Reading over Rob Zacny's excellent piece on The Darkness II, You Don't Know Jackie, I realized I had never actually written what I wanted about the game; particularly since I rather enjoyed the first one and felt it has been an under appreciated game. I don't necessarily disagree with Zacny, about the tiring aspects of the arcade point shoot-em-up qualities, or the fact that the centuries old brotherhood you're fighting doesn't really propel the plot in an interesting fashion. However, what I took from the game was its thematic concerns with what reality is.
The first game's brilliance came in how it questioned free will, particularly in a videogame. Whenever I am asked about moments in gaming that truly affected me, my mind jumps back to that moment where the titular Darkness stops me from interacting with a cutscene. It is a cutscene: I'm not supposed to be interacting with it, but the fact that the game went out of its way to make sure I understood why, was particularly brilliant. The rest of the game blurs in that fashion, but it was such a defining moment that it had me wonder what exactly Jackie had control over.
The answer was: whatever I could control, and nothing more. Jackie had no free will. He was a puppet not only to the Darkness that lived inside him and controlled him forcibly at times, but my controller, which dictated how he even fought, which powers he learned, and moved him about as a doll in particularly dark set pieces.
Given such, I am less interested in the small pieces that make up an Aristotelian plot diagram for our anti-hero Jackie Estacado, and more interested in what the game tries to push in terms of philosophical questions.
There be spoilers ahead!
In The Darkness II, this happens to be reality.
Between sections of accruing points from impaling, slicing, and shooting enemies, there are segments where Jackie ends up in an asylum. The premise is that Jackie may well be delusional and crazy: the same cast of characters he deals with in the other world (mostly consisting of his mob companions and his antagonist) are there -- including his dead girlfriend Jenny. The doctors treat his visions about the Darkness and stories he tells as a dangerous episode. It's certainly not a new storytelling technique, but it hasn't quite worn out its welcome, particularly when dealing with demonically possessed mob bosses.
All of this is fine and dandy until you reach a crucial point in the game: do you accept the asylum's reality and stay with Jenny? Do you instead deny this reality, reject the asylum, and jump to your death?
The former option sees you dancing with Jenny, the game over. It ends with you dancing with Jenny, as you have in a former portion of the game (an actual illusion, no matter which way you slice it), which begs the question of why she is being so chummy to Jackie. Either she had connections to Jackie before, and he is not a crazed stalker with a fixation on one of his mental health care workers, she just happens to have had that profession, or this is the false reality.
Of course, what constitutes a false reality in games is difficult to say: is Jackie happy? In this ending, he is no longer shown to be harming anyone, and at peace.
The other ending sends Jackie to hell, to find he has awoken the Angelus, which has taken Jenny's form. He has no peace and is stuck in Hell.
Neither ending is ideal, and the question of which is 'real' largely becomes which we prefer. It is difficult to say either is the 'real' ending, particularly as I like the thought of ending Jackie's torment, even if that might be because he is stuck in a fabricated world where he is a prisoner in a mental asylum. In that world he is no longer necessarily cursed with the Darkness, and caught in a neverending cycle of violence as he visits it upon people, to have it come back on him, and then seek to revenge himself.
Much like the comics on which they are based, I'm not particularly interested in the finer bits of The Darkness mythos. It reads as pulp that isn't to my taste (I actually picked up one of the comics, regretting it once I read through the pamphlet in my hand). However, it would be great if the game universe kept pushing questions such as this, with the minimally amusing gameplay, and managed to downplay dead girlfriends coming back as angelic figures in a cliffhanger ending.
Perhaps in another reality, they have that game.