Darksiders: From imitation to homage

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It’s nearly impossible to explain an entertainment product without some sort of comparison. Any given action flick may be best described as a clone of Die Hard, an indie rock band might produce a cord that’s oddly familiar to something from a Smashing Pumpkins song and a modern-day platformer will probably wear its Super Mario Bros. inspirations on its sleeves. However, there’s a fine line between cheap imitation and a loving homage.

That line was one developer Vigil Games was forced to face on multiple occasions both before and after the release of its first two Darksiders games. The franchise’s deep roots in titles like The Legend of ZeldaGod of War and Portal were evident in its level design and gameplay. Dungeons with a striking structural resemblance to what’s been seen in Hyrule paired with combo-based, brutal combat that could compete with what’s been done in Devil May Cry were almost too blatant to deny. And while key developers within the group had fond memories of these classic games, they saw their product as its own entity.

“If you look at some of the comparisons we’ve gotten… I mean, where do you have a game that adds all of these elements in one place?” Vigil Games’ Lead Designer, Haydn Dalton, said in an interview with StickSkills. “I’d love for someone to show me where there is a game like Darksiders.”

These labors of love took years of hard work to plan, develop and ship to millions of excited customers, but it was the dismissal by some critics of the series as a whole that affected Combat Designer Ben Cureton the most. However, the comparisons, which broke each sector of the game down in an attempt to draw parallels to another product on the market, never shook the team.

“Aside from when people knock the game and almost wholly dismiss it because they believe it’s derivative, getting the comparisons doesn’t bother us,” Cureton said. “Every single game that gets brought up in comparison to Darksiders is a game that a real gamer, or game developer who’s a fan of games, is going to take as some form of inspiration. It’s really flattering.”

Some people were quick to write off the 2012 sequel, Darksiders II, as a conglomerate of elements originated elsewhere after experiencing the first game, but strong critical reception led the product to sell over a million copies across the PlayStation 3, PC and Xbox 360. The experience, while reminiscent of past greats, managed to carve out its own identity through a singular vision for the moment-to-moment action.

“There were so many mechanics and so many tools to keep track of that [the original Darksiders] struggled to find its own identity,” Senior GameSpot Editor Kevin VanOrd said. “In Darksiders II, a funny thing happens on the way to the apocalypse: it establishes an identity all its own, rather than one defined through the games that inspired its existence.”

What made Darksiders II feel like a more unique experience is difficult to pinpoint, but the developers cite tough development circumstances for a lack of risk taking in their first stab at this series.

Darksiders was built under difficult circumstances where we had to make decisions kind of quickly and sometimes, when you’re in that kind of position, you’ll do things the way they’ve been done,” Cureton said. “Darksiders II had a veteran team, we had an engine that worked and an IP we understood. So, there was more creative freedom for us to take risks.”

The respect present in the development team for those that came before them has always been palpable. Even if people continue to claim that the original game stuck too closely to mechanics introduced in other experiences, the good intentions within Vigil Games are clear. The life-long gamers fueling the franchise borrow not for the sake of mimicry, but homage.

“It wasn’t that we ever said, ‘let’s take a game, find something that it does well and put it in,’ we just put in the things we thought were fun in video games,” Cureton said. “The reality is, we’re just making a game that we think is fun. We do what we feel is natural and right for the game, and let our marketing guys worry about the rest.”

When not writing about all the latest and greatest happenings in the video game industry, you can find Josiah on PSN, XBLA or Steam (Lionheart377). He has a soft spot for classic, turn-based RPGs, but also spends a great deal of time jumping from platform to platform and shooting dudes in the head.