Afterwords: Darksiders

by Ben Reeves on Jan 18, 2010 at 10:45 AM

Usually when an upstart development house comes forward with an ambitious new IP it's bad news, but Vigil Game’s Darksiders delivered the thrills of a puzzle filled Zelda-syle quest amidst a post apocalyptic Fallout inspired world. Vigil even managed to throw in a little God of War for good measure. While this turned out to be a good combination, Darksiders didn’t quite live up to the titans it tried to emulate. (Where were all the side quests?) Using reader and staff generated questions we explore the highs and lows of Darksiders with Vigil Games general manager David Adams.

We had a lot of fun with the game, but we noticed that a lot of the gameplay elements seemed inspired by other games. Was there ever a fear that Darksiders wasn’t going to seem original enough?

Honestly, we never really thought it would be a huge issue. We focused our time and effort on making something that was fun to play – and if people enjoyed playing the game, then I think we succeeded. The other important thing to note is that, while we were inspired by many different sources (as all game developers are), I feel like we combined those sources together in a unique package. The experience as a whole is hard to find in another game – the combination of combat, exploration, puzzle solving, third-person shooter sequences, character upgrading, collection, etc – sure those elements are individually available in other games, but I think the synthesis of all of them together is where we were truly innovative. On top of that, we did add a reasonable amount of our own unique ideas.

The game pays obvious homage to titles like Zelda and God of War, but were there any games that might not be so obvious that served as inspiration during Darksider’s development?

The funny thing is, when we first set out to make this game I had personally never played God of War. I’ve played it since (and loved every minute of it), but it wasn’t part of our initial inspiration. Zelda however, I won’t deny – I love Zelda! As for other inspiration, we were generally inspired by all the great action/adventure games we played in our youth, which developed and grew with us into adulthood: Metroid, Castlevania (a huge favorite over here) – honestly I could go on and on. One thing those of us who started this project all share in common is a genuine love of video games.

The game’s story has a lot of interesting elements but at times seemed a little confusing; what were the main sources you drew from while shaping the game’s narrative and how did you go about plotting the overall arc?

We started with a very basic premise – play one of the four horsemen – and everything sort of grew organically from there. We had a very “game-centric” philosophy to the story, meaning we figured out how we wanted the game to play out, what kind of experiences we wanted the player to have, and then crafted a story to fit that. Not sure if that’s the best way to tackle it – I’m not even sure there is a best way to tackle it – but that’s what we did. So, in essence, one of our biggest sources of story inspiration was the game itself, and what we wanted the player to experience playing through. Beyond that, because of Joe’s involvement we wanted the story to have the feel of a cool comic book – larger than life characters, big stakes, etc.

In games like this, side missions are often something that the fan community gets really excited about, but Darksiders doesn’t have much to distract the player from the main quest. Was this a deliberate design choice?

Our original plan had much more side-quest related content. More NPCs, more non-story related quests, etc. We really wanted to build a world filled with people to talk to and things to do, on top of the primary story line. Unfortunately, this is one of those things that had to be cut do to time and resources.

When we first started to hear about the game it seemed like the other three horsemen were going to be a bigger part of the story. What happened? Was anything else trimmed down during development?

When we first conceived of the game, we were completely and utterly insane. Our original incarnation consisted of all four horsemen in full four-player co-op. You can even find concepts of the other horsemen floating around the net which were generated during our initial design phase – when we thought all of them would be in the game. At some point we came back down to reality. We were a new studio, with a really small team (four people – who even attempts a game of this scope starting with four people?), and the scope of the game we wanted to build was too big. Eventually we decided that building the first game around one of the horseman – as a sort of introduction to the franchise – made much more sense.

How useful was it to have Joe Madureira help conceptualize Darksiders? How much did he contribute to the overall design of the game?

It was extremely useful! I am personally a huge fan of his work, and have always thought that his style translates very well to video games. I worked on most of the bosses in the game, and sometimes I would get a lot of inspiration just by looking at one of his drawings. There is a lot of character in energy in what he does that makes it easy to draw ideas from. We were all fairly involved in the design, including Joe. Since we started the studio as four people, it’s kind of hard for everyone at that stage to not be heavily involved. His input was probably more prevalent at the high level – coming up with high-level ideas, dungeon ideas, boss ideas, story hooks, etc. But he also provided input after the fact on functioning levels, creatures, etc.

For action games it must be hard to balance combat in such a way that casual players can understand it and yet hardcore fans will also be able dig in and experience something richer. How did you approach this problem and how well do you feel you balanced those two opposing factions?

One thing we tried to recognize early on was the fact that our game wasn’t a pure action game. We went through phases where we had a more detailed combat system spec’d out – something that would appeal more to hardcore hack and slash action fans – but we quickly realized that combat, while important, was only one aspect of our game. We really wanted puzzles, exploration, character development, etc… to play important roles, and to integrate well with each other and with combat. To that end, we probably erred a little more on the side of “casual” combat, as opposed to hardcore. However, we did try to put a few nuances in there that a hardcore fan would enjoy.

Since Darksiders is steeped in so much religious mysticism, was there ever concern over backlash from the church?

We did our best from the very beginning to separate the content of our game from any religious sources. We took some basic elements: angels, demons, the four horsemen, the seals of the apocalypse – but beyond that we tried to make it obvious that this was a unique fiction completely separate from any religious material. We never thought there would be any backlash.

Conversely, was there ever concern that those who are staunchly irreligious might lose interest in the game solely because of the subject matter?

No. I don’t think anyone playing the game would get even the slightest hint of “religiousness” from playing the game.

In the 360 version we noticed a fair amount of screen tearing; why did this happen only on the 360, and will we see a fix to this in a patch?

This is just one of those things that managed to slip past the radar. It’s quite extraordinary when you think of all the effort that goes into testing a game: we have studio level testing, corporate level testing, first-party testing, etc. The reason it occurs on the 360 is because the 360 is not v-synched, so the frame-rate will often jump well above 30 (closer to 60 in many places), and it’s in those really high frame-rate areas that you start to notice the screen tearing. The PS3 version is v-synched to 30 fps, so the screen tearing is almost negligible. We are definitely putting out a patch to fix this (and it should hopefully be live by the time anyone reads this!)

In the last dungeon players have to fight the same boss several time and we thought it got pretty old; why did you guys fall back on this fight so many times?

That’s a classic case of having a really cool idea for something, then running out of time and not being able to do it. Originally, each time you fought the tower guardian the battle would progress – so, while you fought them three times, each fight was unique, complete with new moves, new weak points, etc. Unfortunately, the tower was the last dungeon we built, and we basically ran out of time. We had to prioritize other aspects of the game, and as a result the three fights against the guardian ended being somewhat repetitive. We tried to shake up the experience by changing the elements in the room somewhat – but it definitely didn’t come out as cool as we had originally intended.

It seems strange to tease a sequel at the end of the game when we’re not sure if there will be a Darksiders 2. Are you guys worried that you might not get to return to this universe?

I guess we had a lot of faith in the game. From the very beginning we’ve always mentally assumed there would be a sequel – heck, we’ve mentally assumed that there would be at least three Darksiders. If we were being practical, it would have probably made sense to hedge our bets – but if we were REALLY being practical we would have never tried to start making this game with a team of four guys, none of which had console experience. Practical isn’t really our thing.