Interview: Seth Olshfski on The Darkness II

Darkness22

The Darkness is one of my favourite comics of all time. Not for the story or the violence, but more the way it constantly evolves with new artists and writers. The games are evolving, too. At a recent Insert Coin(s) event (pics here) I had a chance to chat with The Darkness II’s producer, Seth Olshfski. We talked about the game, his career and pet hates. Click over for the full interview.

The red underwear isn't his. Promise.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a producer for 2K Games and I’m working with Digital Extremes on The Darkness II. I came into my career on the original The Sims expansion packs, arguing over which stuffed animals to include, and then I went on to The Sims 2. Both were awesomely successful. I then went on to an MMO company which, sadly, went bust. That was huge learning experience for me. Then it was on to MTV and then to 2K Games. Right before this, I was producing BioShock 2, and now The Darkness II. So that’s The Sims 2, BioShock 2 and now The Darkness II. Seems like I rock the twos.

Were you a fan of The Darkness before you started the project?

I was a fan. Not so much of a fan as some of The Darkness fans are, but I remember playing it and being like, wow, that was a great story. Some of these guys started painting Jackie Estacado pictures on their walls! It was different coming from BioShock 2 to this. The fans are very enthusiastic: ravenously enthusiastic. I was in it for the story.

The Darkness game took some amazing risks, narratively. They were stunningly effective. Having you connect with Jenny by having her buy you a cake and then later sitting on a couch with you and watch TV. Crazy! There was an actual movie to watch in the game. Then to have her shot in front of you. It was intense stuff!

Seeing eye to eye with The Darkness can be painful

What about the comics?

A lot of Marc Silvestri comics, through the stuff he’s done for us. I’m kinda the guy who has to demo the game to him when he’s around and it was a weird experience showing him The Darkness II. We had gone dark on pre-production for a very long time and, with the first game being self-contained, it [the narrative] was finished.

We had to start from scratch, so it took a while to figure out where we were going with it. Because of that, there was a long period of time where Marc wasn’t in the conversation. So when we brought him in, we showed him the restaurant scene from the demo; we were literally holding our breath. Thankfully, he was smiling from ear to ear. It was Marc and Matt Hawkins [one of the founders of Top Cow Comics] and they just loved it.

With the story such a huge component of the original game, did you want to keep that same style, or are you taking it in a new direction?

A good story can be action. It can be languid. It can be fast. A great story has to be all of these things, and pacing is the key. You need to have a calm moment after an exciting moment or else you can’t appreciate the next exciting moment. You’re dull to it. You have to balance the game’s highs and lows. It’s about keeping the player engaged or else it becomes predictable, and then you get over the game. What we have in our game that was in the last Darkness game is an impeccably tailored storyline. We planned every moment down to the last detail, our game is… I’m trying to avoid being a potty mouth.

No. Please swear…

Okay then. Our game is a bit more of a mind fuck than the first one. Taking scenes like Jenny’s death from the first game, the impact that has, and bring that into this game. For example, the twins in the restaurant scene. You sit down and they are giggling and so on, and then have them shot in a weird and unexpected time in the narrative. That kind of thing.

Oh God! My ride home!

What was the most important thing to get right from the word go?

Narrative. In service of story, it’s fundamentally the key thing. No matter what your draw card was for The Darkness, the narrative was a big thing, and you can’t lower that bar; you have to raise it or you are making someone else’s game, not The Darkness II. Everyone on the team, from the environment artists to the level designers, had to understand that: that everything was done in service of story.

If we are giving you an ability to throw the Darklings, for instance, we asked ourselves, “Does this help story?” No? Okay. Give them personality. Make them look scared while you are holding them. Make them say things to you like, “I hate when you blow me up,” and that grows their character, which is in service of story.

There were things from the first one that we wanted to go further with, like gameplay. We really wanted to raise the interactivity. In the first game, it’s kind of an origin story. You start with no powers and a gun. By the end of the game you are this amazing badass with supernatural powers that can kill people with a black hole. You can’t really go from there and then backtrack to having nothing. That’s really lame! You have to start the game as a complete badass and grow him from there.

In the first game we see at the end in the mansion, Jackie’s powers go fucking wild and start trashing everything. When we watched that we were like, “Yes! All day, all the time!” So control over the demon arms was a must. We mapped left and right buttons as the demon arms and allow you to use them dynamically. Like, with the left demon arm, you can pick up a car door and use it as a shield, shoot through the window, then throw it at someone. Stuff like that.

So now on to you. Do you have any pet hates about games?

One thing that I hate, and most of us working on this game do, is when you progress through a game and you get to be more and more badass, get more and more skills, and then you have to assign two of them to two buttons. Its like, if you are so badass then why do you have to narrow down what you can use? That seems kind of silly. With The Darkness II, we have a talent tree that’s 40 talents deep. It has four branches. You know: guns, demons, etcetera. If you played through the game multiple times and unlocked everything, they are all still on the controller. No switching. I hate switching.

Hanging out with my friends...

Last question. Everyone has ‘that game’: the one when there is nothing else to play they will fall back to. What is your fallback game?

Half-Life 2. It’s kind of my Citizen Kane of gaming. It was one of the first games I played with a fully realised world, and I put my whole brain into that game. I was so there. The story was your experience of the environments and the game flowed so well between the environments. The game was so clean. So well polished. It was one of the first true modern games. It wasn’t you watching stuff happen. It was you doing stuff and that was a huge leap forward for gaming.

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Joshua Philpott

Tech MacGyver
Games writer, podcaster and tech wizard. Obsessed with obscure horror films, crazy gadgets and caffeine. Passionate, argumentative and open minded. Freelance writer and co-founder rawDLC.

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