Microthoughts-Darksiders: Style vs. Substance

I have difficulty mentally placing Darksiders.  Given that I just beat the game, that’s probably a sign that either something’s a little odd with the game, or something’s going wrong with my mind.

You know, I’m not ready to admit I’m losing my wits just yet, so let me make a case for the former.

“Style over Substance.”  You’ve probably run across a bunch of games that fit that description in your player career.  That applies to Darksiders as well, but in a bit of a different position, as far as that goes.  A weird position.  Usually, the games that’ll focus on the art, the story, the FLASH! before the gameplay will end up with creatively bad games.  Games that try at least one or two unique and interesting things, but do it badly.  Not so with Darksiders.  For one, it’s not a bad game.  What it does do, it does well enough.  Just, outside of the visual designs, it doesn’t break any new ground.  The game has a very distinct visual design, and a gameplay that screams basic competency.  Which I’m finding really interesting to think about.

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I get the feeling that the initial creative meetings about the game were a lot of fun.  And the concept art seems like it’d capture every single thing the creators love in characters.  Do you like crazy amounts of accessories, eclectic placement of skulls and sigils, and pure, concentrated 90s antihero dark age comics design in every character and beastie?  All right here.  And you know what?!  You play as War!  Horseman of the Apocalypse!  Which has already happened!  Heaven vs Hell!  In a city in ruins!  You love it!  You know you do!

The game buys into its character and general visual design so much.  You can feel that coming through in its DNA.  They are excited to show you the next Cool Guy, the next crazy detailed item, the next area, every little bit they could thrust some more visuals at you makes them happy.  And they love their little world here, their whole self-contained mythology and the Hell-dominated post-apocalyptic landscape they have you traversing and fighting through.  They are proud of everything behind those two facets, and you can feel it coming through.

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It’s just strange to me that they’re so creative in that area, yet you don’t feel that coming through in their gameplay.  Which to be clear, gameplay is good.  It’s fine.  You can tell they knew what they were doing.  You can’t even call it uninspired.  It’s extremely inspired, by obvious sources.  Combat is a simplified version of the Devil May Cry/God of War character-action stuff.  Dungeons are simplified takes off the Zelda model.  The rest of the world is a basic 3d Metroidvania.  It’s all fine.  But it’s not anything more.  It doesn’t try to be anything more.

I guess the big thing that’s sticking in my mind is the dichotomy there.  When something is creative in one way, it’s often creative in other ways as well.  That spirit of creativity travels across tasks.  But not so here.  It’s like all the creativity got sequestered in the initial design meetings, then forced on everyone else who were just wanted to make something different.  I’ve got this image in my head of Joe Madueira or however you spell that and all the other high level creatives being super passionate about their ideas and the rest of the team just going along with it without really buying into it.  Leaves you with a bit of an odd mix.

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Those characters do look super cool though.  In that 90’s antihero dark age comics kind of way.

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2 responses to “Microthoughts-Darksiders: Style vs. Substance

  1. I’d say Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series qualifies as style over substance. It’s basically a series of popcorn action flicks in game form, but it doesn’t really offer much outside of that save for a few good story beats here and there and the vague semblance of character development throughout.

    Anyway, Darksiders is one of those games I’ve heard about, but never really got around to actually trying. Also, I kept thinking people were talking about the similarly named Darkstalkers. Nonetheless, I find it irksome whenever a work of any kind is content with throwing its style in your face in lieu of doing anything interesting with it.

    • Yessssssssss Uncharted falls into that so blasted hard. In fact, I’d say it’s lack of substance makes it much harder to appreciate the style, which is one error Darksiders didn’t suffer from. In Uncharted, I kept finding myself frustrated with the dumb leadless platforming sessions or the poor controls in the combat to appreciate to cool shiny interesting things they were trying to show me. That frustration spread through everything else.

      I agree, throwing style in your face without doing anything with it. It’s like “Look, ideas” as if that’s enough, when what you really want to see is that idea explored, see some impact from it, watch it go places. I feel like indie games in particular are at danger of that, as many of them are built around a single unique idea, but enough of them knock it out of the park doing that that I can’t begrudge the form for that brand of experimentation.

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