The Darkness: A Greek tragedy for the video game age0 Comments
Valentine's Day has come and gone, but there are still more romantic tales to recount from the realm of video games. As long as there have been love stories, there have been tragedies. Cupid, who for all intents and purposes has become the mascot for Valentine's Day, was a Roman deity born out of the Greek god Eros. In ancient Greece love stories were often told as part of classical tragedies and gigantic epics, where lovers were only reunited after a long and arduous struggle, and sometimes not even then.
These narratives set the stage for almost every dramatic storyline about a hero who vows to save his love from the evil that has driven them apart. Super Mario Bros.? The Iliad. Assassin's Creed: Black Flag? The Odyssey. Homer was pretty much the classical equivalent of Nintendo and Ubisoft combined, and between him and the other tragedians, they paved the wave for modern love stories.
There is something about tragic love that makes the subsequent drama so much more compelling and heartfelt. Even a story like Romeo & Juliet, where we know exactly how the story is going to unfold, we inherently feel an attachment to the characters that we are aware are going to die because of their love for one another. These star-crossed lovers, as Shakespeare called it, have come to define love that is separated because of outside forces, a theme that resonates through video games.
When I think of tragic love stories and star-crossed lovers, I can't recall a more heart-wrenching example than Jackie Estacado and Jenny Romano from The Darkness. What begins as a romantic story between two people from very different worlds ends abruptly in a horrific tragedy, as our hero Jackie is forced to watch the love of his life murdered before his eyes.
During my first playthrough of The Darkness, I was absolutely beside myself when this happened so early into the narrative, after only getting to know the two as a couple briefly. When Jackie arrives at Jenny's apartment to celebrate his 21st birthday with her, he's greeted by a genuine smile and a pet-name that only a girlfriend could get away with; "rat-face." The two make an adorable couple, with Jenny playfully chiding Jackie for his gruff exterior and general moodiness.
Jenny is completely in love with Jackie, which makes her oblivious to his real life even if you take the time to try and talk to her about it. I always loved that there was the option to tell Jenny the truth about what happened earlier that night, when you slaughtered like 10 people, but she just laughs it off and asks you to curl up with her on the couch. You get the option to snuggle up all cozy with Jenny before continuing your mission, and I'm glad in this case I took the opportunity.
After Jackie continues to hammer it to Uncle Paulie's mob, Jenny is kidnapped by the Don and his police captain henchman and taken to the orphanage that she and Jackie grew up in. The scene that follows is one of the most intense moments I ever had to watch in a video game, and I still have a hard time viewing it. Jackie is forced by the Darkness to watch for a full five minutes as his girlfriend is beaten while he is simultaneously being blamed for it by Paulie and questioned about it by Jenny.
It's a horrible scene to bear witness to, and one that culminates in the death of Jenny and an all-consuming rage that fuels Jackie Estacado and his demon parasite for the next two games. Jenny tries to tell Jackie that "this isn't your fault" right before the trigger is pulled, but both of them know that isn't the truth. If there was ever a driving force that would cause someone to hunt another person down to the ends of the earth, and in this case to Hell itself, there is no question that this is it.
Much like Romeo & Juliet, the absolute despair of seeing his love dead was enough to push Jackie over the edge and cause him to commit suicide. However, the Darkness wouldn't let him go so easily. What follows is a back and forth between the Underworld and reality, as Jackie hunts down Uncle Paulie and his corrupt cohorts and makes them pay in the most visceral ways imaginable.
While Jenny only features peripherally for the remainder of the game, it is always apparent that she is a central focus to Jackie and the only reason he's pressing on. After the Darkness completely consumes Jackie at the end of the game, he wakes up in a dream sequence on Jenny's lap in a park. There is no closure, but one last opportunity for Jackie to relive his last moments from their life together. The scene echoes the earlier instance when they're watching TV, and you're left wondering what it could be that allowed the star-crossed lovers one last moment together.
The Darkness II picks up two years after the end of the first game, but Jackie has not forgotten about Jenny or what caused her to be taken from him. The narrative continues Jackie's descent into madness as he torments himself over the loss of Jenny. While the second game is fairly short, there are a lot of intense psychological and philosophical themes crammed in, as Jackie once again travels between reality and an alternate plane of existence.
After awakening the Darkness once more and being captured by The Brotherhood, an organization out to steal its power, Jackie suffers a near-death experience and is told by his parasite that Jenny's soul is still alive in Hell and being held prisoner. This is enough to get Jackie to do anything that the Darkness asks of him. From this point, the game follows Jackie's external and internal struggles as he attempts to decipher the truth from his demon's deception.
A large portion of the game takes place in a psychiatric ward that Jackie wakes up in every time he is near death, staffed by his mob and his long-lost love. The more time that Jackie spends in the ward as the game progresses, the more he wants just to find Jenny and remain there with her for the rest of his life. If it wasn't for the Darkling, a manifestation of the Darkness that seems to want to assist Jackie over its master, there is a good chance that Jackie might have chosen to remain trapped in this limbo permanently.
In fact, even with the Darkling attempting to persuade you that the hospital is a purgatory meant to keep you away from Jenny, Jackie has a hard time coming to grips with his realities. There comes a point where Jackie starts to hallucinate Jenny even while he is still in the real world, and he takes his life once again in an effort to save Jenny's soul and finally become reunited with her.
It's an emotional and tragic scene, and one that results in Jackie ending up right back in the psychiatric ward surrounded by his former mob. They offer to take him to Jenny, who tries to convince him that his entire life as a mob boss has been the delusion and that his real life is here in the hospital. It's a real catch, and there's no concrete way of knowing which world is reality, which is represented by the ultimate choice at the end of the game: stay in the asylum with Jenny and everyone you know, or reject the idea altogether.
This is one of the few games where I would argue that the "true" ending for the game may not actually have the outcome that was most preferable to our troubled protagonist, who only ever wanted to be reunited with Jenny. If you choose to commit suicide one last time from the roof of the psychiatric hospital, you are plunged into Hell where Jackie finally comes face-to-face with the real Jenny after mentally subduing the Darkness.
After Jackie frees Jenny from her bonds, the two embrace and Jackie is finally able to apologize to Jenny for everything that happened. She quiets him with a finger, and the two share a moment as Jenny tells him they "don't have much time." The screen fades to black and the credits roll, but before long the scene comes back into focus with Jenny telling Jackie one last time how much she loves him before apologizing and stepping away from him.
Jenny reveals that she has become the host for the Angelus, the antithesis to Jackie and the Darkness, who has no choice but to imprison him in Hell because of the suffering that he has caused. Much like how Jackie is not himself when the Darkness is in control, Jenny is completely taken over by the Angelus at this moment. She flies away as Jackie screams upwards into the abyss, and the cameras fade to black for the last time. Many critics and gamers alike considered the ending of The Darkness II to be a cop-out, but I firmly disagree with that on the grounds that the developers were following the classical tragedy.
The narrative incorporates a traditional literary device that is right at home with the tragic love story, the deus ex machina. The term is Latin for "god from the machine," and is a literary tool created by Greek tragedian Euripides to resolve a seemingly unsolvable problem at the end of a narrative, usually by some unseen force or new character. This mechanic has been used for a plethora of literary effects, most commonly when an author has written themselves into a corner, but it can also be used to surprise the audience and bring the story to its heels.
My preferred ending to the story sees Jackie stepping away from the roof and taking Jenny's hand. If you choose to remain in the asylum, Jackie will slowly dance with Jenny as the camera fades to black, to the 1934 classic love song "I Only Have Eyes For You." Even if it is all only in Jackie's head, this is the only way that he actually gets to be reunited with his love. It may not progress the story to a "true" ending that will never be resolved because there isn't likely going to be The Darkness III, but at least Jackie's story ends exactly where he would have wanted it to.
Wrapped up tightly in Jenny's arms.