the player into an incongruous position. Jackie doesn’t want to and instead lies. Whatever you tell Jenny, she immediately assures you that you’re not really a bad guy and invites you inside. Just as doing the side missions offers no real incentives in-game neither does hanging out with Jenny. All of the exchanges with her involve mostly standing or sitting doing nothing. The Darkness, frustrated at this downtime, will declare, “She reeks of innocence!” It potentially gives voice to the more violence-prone players, while those who think of Jackie as a decent guy caught up in some trouble will be more resistant. The only reward you get for sitting on the couch for an extended period is Jenny saying that she loves you and kissing you. Yet if you want, you can watch ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in its entirety in-game with her. What better analogy for Jenny’s belief in you, the rampaging protagonist, than Atticus Finch defending a man everyone else thinks is a rapist? She is the one person who thinks Jackie is worth redeeming.
While it doesn’t provide an option for pacifism, the game’s plot does emphasize that as Jackie’s bloodbath continues so does Uncle Paulie’s (the villain) wrath. As you wage a mob war with one another, your friends and family who you’ve been helping in the side missions get sucked into the mess. At one point, the player meets up with Jenny and sees the chaos left after Uncle Paulie has blown up your childhood home. All the while, the Darkness is making cruel comments and snide jokes, again echoing those players who would rather be shooting than listening to the story. It’s the dichotomy that the player is torn between: does one spend time developing selfless relationships or be a cold blooded killer? Is Jackie a decent person struggling against oppressors or is he just an asshole with a gun? The conduct to be either is possible. All of this culminates in what is probably one of the most tragic cutscenes ever to grace a videogame. Jenny is kidnapped and murdered in front of us. Again, it’s all Half-life 2 style and again, the Darkness has taken control from us. Claiming that “she was a burden, this is freedom”, it is a manifestation of removing that choice of staying with Jenny from the player. It is taking away the option of being a decent person. With her death, there is no longer a need for a game design with a happy ending or for anything but rampant destruction. There is no ludonarrative dissonance because our one source of options for non-violence (the only passive activity in the game is sitting with Jenny) has died. Plotwise, Jackie’s rampage is equally expected.
Jackie’s suicide because of losing Jenny yanks control from both the player and The Darkness and ends with him being placed in his own private hell. Rather than be irksome, it magnifies how upset Jackie is because again, in Half-Life 2 style, a gun is put to our mouth in as shocking a manner as Jenny’s loss. To Jackie Estacado and the player, Hell is a World War I battlefield. Once you collect yourself, you are put out on a mission to gain control of the Darkness so you can use its supernatural powers. Yet Estacado is eerily unwilling to explore the implications of The Darkness being just as responsible for Jenny’s death as Uncle Paulie. He instead needs those powers to get his revenge and throughout the game we are complicit in that necessity. Without the Darkness activated, we lack the shield it generates and will be ripped to shreds in most gunfights. You must accommodate the demon by destroying all of the lights so it can stay healthy. In order to level up the demon, you have to feed it the hearts of people you’ve killed. In this way the game design draws the player into actively feeding and supporting the Darkness, despite its damning nature, just as much as Estacado does. In the final moments of Hell, Jackie is even partially told how to free himself from the demon, but he isn’t interested. When the Darkness is finally weakened, the player can only merge with it so he can keep killing for revenge. It is a decision that would be bothersome for many people were it not for the fact that the game design has already made us utterly dependent on the creature. The ludonarrative dissonance is again circumvented in this moment because the game design has drawn us into Jackie’s decision to keep the demon so that we at least appreciate his motives. There is still one more person that needs killing.
The game design makes us complicit with the tragic ending because the Darkness is steadily gaining control of us with each death and consumed heart. The fact that you cannot become strong enough to survive without helping the Darkness makes this dilemma all the more difficult for the player. You have to do it to progress in the game and hunt down Uncle Paulie. In the final level of the game, the Darkness again takes control of Jackie, just as he did in the opening and with Jenny. As in those other moments, it is all actions the player himself can do such as killing swarms of people or taking down a helicopter. The Darkness literally robs the player of experiencing the last level by playing it for us. The final moments confront the player with a curious illusionary choice: kill Uncle Paulie and lose your soul to The Darkness or…nothing. You do not have any other alternative. Merging linear game design and plot, the final scene of the game forces the player to confront the truth. Sitting with Jenny was the only game option that didn’t involve killing, without her the player is just feeding the Darkness and losing the metaphorical war inside Jackie’s soul. In this way, the game design supports the linear narrative by providing motivation and necessity for the player that coincides with Jackie’s choices. When Jenny died, so did the choice we could have had in that final moment.