This Violent, Demon-Filled Horror Contains Gaming’s Most Romantic Moment
The Darkness released for Xbox 360 and PS3 in June 2007 and, despite being quite good, went on to be a major staple in the cheap preowned games bins of EB Games stores around Australia. The game, based on Top Cow Productions’ comic of the same name, was a gritty, violent, dark shooter that managed to stand out despite being released at a time when half the games being released were gritty, violent, dark shooters.
You played as Jackie Estacado, a mafia hitman who is possessed by a demonic power on his 21st birthday (the titular Darkness, played by Faith No More’s Mike Patton). This happens, conveniently, right as his mob boss uncle tries to have him whacked, and for the rest of the game Jackie can use weird demonic attacks, alongside a range of guns, to fend off Paulie’s goons. Players spent most of the game shooting up bad guys while occasionally summoning up weird demon tendrils from your body to tear their enemies asunder or scout ahead.
But as good as The Darkness was as an action game – and it really was quite good – its most iconic moment didn’t involve dissembling mobsters. The Darkness is one of those games that gives you a full body – when you look down you see your own legs, not just the space they should occupy. This is important for the game’s body horror elements, but it’s also used, in one wonderful, unexpectedly romantic scene, to explore the simple pleasure of being in an established, comfortable relationship.
Early in the game – after a few hours of murdering bad dudes while your new demon passenger snarls vitriol into your ear – Jackie pays a visit to his girlfriend Jenny’s new apartment. It’s sparse, with little in the way of furniture or possessions, and she’s got a birthday cake sitting on her kitchen table, which you can blow the candles out on.
Jenny can tell something’s up with Jackie, but there’s no point in telling her about the weird ghoul haunting him (it gleefully squeals “she reeks of innocence!” inside Jackie’s head). Jenny leads you over to the couch and a dialogue option appears, asking if you want to tell Jenny that you love her. You can try, but Jackie will stumble over his words and say nothing. It’s a very ‘early 20s dating’ moment.
From there, the game slows right down. You join Jackie on the couch and she turns on the TV, which is stacked precariously on a cardboard box full of records. To Kill A Mockingbird is just beginning. “Let’s just sit here for a while, okay?”, Jenny says, resting her head on your shoulder.
The game stretches the moment out. Jenny gets up to close a window, then comes back and puts her head back on your shoulder. Sit there for a minute and she’ll tell you that it’s good to have you there, that you calm her down. “I can feel your heartbeat”, she says. She puts a hand to your face and draws you in for a first-person kiss. It’s a genuinely lovely moment.
But then, something unusual happens. Jenny snuggles her head into your shoulder again. She dozes off on you. And if you want to, you can sit there on the couch for the entire runtime of To Kill A Mockingbird, watching the whole thing while cuddling your girlfriend. You can get up and leave at any moment, gently lifting Jenny off you and onto the couch, but if you want to stay, you can.
Very few games let us truly live inside a moment like this; I can’t think of any that let us experience something like this in real time, for a full two hours. It’s the part of a relationship that’s almost impossible to really capture in media – the drawn-out comfort of simply being in another person’s presence, of having their head on your shoulder, of not wanting to move. That moment where it doesn’t really matter what’s on the television, and you don’t need to talk, you’re just both happy to be there.
It’s not the best way to watch To Kill A Mockingbird, but it’s to the game’s credit that it doesn’t let you zoom in on the TV screen or anything like that – it stays focused on the embodied experience of being on that couch.
There are many ways love and intimacy can be conveyed in films and games and other media. But this scene in The Darkness is unique because it takes something mundane – the couch cuddle – and makes it feel as special as the real thing can feel when you’re with the right person. It puts you into that part of the relationship where just being next to each other feels safe and good and right, and lets you stay in it for over two hours if you want to.
It’s not something that we’re used to seeing, and its protracted nature is something that only a game could pull off.
Incidental romance in video games is often about the push towards sex (or the first kiss in more chaste games), which is frequently positioned as the end-point objective of your flirty dialogue options. This is something very different. Jenny is not there to be won, or to titillate the player, or to fulfil the desires of the male gaze – this is just a nice moment inside an established relationship. It’s not something that we’re used to seeing, and its protracted nature is something that only a game could pull off. To have a scene like this in the middle of a game this grim just makes it more special.
The rest of the game’s plot is reliant on your investment in Jackie and Jenny’s relationship, and sadly Jenny, somewhat inevitably, gets kidnapped to motivate Jackie’s actions not too long afterwards (without spoiling anything the plot gets properly hectic after this). This is unfortunate, but it doesn’t take away from how lovely this moment in her apartment is. There are no grand gestures or proposals or long-simmering sexual tensions coming to a head in The Darkness, just two kids in love feeling good about being with one another. Nearly twelve years later, that still feels special.