The Weight Of Failure: A Close Reading of The Darkness II

[This discussion centers around the ending of The Darkness II. Spoilers aplenty. Proceed at your own risk.]

Doctor Vic says, “You die here, you are really dead. It’s over.”

A disgruntled Jackie Estacado stands at the edge of a rooftop, poised to jump.  Doctor Vic, Jenny Romano, and an orderly block the stairwell leading back into the mental hospital from which Jackie has just escaped. Doctor Vic employs logic and reason to coax Jackie away from potential fatality. Jenny tries emotion, pleading with sincere worry for Jackie’s welfare. A fall into the courtyard spells death for Jackie; resignation signifies a different variety of finality—indefinite incarceration within a mental hospital.

Even as Jackie decides whether or not to end his life, his choice becomes obscured in a haze of doubts. Jackie toys with the acceptance of two opposing realities that have been jockeying for dominance throughout The Darkness II. In one reality, Jackie fights a shadowy organization for control of the Darkness, an ancient evil power that transforms its host into a living weapon with grizzly ability; this is the reality known to those familiar with the series or its source material. In another, Jackie, a mental patient, struggles against delusions of grandeur that suggest a grotesque power fantasy gone awry. This is the reality described in the preceding paragraph, which appears in brief levels between The Darkness II’s action-heavy chapters.

The choice developer Digital Extremes pose to players at the culmination of this scene isn’t so much about right or wrong, but instead perception and motivation. Right and wrong speak to objectivity or at least consensus; perception and motivation hint towards subjectivity. Due to subjectivity, reality is unstable and prone to distortion. Those suffering from mental illness, psychological disorder, and even severe duress may find themselves at the mercy of the mind’s power to warp and obfuscate truth. As a result, they can only rely upon phenomenological reality, or what is immediately present to a consciousness.

Most players, particularly those familiar with the original game, should have no problem discerning between the game’s objective reality and its phenomenological counterpart, the mental hospital, a construct of the Darkness. Since games do not often ask players to discern between objectivity and phenomenology, the choice appears easy. In order to push the game and its narrative to their natural conclusion, Jackie must terminate this secondary reality.

Standing on the precipice of perceived life and death, I stall for a moment. As the player, I know I must jump. This is how to make the game progress. But as Jackie, I pause. I consider Jackie’s life (as seen within the games), as well as his experiences in the mental hospital, and I’m not sure he wants to keep going. I’m not sure I want keep going.

While so many games present choice as contingent upon morality or player incentive, The Darkness II does something different. The game offers no incentive to remain in the mental hospital and yet, it possesses allure. Narrative, rhetoric, emotion, and permanence commingle to form a persuasive cocktail, adding nuance to the decision presented within this phenomenological reality. I feel compelled to stay within the hospital.

Jackie’s life has been anything but pleasant, and players have seen just as much through his eyes. Both The Darkness II and its predecessor create a personal connection with Jackie by immersing players in his perspective throughout the series’ events. My identification with and empathy for Jackie, as well as the game’s presentation, create a limbo in which Jackie’s identity and my own are fused.

As Jackie, I experience (and utilize) the inheritance of a powerful and malelovent force. I’m there when Jackie’s (adoptive) uncle Paulie kills the love of his life. I watch through a pane of glass, paralyzed by the Darkness, as Jackie can do nothing to save Jenny. I stare in the mirror as Jackie, burdened by grief, swallows the barrel of a gun and tries to end his life. The Darkness refuses to let its host die, and so I return to life and finish off Paulie. Along with Jackie, I struggle against hallucinatory visions of Jenny, the loss of more loved ones, and the Darkness’ attempts to indoctrinate Jackie with delusion. Finally, I kill myself once again to send Jackie to Hell in order to save Jenny, where her real self is being held captive by the Darkness. Instead, I wake up in the mental hospital the series has subjected Jackie to over the course of the second game.

Even more than Starbreeze, developers of the original game, Digital Extremes uphold the strong first-person experience by permanently locking players behind Jackie’s eyes in The Darkness II. His visage appears in loading screens where he spouts expository monologues in a vacuous space, but the game features no cutscenes and no breaks from being Jackie. You are Jackie.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the original game when Jackie and Jenny sit quietly on a couch, watching TV. I’ve experienced few games that could induce such a surreal quality of being, created through the game’s story, presentation, and perspective. Starbreeze were so dedicated to engrossing players in Jackie and his story that they crafted a sequence composed of everyday banality and it completely worked. A good deal of the scene’s strength lies in the fact that players remain in Jackie’s perspective. You don’t simply tap a button and watch Jackie and Jenny cuddle up on the couch; you actively participate. You experience this moment as Jackie would.

Digital Extremes follow another of Starbreeze’s leads by using Jenny to anchor players in the character of Jackie in The Darkness II. By the time Jackie has reached the rooftop’s edge, he has already agonized over Jenny endlessly, whether about death and her specter in one reality or her return from believed mortality in another. Jenny is also the Darkness’ tool to command Jackie. Her hellish captivity is a bribe to keep Jackie obedient. This is nowhere more apparent than in the scene on the rooftop.

Beyond any other justifications, the value of the mental hospital is predicated solely upon the presence of Jenny, alive and breathing. The Darkness corrals most of Jackie’s friends and acquaintances from known reality and transposes them into the mental hospital setting as patients, doctors, and nurses. The duplication—one might say, simulacrum—disorients Jackie by presenting signifiers without the presence of the signified; but an anomaly exists—Jenny. After chasing her ghost for so long, here was the real thing. Jenny is Jackie’s sole motivator in both games, alive, dead, or misperceived, and this carries over to his phenomenological reality. It is through her pleading as well as the framing of Jackie’s decision that I came to this discussion.

As Jackie considers his plunge, Jenny lectures Jackie about death, emphasizing its finality, before begging the question, “Don’t you wanna stay with me?” Immediately after the question, two prompts appear onscreen. One states, “Stay with Jenny” and the other, “Reject the Asylum.” Pull a trigger and make your decision. Note the phrasing of the choices: “Stay with Jenny” obviously preys on Jackie’s grief and weakness while “Reject the Asylum” speaks to the shedding of something larger. By rejecting the asylum, Jackie is choosing to see past the illusion of the mental hospital. Jackie is also throwing away the closest connection to Jenny he still possesses. Sure, it’s equivalent to burying your dead children in an Indian burial ground, but in the face of grief and loss, some comfort is better than none.

I won’t lie for the sake of my argument. In my initial playthrough, I chose to kill myself and leave the Darkness’ construct. I was trying to finish the game and I knew, based on the clues set forth by the game, the only way out was waiting at the bottom of the courtyard. Jackie also knows this. After pressing the corresponding trigger to reject the asylum, he says, “I wanna be with Jenny.” In making this choice, Jackie sees through deception. From there, players go on to Hell and the true ending, but I’m less interested in that. Even as the game’s shocking ending played out, I couldn’t stop thinking about what was on the other side of my decision. Though in real life, I suspect the decision I made—rejecting comfortable, alluring, powerful deception—was the hard (and correct) one, I was curious to see just how far Digital Extremes was willing to take their premise.

When players decide to stay with Jenny, they’ll be warped downstairs immediately. The scene flashes and Jackie is suddenly dancing with Jenny while The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” plays in the background. Jackie holds Jenny, swaying to the side and spinning in a circle. Jenny’s stares up at Jackie with blissful (and probably ignorant) contentment before laying her head against his shoulder. The scene fades out and the credits roll. That is the alternate ending.

There’s no conflict for Jackie, having taken the Darkness’ bait and ensnared himself irrevocably. Many players might view this ending as failure. Jackie has failed (the real) Jenny by joining himself to the Darkness and a hollow representation of the only light in his grim life.  But what is failure? Failure is defined as a ‘lack of success,’ but it’s also noted as ‘fracturing or giving way under stress.’ Players tend to focus on the former, as it relates to completion and clear expectations, but the latter offers so much more. Jackie’s failure (note: another subjective term) carries the weight of two games with it. The pressure built up from a lifetime of misery finally busts and Jackie accepts comfortable defeat.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I’ve experienced situations such as this. The truth we often ignore is that everyone struggles, whether we see it or not. Many persevere and carry on with their lives, facing demons and vanquishing them. Just the same, I can find endless games that offer satisfactory resolution, but I want to play games that offer alternatives. As Patrick Klepek said in his article arguing for the rewards of failure, “I want to get pissed off, feel sad, experience regret and engage deeper than the latest macho power fantasy (which I like, too!).” There are so many rich emotions games can to mine. Haven’t we had enough of all this bland happiness?

I’ve seen failure in games before. I tried to let Tali suffocate in the vents aboard the Collectors’ base in Mass Effect 2. The game forced me to reload my last save. There were no consequences. Contrary to this, The Darkness II ends even when you choose to remain with Jenny in the hospital. Sure, you can go back to the menu and reload the chapter—a feature in almost any game resulting from the ability to save—but Digital Extremes have put the credits here. This isn’t a glitch or a temporary choice; it (within the context of gaming) is permanent. Your hand is never forced, you’re never told to try again. Just as we grow up and learn to make choices for ourselves, the option always exists to give up and find some dark corner to occupy.  Our decision to persevere is made significant by a seldom taken but always present alternative: accepted failure.

In order for a choice to have weight, we must balance it against another of equal weight. By utilizing The Darkness II’s characters, narrative, and perspective, Digital Extremes creates two compelling but disparate options that each possess their own significance. The game fascinates me whether I persevere or fail, making for a thoughtful experience amidst all the bullets and carnage. We could use more of this.