Interview: The Darkness II's Sheldon Carter On Cinematic Storytelling
[Gamasutra catches up with Digital Extreme's Sheldon Carter, project director on The Darkness II, to discuss the fine balance of telling a cinematic story while keeping players in the game.]
When The Darkness II ships in February next year (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows), while it will feature the same protagonist, hitman Jackie Estacado, and supernatural first-person shooter concept as the original, it will definitely play quite differently from its predecessor released over four years ago.
That's because Digital Extremes took over development from Starbreeze Studios, changed its visuals to better match the graphic novel it's based on (illustrated by Marc Silvestri, who helped define the look of Image Comics), combined Jackie's supernatural powers and gunplay, and made it an even more bloody experience.
The Darkness II's project director Sheldon Carter spoke with Gamasutra about its demo for the game at PAX Prime 2011, and talked about those changes, the sequel's new cinematic approach, and how it's working with writer Paul James and comic book publisher Top Cow Productions on the project.
The cinematic approach in the demo I just played was really striking, that seems to be a core mantra of this game.
Both games kind of share this, like…we want to keep you in first person, right? And we have a big story. It's the same writer from the first game, Paul Jenkins. I kind of wanted to keep that continuity in terms of storyline and even storytelling methods across the two. So, we never actually break first person. You're always going to be in the action.
In some games that might be a cinematic where you cut to third [person] and are kind of watching. But for our game, we're always giving you some kind of control during the cinematics, and you kind of never know when you might have to do something. Like at the end of this demo, you all of a sudden are like "Oh, fuck, I'm going to have to pull the spike free." So, it's stuff like that.
It seems like a tricky balance to figure out, the balance between telling the player to pay attention to the story during this part versus you need to be ready to fight. How do you find that balance? That moment you described in particular, I wasn't ready for it not because I'm a bad game player, but because I'm in a cinematic mindset, watching your movie unfold.
What we're trying to do, the one thing about the demo is that we kind of throw you in there. That sequence in the game is actually not done flashback style, it's actually one continuous sequence. And there are many other continuous sequences in the game where you have full control and you're actually called upon to do those things.
So, by the time you get to something that's crucial where "Oh my god, I could die if I don't do this right", you're kind of ready for that. You kind of know to be on your toes in the cinematics just in case.
It sounds like it's just a matter of staging things differently.
Yeah. And I like that. I like the fact that it helps keep the experience kind of fresh, too. You never know what's going to happen. Same thing at the beginning: you're walking in, you're dining with the two girls, then all of a sudden one of them gets shot in the head. That's kind of like…that's the approach we've taken kind of throughout.
I'm just reminded of like, Shenmue on the Dreamcast, if you've played that.
Right, right, absolutely.
Where for the most part all the cutscenes are kind of passive, you're seeing Ryu mope around like an idiot, but then all of a sudden out of nowhere, it's like, press X now because there's a soccer ball flying at your head.
It's probably, I hope, less jarring than that. But at the same time, most of the time when you're in a cinematic, you can always move the stick. So you have that pseudo control at all times, so it doesn't come out of left field at all. You kind of realize you've got to keep your hands on the controller.
Am I correct in assuming that cinematic aspect is prevalent throughout the entire experience? Not just the demo?
Absolutely. It's a game with a big story. We have a conversation system. You can go in and pick dialogue options with X and Y, so there are those type of scenes. And then there are the type of scenes that are like in the demo, where it's kind of full motion and you're in there at the same time. So, yeah, that's our approach to storytelling.
So what are your sort of high level approaches going into the sequel, as far as what you want to accomplish?
The three things we kind of started off with, the first was in service to story. That was like our first pillar. Because the first game had such an excellent story, that we want to make sure we're continuing that appeal.
The second thing is our art style. We call it graphic noire, and from looking at it…what we're trying to do is bring in the elements of the graphic novel that we love so much. We've got lots of colors, high contrast, obviously the lighting is a huge factor as well. And third is quad building. That's what we call when you're using both the demon arms and the guns at the same time.
The first game, the way it ended was you were basically quad building. That's how it ended…in a cinematic. You didn't actually get to control it. And so when we started off, that was a high-level goal for Darkness II. It was like, you know that part at the end where you were ridiculously powerful? We want that to be the base starting point for this game, and then to ramp up from there.
A striking scene in this demo for me was the opening in the restaurant. There's a lot of character acting going on there, a lot of unique assets… it seems like a very expensive thing to do for maybe one minute of exposition. I'm wondering how much of that could you feasibly put into a game?
The places where we chose to spend our resources on are the ones we felt like were setting the stage for what the character is and what the experience is. I think that's a great scene because it establishes Jackie as the don of a family. Getting a feel for him and his guy so that when you get into another level and you're having the conversation system I talked about with Vinnie, the guy who dragged you out of the back of the restaurant there.
When you're having those experiences, you as a player, you have that resonance with him. Because he's kind of been a part of you. So wherever we felt that we basically needed to set the stage for an experience, that's where we spent that capital.
How do you make those decisions?
Based on the script, I guess? Like I said, our first pillar was in service to story. So basically we got our script and we just went you know, oh god, here they all are. Here's all the scenes we're going to need to do like this. Luckily we've had a good amount of time to work on the game, so it hasn't been too bad that way.
Let's talk about your relationship with Top Cow. Both games are written by the comics author, Paul James. And I saw [studio founder and The Darkness comic creator] Marc Silvestri walk by a little while ago.
Yeah. Marc's awesome. Obviously he's inspirational from the side of we went with this art style because we were inspired by the drawings in the comic book. The first game was kind of hyper real and we decided to go a different way. We went with a more graphic approach because we thought hey, we're making this game based on this beautiful comic book. We were really inspired by those guys. And so when we started showing them what we were doing, they were excited about it. So we're good friends. It's been great.
What is the relationship as far as the input of the game? Do you kind of build the game and show it to them or are they a part of it from the beginning?
Yeah. Like I said Top Cow's input on the game is Paul being the writer. And like I said, we're developing in service to the story. So right at the beginning, at the genesis of the project, our goal is to make the best story-based shooter. That's kind of what we're looking at. And that's driven by the story we're getting from Paul. So our relationship, I guess is on the story side.
On the gameplay and artistic side, even though it's inspired by them, it's the other way around. We're like, here's what we want to do gameplay wise, and they're looking at it and they're like "Oh, awesome, we like the way it works." But they never…I don't know what the word is, but they're never disapproving. Paul is definitely coming to us with the story, and we're all working together on that.
See, when I hear that, it sounds like the opposite of the process that most game writers seem to recommend, which is to involve the writer in the design from the beginning. From what you're describing, this is a comic book writer writing a script and handing it to you, and you're making a game around it.
One thing to remember is that Paul has written quite a few games. I definitely simplify it by saying he comes to us with the script. He's in the studio with us, and we're talking about it…
So he does get to iterate based on gameplay needs?
Oh yeah. Like the scene that you just played where you're nailed to the cross, it's written in the script as "Jackie is trapped by Victor and the Brotherhood, and then he escapes." Right? And then we're like okay, let's crucify Jackie here! And we'll have a quicktime event to break free. We're going to have the syphon thing. So, it's definitely not a hypodermic approach where he's like, here's the script, and we're like okay we're go. It's definitely a two way interaction. And it's been great, honestly.