“I think… What happens when you die? Well, you don’t really die. You come to a place like this. Except it doesn’t really feel like a place… It feels more like a memory.”- Jackie Estacado, The Darkness.
“I’ve been waiting to die for centuries.”- Anthony Estacado
There is a curse passed down through a family’s lineage that leads to undying. It is a burden made physical through snake-like tendrils and a demonic internal monologue. Hell is not a place but the baggage we carry. Or maybe it is a place. The Darkness doesn’t offer all of the answers to the questions it asks, but it definitely asks a lot of questions one wouldn’t expect to be grappling with in a mid-2000s Xbox 360 horror/mafia-epic shooter.
Death is everywhere in The Darkness. The New York City of this game is sparse, bathed in night and decaying. People wander aimlessly through the streets and train stations alike. Those who dwell underground, in the bowels of the subway system, are often the ones who seem the most alive. Most people die though, except for Jackie (the game’s central character). He is damned within The Darkness’s first twenty minutes. There is no buildup to what possesses him or why, it just happens. Matter of fact. A horrible circumstance. As the darkness flows through him, Jackie becomes more powerful and his penchant for violence grows unparalleled. He doesn’t understand why this has happened to him, but it has. And then there is his life in the family business—the mafia. There is drama and his Uncle Paulie becomes the central villain, even the cruelest things are kept within the family. The darkness has control of Jackie but there is still a light that guides him. Her name is Jenny and Uncle Paulie puts out that light with a handgun. Another revenge tale, this was the early-to-mid 2000s after all. Some people probably thought Spawn was still cool. But I can look past that because The Darkness earns how it plays with simple tropes.
Jenny is dead and Jackie seems to be next. A gunshot is followed by Jackie saying, “And that was the first time I died.” You see, for Jackie and the darkness, there is no death. Death is now a bad dream. Jackie’s body seems to stay in the real world as his body folds into the Otherworld—the home of the darkness itself. It is a dark place with twisted spires and an endlessly dark orange sky that cracks and breaks with lightning. It is World War I, or some form of it. There are trenches, soldiers, bolt-action rifles, biplanes, barbwire and no man’s land. But upon a closer look, everything is wrong. The soldiers are stitched-together patchworks of human beings who speak cryptically, and the enemy soldiers look stretched and wrong. Human skin that hides something monstrous and demonic. They growl and roar and try to kill Jackie as he wanders across this land that is not living nor dead. It is something worse and Jackie dives into the heart of it. He can’t die. The burden of the darkness is too raw, too heavy. Revenge pushes him forward while he tries to hold onto his humanity. Revenge made manifest as some corrupt, vile force—once again, another trope. But Jackie gives into that revenge, that lust. It is the only thing he has left and he holds onto it as everything around him turns to darkness.
Jackie meets a friendly face in the Otherworld. Tony Estacado, an American soldier in the trenches. He tells Jackie that he is sorry. The darkness was brought into the family by him all those years ago, but he never explains why or how. He doesn’t have to. It just happened. Now Tony exists in this in-between. What Jackie never finds eventually comes for Tony. Tony dies. The darkness kills him. It has told Jackie too much. Tony dies in peace. He’s been waiting so long and death eventually finds him. All of this occurs after Jackie “dies” for the second time. But he always wakes up. The Otherworld is no more and Jackie is just back in New York, the endless night and winding subway tunnels.
Jackie cannot die and so he can never see Jenny again. The world won’t let him have that. The darkness needs him. It toys with him, makes fun of his humanity and suffering, and taunts Jackie with the fact that he will never see Jenny again. As Jackie tries to take control of the darkness, he learns that the only way to do so is to give in, but he still tries to fight it. The last physical tie in his life to Jenny is Uncle Paulie, her killer and the game’s central antagonist. What will happen when is dead? Jenny will not come back and Jackie will still not be able to die, to have peace, he will continue on in his suffering until the darkness no longer needs him nor he it. The final act of the game hits that home. Jackie cannot die and the darkness will not let him, but it will let him enact his revenge as if it knows that once Paulie is dead then Jackie will be more susceptible to the darkness’s machinations.
So Jackie really gives in. Paulie is cornered at a mansion on a small coastal island. His henchmen guard him but Jackie and the darkness cut and shoot their way through them all. As Jackie lets go so does the game. This final mission is interspersed with first-person cutscenes where the darkness wreaks havoc throughout Paulie’s mansion. The darkness is in control, we are not. Jackie eventually finds Paulie at the top of a lighthouse. I am not sure if there are multiple ways to kill Paulie or a choice to not give in to revenge at all. But as Jackie, all I did was shoot Paulie in the head. A whimper of an ending to a somber, chaotic game. It felt right—no grand, bombastic act of violence or new meaning found in the death of Paulie. Like so much in The Darkness, his death just happens.
Jackie is still alive. We now see the first hints of daylight in a game caked in darkness. His eyes open. Jenny is there. She holds his head and strokes his hair. They talk. Everything feels right. Jackie repeatedly says that he is sorry and Jenny emphasizes that it wasn’t his fault. He seems relieved by that even though it isn’t true. Neither of them wants to leave this moment. One feels like they’d be content to spend forever on that bench, together. And then Jackie asks if he is in a dream. Jenny says yes. It was just a dream. There is no peace for Jackie, no relief. He is possessed with a (literal) darkness, but in a way, he is also possessed with life; a life that, for him, ended when Jenny died. He has memories of peace but he cannot live them. We know that the dream ends but The Darkness cuts to black before Jackie wakes up, and we know that he will wake up. He will wake up to the same darkness that tethered itself to him at the beginning of it all, not much will have changed, but Jenny will still be gone. Jackie cannot join her. For him, there is no death.