Note: the following text is the script of the video.
The lore and characters of the Darksiders franchise are pretty epic, but I don’t feel the same way about the plots of the individual games. A lot of story time in Darksiders is spent doing errands for other characters before they will help you, which seems beneath the, uh, horsemen of the apocalypse.
It’s worst in the most recent game, Darksiders Genesis, which keeps the characters on a hamster wheel almost from beginning to end, without the those characters or the situation they are in developing in any impactful way.
The structure of this game may be a limited factor. Darksiders Genesis is a linear sequence of missions, where most of the story has to occur before or after the gameplay sections. But there’s another game with almost exactly this structure, also set in an epic fantasy world, and it has one of my favourite stories in gaming, and that is Warcraft 3.
What makes Warcraft III work is that things change: characters have goals and make progress towards those goals, they make decisions that cause the story to proceed in one direction or another, and the circumstances and the world change as a result of what happens in the playable sections.
Some examples. At the start of Warcraft 3:
- Thrall needs to lead his people to Kalimdor. He is given the instruction by the profit, but the path to accomplishing this goal is determined by his own decision. He chooses to team up with the trolls, then he chooses steal the humans ships so the orcs can sail away to the new continent. Thrall is setting in motion the changes to the state of the narrative.
- The next playable hero is Arthus, who decides to purge Stratholme instead of listening to his friends, leading him down the path of vengeance along which he is ultimately cursed.
- As a result, the human kingdom of Lordaron falls to the undead… permanently. I think in World of Warcraft, the undead still have control of Lordaron, and that’s 20 real-world years of storytelling later! Those are some pretty big consequences for Arthus’s decisions, and those occurred early in the game.
To compare, the first missions of Darksiders Genesis:
- The horsemen, War and Strife are send to the void by Samael.
- Then are told by Samuel’s associate Vulgrim to find a magical crystal.
- Then Vulgrim tells them to find the eye of scrying,
- Then Vulgrim tells them to collect a map,
- Then Vulgrim tells to kill the demon Mammon.
This is not a narrative, this is a checklist.
War and Strife do what they are told because they don’t seem to have any better plan, even though some of these missions benefit Vulgrim or Samuel more than they benefit the horsemen.
In Warcraft 3, at the halfway point of the story, characters, the world, everything, is in a very different state to how it started.
In Darskiders Genesis, at the halfway point of the story, we’re still in the void getting ordered around by Vulgrim and Samael. Nothing of substance has changed, and we don’t seem to be appreciably closer to the overarching goal of finding Lucifer.
This story around this sequence of missions has something in common with a sit-com: everything have to return to the status quo at the end of each episode.
The decision to find the magical artifacts could have been made by one of the horsemen, instead of Vulgrim. You might expect War, going his name, to be good at strategy, so have him make a plans about their next course of action, instead of him just being told what to do.
After we find the character Dis, she could have an ongoing role in the story, instead of just becoming a store keeper. Dis is Vulgrim’s slave, but the horsemen never free her. So maybe she escapes, sides with Lucifer, becomes a new thorn in our side, have her change and develop.
When the horsemen defeat Mammon, they find a vault of gold, and the game takes pains to explain that they cannot use use any of it. Well, why not? Have the horsemen take control of the wealth and use it to their advantage, or just use his lair as a new base to launch their next mission from.
Besides, what are the consequence of killing Mammon? Is there a next in line to his throne? Do his leaderless forces join Lucifer?
Now the horsemen are taking some active steps towards their goals… but shouldn’t Lucifer be taking some active steps against the horsemen? Like, actually sending some of his agents to kill them instead of being an absent antagonist, in the background for the entire game?
And probably most importantly, this game sets up a reluctant alliance between the horsemen and Samael, a partnership of convenience. It’s probably the topic that gets the most lines of dialogue devoted to it in the whole game. Shouldn’t there be some conclusion to that, some payoff? The horsemen should probably at some point say, actually, this deal doesn’t work for us any more, and leave, making an enemy out of Samael. Or Samael should do the same. It should come to a boiling point. They refer to this tense alliance constantly, and do nothing with it.
It’s a shame when a game has cool lore and cool world building, but doesn’t put the thought or effort into the narrative of the events of the game.
It’s especially a shame when it’s a game that is as otherwise good as Darksiders Genesis. It has gorgeous animation, addictive exploration, a clever system for strengthening the characters, and fun combat. The one thing that lets it down is the plot.