Like a lot of little kids I spent a good amount of my little kid money (miniscule) and little kid time (enormous) on buying and reading comic books. My favourites were always Spider-Man and X-Men with the latter holding the bigger part of the timeshare in my pre-teen imagination. Looking back on this period of time, it’s hard to figure out what it was about those comics that exerted such a pull. Now, in lieu of any clearer explanation, I suspect that the hours I poured into thinking about the characters and convoluted timelines of the X-Men had a lot to do with — bear with me — the bright colour palette used in the design of the comic’s cast.
Over time, though, the visual appeal of the X-Men couldn’t compensate for the futility of the insipid, repetitive storylines of the superhero comics and the vast amount of mental real estate that their hamster wheel narratives/character “progression” were taking up. Simply enough, like many other kids, I found myself caring a lot less about these kinds of comics as I got older and found other ways to entertain myself.
I hadn’t thought much about any of this until, very recently, I found myself turning ten years old again for several hours a day. This was because I began playing Darksiders, a videogame that, just like those comic books, was able to cover up its cotton candy fluffiness with a whole lot of flair.
The game’s visuals (the most obvious aspect of this) are a fascinatingly mixed bag of godawful overdesign and sublime technicolour. This effect is thanks to the influence of creative director/former comic book illustrator Joe Madureira, whose beefy anime-lite character design is omnipresent in the appearance of Darksiders‘ central cast. War, the protagonist, is a roided out wizard knight; his enemies and friends Judas Priest album cover demons vomited through the filter of a Saturday morning cartoon. It shouldn’t work, yet somehow the vibrant hokiness of the whole affair encourages a feeling of pure, videogame-y indulgence. It acts like soma on the unsuspecting mind.
This aesthetic — this weirdly narcotic combination of rich colours, beefy sound effects and straightforward gameplay mechanics — disguises the real trouble underlying Darksiders: the empty, nihilistic core underneath its pretty exterior.
The problem here — and its a pretty enormous problem — is that Darksiders simply doesn’t think much of its audience’s time. It assumes that the pleasure of simply playing the game is enough to cover an experience that is built solely on busywork.
This functions through every level of the game’s design. Exploring Darksiders‘ dungeons is an exercise in mental attrition: the player enters into a new level, is initially thrilled by the imaginative environmental concepts (the game is set hundreds of years after the Apocalypse and is filled with overgrown city streets, decaying, abandoned office buildings and flooded subway tunnels), begins exploring, finds a map and is then able to see exactly how much time s/he will be forced to spend unlocking door after door before gaining a new weapon/tool and, ultimately, defeat a boss. The first dungeon is exciting. Entering the second gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach akin to being asked to sift through a haystack for a needle.
Every instance of combat follows the same dull pattern. Darksiders opens up with the promise of worthwhile mechanics. The first weapon, a beefy sword engraved with big ol’ death metal skulls, comes with a handful of combo options and an accessory slot that tantalizes the player with deep skill and upgrade mechanics that are never followed through with. War finds other weapons and can buy new combos, but the game’s fights don’t require much more thought than identifying an enemy type’s weakness and simply going through the most effective motions to defeat it. A demon appears that the player has encountered before and, just like a blue dungeon door that opens with a puzzle-locked blue door key, is beaten by applying an identical pattern of moves (usually slash, slash, dodge; slash, slash, dodge; press the quick time button to initiate the canned killing animation).
Darksiders‘ other main gameplay element is the equally boring puzzle-solving. I’m not terrific with logic (insert joke about spending four years paying to study English and History), but the majority of the condundrums presented by Darksiders were pretty easy to solve+. Everything is extremely lock-and-key. Figuring out the solution to a puzzle typically takes no more than a run-through of the environment at hand and basic observation of what can be interacted with. The real work is in the tedious process of getting everything to where it should be. For instance, an engine block has to be placed on a given platform so that War can climb up to a higher ledge. The only other interactive pieces in the “level” are three elevators that ascend/descend in incremental heights. Before moving the block onto the first elevatator the game pops up a “hint” that explains how to use a brand new punch move to knock the block from one place to another. The solution is obvious: position the elevators so the block can be punched upward from elevator to elevator. The problem is that actually achieving this takes about ten minutes (longer if the block is accidentally hit off an edge and needs to be redragged and the moving pieces reset).
Unlike the breakthrough, “a-ha!” moments of discovery that constitute Portal (a pair of games that still host the only videogame “puzzles” I’ve honestly enjoyed), Darksiders approaches puzzles the same way it does exploration, combat and upgrading abilities. Everything is designed to work like a Rube Goldberg machine where input is required at every . . . single . . . step . . . of . . . the . . . long . . . and . . . complicated . . . process. Completing this process always provides a nice little piece of direct feedback (new item! new key! new weapon! new dungeon branch!) in order to encourage the player to continue wading through the boggy affair, but, at a certain point, that little Pavlovian mental twitch wasn’t enough to keep me going.
What to say, then, about why I spent around six hours playing Darksiders when I was already fed up with its design within the first two? It sure wasn’t the story (somewhat interesting, but with exposition bookended by multi-hour sequences that screech any semblance of narrative pacing to a halt). The deception of Darksiders all goes back to that candy-coated aesthetic — that colourful comic book sheen that distracts from the vapidity just below the surface of the entire thing. Yeah, it looks pretty neat when Wolverine and Cyclops and Storm are all lined up alongside each other, but do you really end up giving a shit about the minutiae of their rinse-and-repeat superhero stories after the initial pull of the aesthetic has faded away? For me, no. It ends up feeling manipulative and hollow — a series of cheap tricks where the audience is fed spectacle instead of substance — and a clear example of what videogames shouldn’t be.
+ Granted, I did not finish the game. The puzzles may get better, but nothing I played told me they were going to.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for game site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.