I took to the role of Death with great aplomb when I played Darksiders II recently and later that same day I had the chance to speak with game director Marvin Donald. Although we didn't question the nature of Death in an existential fashion, we did discuss how he feels about his game being compared to The Legend of Zelda, the stranger worlds through which Death walks, whether this will be a four game series and how much we both like collecting loot.
RPS: Let’s talk about the PC release first.
Donald: I’m a PC gamer myself!
RPS: Then we're already friends. The first Darksiders came out on PC a while after console.
Donald: We’re not going to wait that long this time.
RPS: Is it simultaneous then?
RPS: Excellent. The biggest change is the protagonist. First of all, was Death always this guy? Did you always have this specific vision of him?
Donald: We knew who he was as a character long before we knew he was going to be starring in the sequel. I didn’t know about it until right before we started development, I don’t know if that was because creatively the change of protagonist was made just before the process began, or if I just wasn’t involved in the initial conversations because obviously a lot of us were focused on getting Darksiders I finished. It was definitely a challenge because we had to redo everything.
RPS: In a lot of ways the hero is the game, because everything is designed about what he can do and where he can go.
Donald: Yeah, we did have the advantage of building on existing tools though. We’d already figured a few things out. My primary responsibility on the first game was the animation. I have a different role on Darksiders 2 but early on in the development of the sequel I spent a lot of time on that, but one of the challenges with the first game was figuring out what the animations ought to be. How long they last, how they influence combat and dodging.
We’d already figured out those things so that took some time out of the development process. We knew exactly how fast to make a run cycle for instance, how to engineer a jump, what part of the animation is in the air, how long that lasts, when things loop…
RPS: And how to provide cues to the player through that as well?
Donald: Exactly. A lot of that stuff we had worked out, so it wasn’t like we had to start from scratch because we had a knowledge base to build on even though we had a brand new hero.
RPS: In terms of the idea of the dungeon, the level, having to fit the character, that means even though it’s a sequel it feels very different because there are new abilities.
Donald: That was a huge challenge.
RPS: It looks very different as well, it’s a lot more surreal, there’s a strangeness to the world-building.
Donald: We’re all a little – I don’t want to say disappointed – but let’s say creatively speaking the setting for Darksiders, the first one, wasn’t where our hearts were. We’re not the kind of studio that wants to do ‘normal’. We can do present day settings but we’re going to have to do something pretty exaggerated with that, like destroying it with the apocalypse!
We need to push it way out of the norm and I think a lot of us were yearning for the ability to have more traditional fantasy environments, where you don’t have the city streets or the smashed up cars. It’s really just a dungeon. Or it’s a really beautiful exterior that’s got trees and forest, a canyon.
RPS: There are a couple of moments I’ve seen where you see the vista stretching out before you…
Donald: Yeah, you can definitely do stuff like that that’s cool in a modern setting but we wanted to pull it back in time.
RPS: People may feel they’re familiar with Death, that they know him, and the settings, Heaven, Hell, so how important is it to show them that this is your interpretation, this is how you see things. I guess, how much do you borrow from elsewhere and how much is purely your own?
Donald: We don’t borrow that much. It’s definitely our own take on things but we still benefit from the presumed knowledge that people have.
RPS: And that lets you play with those expectations.
Donald: Exactly. We’re well aware of what people are generally looking for, what they think they know about Death or any of the four horsemen, but the details are ours.
RPS: The world I’ve been playing today, there’s a mechanical side to it, then the ruins, there are a lot of touchpoints but it still feels like a unique place.
Donald: The first area of the game is the hub of the race we call the Makers and they are great builders. Relatively speaking it’s not really about technology per say, it’s about size and scale. You learn through the course of the story that they’re responsible for building everything, from Heaven and Hell, great cities for both sides of the universal spectrum, if you will.
So they’re sort of neutral, although they probably err on the side of good for the most part but they try to stay out of things in terms of conflict. That said, they’ve got these big foundries where they are working with lava, stone, and there’s definitely some magic involved and that kind of thing. You see a lot of that in the area you’re traversing.
The point of that place was to build a giant stone kind of golem that they were going to use to protect themselves from the main threat in the game that recurs throughout. That’s called corruption and the golem was their means of protecting themselves but they weren’t able to complete it. One of the tasks you have is to help them finish what they started.
RPS: One of the things that I thought coming in today was that because the story is simultaneous with the first, there was a danger of retreading old ground. But it’s about as different as it could be while still telling that story.
Donald: There’s very little overlap.
RPS: From what I’ve seen, there isn’t any. When you said it was frustrating to have the real world setting and now it pulls the curtain back here, shows what’s happening elsewhere. There are four zones, right?
Donald: There are four key zones. There’s also a beginning zone but that’s an area to introduce the player to what’s going on, to the new character, and how to traverse at a basic level and to the combat. It’s like a prologue section.
RPS: And then you have the Makers here. I know you don’t want to give too much away but will we explore different cultures in each zone?
Donald: We like to play with opposites so you’ll be going from a place that represents the beginning of things to a place that represents the end of things. So you’ll be visiting the Kingdom of the Dead almost immediately after you complete the first zone. We definitely want to have some contrast going through the game, so the player feels like they are in a completely different place.
RPS: And in terms of overlap and avoiding it, presumably there are points where the story intersects and reminds the player what’s happening elsewhere?
Donald: Oh yeah. Definitely.
RPS: You probably can’t answer this fully, but when you made Darksiders 1 did you ever think there are four games here. Four horsemen, four games.
Donald: You know, what we do for Darksiders 3 is directly linked to this game. It does change things depending on success because even from the beginning we wanted to do a four player, choose your own horseman kind of thing, but that’s four times the game. Unless you want an experience where the characters are exactly the same.
RPS: Just reskinned.
Donald: Yeah. Obviously we don’t want to do that game. Even in the sequel, Death has a different feel to him and we wouldn’t want to pull back from that moving onto Darksiders 3. Ultimately we’d love to have all four horsemen and if Darksiders 2 does really well and we have the budget for it, yeah. But we don’t have anything concrete planned.
RPS: War feels like a gamey character. He’s big and he runs around and smashes things. I had no idea how you’d choose to do Death. At what point did you decide he was going to be this spider-like, agile creature. Was that a design decision or was it tied to your fiction as well?
Donald: It’s a chicken before the egg kinda thing. I don’t really know what came first. It just sort of made sense to us and gave us the opportunity to make the game more responsive in general and provided a character to showcase that. There’s a lot of things about Death, creatively and technically, that forged the new experience. If that makes sense?
RPS: It does make sense! Did you ever get sick of the Zelda comparisons?
Donald: We like them because we love Zelda.
RPS: It sometimes seemed a little lazy to make such strong comparisons. There are similarities but, particularly now with the sequel, the biggest difference seems that Zelda games have Link, same guy, same abilities more or less. Did you consciously think we don’t want to do that?
Donald: It’s a hard question to answer. I don’t know that it was necessarily a mantra that had to be adhered to from a design perspective but there are certain methods to design that we like to think are our own and the result puts in a place that’s different to the typical Zelda experience, even though we are clearly inspired by it.
I just think it happened organically that way. I don’t think anybody was specifically saying “don’t do this thing that Zelda does”. It was more along the lines of, “here’s the right way to do a few things” and then figuring out how to roll with that and make our own experience. What you’re commenting on is the result of that but I can see how it might look like we intentionally avoided going that path.
RPS: It feels like part of it was looking at War and saying “what could he not do?”
Donald: There’s definitely some of that. There are certain things that would have been out of character for him. We feel like we got to the edge of that with a few things in Darksiders 1 but I think from an outsider’s perspective, it was consistent enough so that nothing really stood out.
But, yeah, I think Death is a refreshing change by comparison.
RPS: I think people are forgiving of some lack of consistency because one of the things they enjoyed in the first game is that it kept giving them new stuff to play with. If sometimes that feels out of character…
Donald: At least it’s new.
RPS: It’s rewarding. Bringing me to loot. Things popping out of chests, Diablo-like.
Donald: That's brand new!
RPS: The way it springs out…
Donald: Here’s a fun surprise for you! They're not treasure chests, they're piñatas!
RPS: There’s a guy holding a huge door open for me, straining under the weight, and I’m running around smashing barrels because they might have a hat in them. Is it randomised?
Donald: A good portion of it is. We’ve got a tier system that’s represented by the item names, coloured a certain way. So if you’re on the loadout screen with all of your loot, you can gauge how powerful you are by how many white, green or blue items you have. Or how many purple items.
I think most people enjoy the experience of getting everything up to purple status. That kind of thing, that visual scoreboard kind of thing, is a lot of fun.
RPS: There are weapons as well as clothing, including new versions of the secondary weapons. But the first time you get one of those will it be introduced and explained?
Donald: For the most part. There’s a tutorial system that we’re still working on that will guide you through how to use them the first time you find them.
RPS: But then you can find better versions.
RPS: But they’re not just better, are they? There isn’t necessarily an ideal version because I was finding stuff that maybe does less damage but provides other abilities. So there’s customisation rather than just boosts?
Donald: You’re definitely encouraged to build your own Death.
RPS: It’s bizarre. Today, I’m picking things up and compulsively collecting bits and pieces that I can’t keep.
Donald: I know! You can never have this saved game. But when you play through properly, you’ll see the story and it’ll all mean much more to you.
RPS: I was reminded of the Alice games in some of the design.
Donald: Oh geez…
RPS: That’s a good thing!
Donald: I know. It’s awesome actually. They were beautiful.
RPS: It’s the same kind of otherworldliness.
Donald: Oh, just wait ‘til you get further into it. Things get a lot more abstract!
RPS: Part of the problem with Alice is that the visual design was superb but there was very little to keep me going except to see more.
Donald: That’s not enough when you’re playing a game.
RPS: I could just flick through an artbook.
Donald: Or watch a movie.
RPS: It’s important for me to feel like I’m getting better at a game as I progress.
Donald: You should feel that the character is improving but also that you’re becoming more competent at controlling that character.
RPS: And now it’s time for me to go back to the game.
Donald: Enjoy collecting more loot. That’s probably my favourite new feature actually. Getting stuff and hoping that you’re getting better loot than your friends.
RPS: Do you have sets in the loot?
Donald: Yeah and they give a bonus when combined.
RPS: That’s my biggest weakness in Diablo. I find one piece and I’m not happy ‘til I have it all.
Donald: Oh, absolutely.
RPS: Can you harvest loot in this, do things respawn? Enemies drop it, don’t they?
Donald: There’s some possibility of farming, yeah.
RPS: Oh yeah. Farming. Not harvesting.
Donald: I knew what you meant.
RPS: I’m glad because I'm not always sure.
Donald: You can do a little bit of farming and grinding, we support that if you want to play that way. Go see what you can find!
RPS: Thanks for your time.