[Warning: There are spoilers about the original Darksiders throughout this feature. If you haven't finished it, be warned! You're safe on Darksiders 2, though. I haven't even played that yet.]
Darksiders was not a huge blockbuster when THQ and Vigil Games released the Zelda-inspired action adventure game in January 2010. It developed a devoted cult following, and over time, Darksiders seemed to rise higher and higher on players' backlogs. It created enough of a buzz for THQ to greenlight Darksiders II, released last week.
I became one of the many late-to-the-party Darksiders fans earlier this year, when my itch for more dungeon puzzles after finishing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword prompted me to finally pop in Darksiders.
Most of what I'd heard about Darksiders was thumbs up to a dark, violent Zelda game that we all knew Nintendo would never, ever make. (Would anyone actually want that from a "Zelda" game, though?) It lived up to that claim, but the game continued to surprise, dungeon after dungeon, even if its inspirations were plain and clear. Vigil Games did not seem afraid to wear its inspirations on its sleeve.
A few weeks back, I spoke on the phone with Ryan Stefanelli, lead level designer on Darksiders; Joe Madureira, creative director on both games; and Haydn Dalton, lead designer on the original and its sequel. For nearly an hour, we talked about the origins of the franchise, the lowest moments at Vigil Games while crafting the original game, and how the team creatively workshopped some of its more interesting design decisions. And, yes, we talk at length at the game's inspirations, and how the team feels about the comparisons.
More often than not, I don't include complete interview transcripts, but these three had such a rapport with one another that it seemed criminal to leave anything out. Here, below, is our entire conversation from earlier this month.
As a bonus, I asked the team to capture some footage from the original build of Darksiders, which Vigil Games used to try and sell the game, and ultimately lead to THQ not only picking up Darksiders, but Vigil Games itself. Enjoy.
Giant Bomb: Where were your minds at when you first started that project, and how has that changed, now that you've entered sequel territory?
Joe Madureira: Wow, that is a big question. [laughs]
Ryan Stefanelli: I'll take a shot at it. Joe seems befuddled.
Madureira: Befuddled? I'll befuddle you. [laughs]
Stefaneli: With Darksiders 1, we were so fixated on just trying to make the first game--I think it was all starry-eyed ambition, and it was all excitement and venturing out into the unknown. A lot of us, the four of us who started Vigil, had never done a console project before. Haydn had when he came on, but when we started, we were just...I don’t know, there was a big spirit of adventure, and I don’t know if we even knew what we were getting into, we were unprepared for it, and, in some ways, that helped us because we just...there’s that old saying “Nobody tells you it’s impossible, you don’t know it can’t be done.” We just put our heads down and started working.
When we shipped that title and started working on Darksiders 2, the mentality was definitely different because it went from “What’s this gonna be like? Boy, I hope it’s good” to “We made something pretty good, how do we make it better?” And I think we were working with expectation on Darksiders 2, which we really didn’t have on Darksiders 1. That made it a big challenge--we felt like we needed to improve on what we had, which was something we weren’t used to. We set a standard, and we needed to exceed that standard. We definitely put a lot of pressure on ourselves, but now that we’ve finished the game, I think everyone’s pretty happy with what the game became, and where it’s at. I think we feel like we accomplished our mission, so it feels really good.
Dalton: What he just said. [laughs] We definitely see a change this time around. Everybody’s picking up on every single piece of news on the game, whereas before on the first title, nobody had heard of the studio or anything. Because we have got that game to build upon, I definitely feel like there’s a bigger fan community now reacting to anything that’s put out by THQ. We see a lot of good feedback from the media, from players--it’s nice to have that nice bit of anticipation that really wasn’t there before on the first title. That’s really good for us from a studio point-of-view. The biggest thing, and we’re all nervous and a little bit excited at the same time, is because we want to give the fans what they got in the first one but so much more. It’s a bit of nervousness, you know? Biting nails.
GB: Take me back to what some of the first meetings were about this project. How long did it take to become the project that we know Darksiders as it is today? What were those initial conversations like, and what were some of the concepts that were getting thrown about?
Madureira: Early on, all we had was Dave Adams working on the engine. He had some cool textures and lighting and cages swinging around casting real-time shadows. It was like “Whoa, we could do something awesome with this.” The game that we wanted to make was definitely an action-adventure game, but we didn’t know what the theme would be. I had this little red notebook, that I still have to this day, and we would would write notes in it.
The ideas we had were crazy. There was some that were a little more cartoony and scaled a little younger, like this kid that had these animal powers, and it was very adventure-y. We had this Bionic Commando-ish kid that had a bionic arm that you could augment thorughout the game. We just talked about them, and none of us walked away excited. Then, I was literally driving home from one of those meetings, and I think maybe a superhero game came up during one of the meetings, but it seemed too cheesy at the time. But I felt that if it were darker and a little more edgy, post-apocalyptic, it might be cool. So I just started thinking about angels and demons in a modern city, and who would fight them. I don’t know what made the Four Horsemen pop into my head, but I just felt like they were an already created dark superteam. I called back, and everyone else was still at the meeting because they hadn’t left Dave’s house yet. I kind of pitched it over the phone, and they all got pretty excited right away.
From then on, I just started doing some drawings, and every meeting we talked about...we’d start bringing up new ideas, [but] we were pretty much focused on that one. I think we started talking to publishers pretty early on, and we already had a character running around--a horrible, horrible version of War, and some rudimentary environments with interactive [pieces]. You could pull switches, and walls would move, and we had a lot of traversal. We had wall-run working!
Dalton: Ballerina spin-attack.
Madureira: The game took on a life of its own. We didn’t know what was impossible, so we were full-on thinking “We’re going to make a four-player co-op Four Horsemen game” and we realized this wasn’t possible for us pretty early on. I don’t know. It just stuck. Publishers liked it, we were excited about it, and it’s one of those things...
Stefanelli: Going back to that janky demo, with the shitty War running around, that’s actually what we took to E3 when we were trying to pitch the game, and I think that’s what really sold the game but also us as a developer. We were just four guys, and yet here we were, not just with a pitch document, which is what most of these guys we were pitching to were used to--a write-up and a big dream--but we actually put the controller in people’s hands and let them see that we had some gameplay judgment. It actually felt pretty good back then. We fire it up every now and then, every once in a blue moon, and play back through that original demo, which was War traversing through a weird clock tower dungeon and fighting this big demon thing at the end, although you couldn’t actually fight him because he didn’t have any attacks. I think being able to put their hands on it and see that there was some understanding of gameplay finesse really sold people on our ability, as crazy as it sounded, to build this kind of game from the ground up.
We had the...what did we call him? The bellman. Joe drew him with these two gears, and he swung these broken gears in each hand, but somehow in the final execution, everyone who saw him thought he was fighting with tamborines! [laughs]
Stefanelli: Tamborine man!
Madureira: Anyway, that was probably a way longer answer than you wanted.
GB: No, no, no--I'm happy for the insight. It's interesting because I fall, I think, amongst a pretty large category of players that didn't play the game upon release but since it was one of those games that maybe didn't have a lot of commercial success right out of the gate but has this word-of-mouth. It was on the top of everyone's backlog. Now, with the sequel coming out, I'm among many people who have gone back. As a big fan of the Zelda games, I'd heard "Hey, this is a really good, dark, Western game a Zelda game." Even if you didn't have that momentum out of the gate on the first one, you've carried that over exponentially onto the second one. I have to imagine, from your perspective, that might have been frustrating at the time, but it must be gratifying to see how it's played out.
Stefanelli: Yeah, definitely. At the end, when we finished Darksiders 1, it was released, and by and large, critically it faired pretty well--83, 84 or whatever it was on Metacritic. A lot of people called the reviews mixed, and we got some of the negative comments that we did for being derivative, and a few people really disliked it, and there were quite a few that loved it. The thing that was the most satisfying for us was that we could tell from the fan response to the game, but also the fan response to negative reviews, that the people who were playing the game, the people who we made the game for, really understood it and loved it and appreciated it. I think that was one of the things that really motivated us going into Darksiders 2, [which] was realizing “We have some pretty crazy fans out there.” A year later, the game was being mentioned, talked about, it didn’t necessarily fade into obscurity like so many other [games].
Madureira: We made a lot of lists. “The best game that you missed last year!” We were constantly being brought up amongst, really, the best titles out there.
Dalton: Even some of the lower reviews gave us a 7, but then they’d write in the review that it was the most fun they’d had with a game in a long time. But because they said it was derivative, it brought it down and I was like “Isn’t it about having fun and the experience, rather than anything else?” We can definitely tell that we’ve got good fans because I went onto the community site just this morning or yesterday and there’s people still on there, and it’s been over two years! They’re still posting! Those guys are fucking fucking nuts!”
Madureira: My mom. [laughs]
Stefanelli: All our moms. [laughs]
Dalton: Even NeoGAF. NeoGAF is known to tear products apart and stuff like that, but on there we have such a great amount of people that are really picking up the game, defending the game, talking about the game. Just everywhere I go, it’s just such a change from the first one. I definitely think we owe a lot to the word-of-mouth of what people have done out there for us.
Stefanelli: I think to some extent it feels like we made a semi-cult classic type of game, which is gratifying.
Dalton: We’re a Memento-like game. Not a full on summer blockbuster, but that’s definitely very gratifying, too.
GB: I think the response, specifically to the derivative comments, is interesting. When I played it, it seemed like you guys let those inspiration, those homages, the things that you loved, the elements of games that you loved--you let it hang out there. It didn't came across that you were taking those elements from other games and putting them in because you couldn't come up with elements of your own. It seemed more like "Hey, this seems like a fun gameplay element, let's put this own into our creation," and it ended up feeling really original, even if you looked at the individual parts and saw some were plucked from other games.
Stefanelli: I think ultimately what you were seeing...certainly, we didn’t play any game and go “This is cool, let’s do this.” It was more like, as gamers, and wanting to make the kind of game that we wanted to play, we pulled from our pool of experience, and obviously we were our inspirations on our sleeves. To a certain extent, we could sit and argue till we’re blue in the face about the people who hit the game negatively for its derivative elements and say, to a certain extent, with very, very few exceptions, almost every game is derivative, and you can point out every game’s base inspirations. Very few games really do something that’s completely unique these days. Even that point aside, I just felt like the game worked, despite its roots, because it was made with some honesty. We just loved those games, and we wanted to make a game that we thought gamers who missed those adventure elements in current games would appreciate. So that’s what we built.
GB: When the game had the little chime that the Zelda series has when you open a door or done something, I just thought "That's really neat. That feels like a loving homage to this beloved part of the Zelda series." The term derivative implies there's a lesser craft to it. If copying was so easy I think more people would do it.
Madureira: Honestly, you could do it without the chime in there, and it’s like...Tomb Raider does it without the chime, and it shows you the door opening. But it’s just better with some kind of sound or acknowledgement. A lot of the times we just do what’s better, what feels best.
Dalton: A lot of the players like that. They like that. They like the fanfare around the...blowing the trumpet.
Madureira: Blowing the player's trumpet.
Stefanelli: Vigil Games, we blow players' trumpets.
Dalton: There’s definitely some influences. Obviously, anybody thinks they can go out there and copy it, but I’m sure they’d have a very difficult time doing it. The action-adventure genre is just a very hard genre to nail and do it well. There’s many people who’ve gone out there and done action adventure and just crashed and bombed. I think we went out there, as a first title, and punched way beyond our weight. People respect us for that, I think.
GB: Ryan, I'd read in an interview prior that you'd been working with Joe prior to the formation of Vigil Games. How did you guys know each other?
Stefanelli: The four of us who started Vigil--myself, Joe, Dave Adams, and Marvin Donald--all worked together at a small company in Phoenix. It was called Realm Interactive, and we were working on a small, budget MMO for NCSoft at the time, and that did/didn’t work out, NCSoft ended up bringing us out to work for them first-party, and while we were there, we realized, as we were going through a number of different experiences there, that it wasn’t where our heart was at. We all loved console games, and wanted to make console games. We started casually discussing the idea of making something on console, and I think at the time, we even ran it by NCSoft, the idea of doing a console MMO to use our interest, and they weren’t ready for it at the time. So we just said “Screw it, let’s just do it.”
We left NCSoft, and started Vigil, and that’s how we all met. We met many years ago, we’ve been working together for, what, nine, 10 years now, total?
GB: Is it crazy to think that you guys have been working together that long, when you actually say it out loud?
Madureira: Uh, yes, very. [laughs] It seems like only yesterday.
Stefanelli: It’s been ten years, but it only feels like nine. [laughs]
Madureira: We’ve been together almost as long as you and wife have. What do you think about that?
Stefanelli: I don’t think any of us have really known anything else. Maybe it’s time we start dating other people, Joe. [laughs]
Madureira: No comment. I’m befuddled right now. [laughs]
Stefanelli: I think it’s a testament that we all still like working with each other. Part of Vigil’s thing is that we operate like a little family. That brings some dysfunctions, but it also brings a lot of passion. We just like working with each other, the culture of Vigil, and being able to joke with each other and share good and bad news with each other. That’s what makes us tick.
GB: Going back through some of your interviews, one of the things I've noticed is that you guys are pretty open about features you wanted to cram into the games. What was the most gut wrenching thing you had to cut from Darksiders?
Stefanelli: I don’t know what we clung to the most, but it was definitely pretty tough when we realized “Okay, there isn’t a chance on god’s green earth that we’re going to be able to do a multiplayer game.” When we got to that point, we were like “Alright, it’s just gotta be single-player.”
Madureira: What about momentum run? That was terrible, it was a horrible idea.
Stefanelli: There were a few specific features that were a little off-the-wall, like being able to fly anywhere, and also this momentum run, where you could build up insane amounts of speed and jump like three city blocks.
Madureira: That was before we had a horse, though, and we were like “What if you just ran really fast, and you could jump?” Like The Hulk, basically. It was terrible! [laughs]
Stefanelli: High-level multiplayer, and when we had to cut loot. It was like “Fuck, we’re never gonna get this game done unless we cut loot," so we had to get rid of that. We had a bunch of crazy features, like momentum run, and at one point you could actually jump and grab onto any wall surface. Remember that? You could grab onto anything. The ceiling, the walls--you could climb anywhere. We quickly ran into the feasibiliy problems with those two mechanics. Again, it was part of that “we don’t know what’s impossible.”
Madureira: Now, we do!
GB: How does that change the overall process, then? It seems like, especially with the first one, to have that pie-in-the-sky mentality allowed you to think outside the box a little bit more then you would otherwise.
Stefanelli: I think we’re just more experienced now. We haven’t lost a lot of that ambition. When we started work on Darksiders 2, there was a lot of commentary inside and outside the studio that what we were trying to do was too ambitious, it was too crazy. Stick to what we did in Darksiders 1, just make Darksiders 1.5, get an easy win. But we couldn’t be satisfied with that, that’s why we did things like completely changing the main character, and going with a different combat feel. Adding crazy things like loot, leveling up, a full skill system, NPCs, a ton of zones, getting the horse right from the start, a huge world. Those are things, I think, most studios wouldn’t do, they’d stick to the formula they thought they had proven with the first game. But that ambition from Darksiders 1 remains in Darksiders 2. It was a little more focused. I mean, we did Darksiders 1 over the course of about four years, and we had about two-and-a-half to do Darksiders 2. We had to learn some lessons, but don’t get me wrong, that sort of core spirit, that we started with DS1, is still there for Darksiders 2, and will still be there for the next project also. We’re always going to stay crazy.
Dalton: We certainly cut a few features early on, like speed boots. We had a gravity changing ability, as well, that we switched out early on. We just knew when to cut things loose a lot earlier this time.
GB: When I played the game about six months ago, the way it had always previously been pitched to me from friends and colleagues was "Hey, this is the Zelda game that you know Nintendo would never make." I'm curious what you make of that comparison, because I heard it more than once.
Dalton: It’s obviously a very flattering comparison because I presume there’s certain things that are key about that title that are very similar to our own. I definitely think a big part about what makes Darksiders Darksiders is the level design. There’s definitely very similar traits between that title and what we do. We certainly don’t see it as a bad thing. I guess we only see it as a bad thing when we get dinged for very specific things and get read differently than other titles.
So, for instance, someone rated our combat up against something like Bayonetta, which is pretty hard when someone rates you against that, when that title is special--the only thing they are focused on is one part of something much bigger on our end. I think that’s where we think “Okay, draw the line, that was a little out of order,” but as for overall design, functionality and things like that, I think we definitely see that not as a bad thing at all.
Stefanelli: Like I said, wearing the inspiration on your sleeve. If you get held to that kind of company, I think that’s a good thing for our games and our studio. Obviously, it makes it sort of hell for marketing, and it makes it easier for other reviewers who see those types of comments to ding us because they go in with this preconceived notion that we are derivative games before they play it. Honestly, we love it.
If Zelda didn’t exist, Vigil Games probably wouldn’t because that’s the game that we most often quote as saying “that’s the genre we want to play in.” I think another reason why we get so many comparisons is because, look, nobody really runs in that crowd. There’s a reason there aren’t many games like Zelda--it’s because it’s really god damn hard to do. It’s really hard to make a game like that. The reason nobody calls a game a Doom clone anymore is because there’s a shitload of first-person-shooters. I mean, which one are you going to compare it to? There’s so many. The genre is literally saturated. But action-adventure games? It’s really easy to draw a comparison to Zelda because there just isn’t anything else like that. It’s the same with God of War. I mean, there are quite a few games in that genre, but, really, there are a few that stand out, like God of War, Devil May Cry. It’s kind of easier to draw a comparison between us because the breed is rare, but we knew we were going to have that problem when we went in. Like I said, not many people try to make games like that, but we loved it, so we wanted to anyway.
Madureira: Did you, in fact, say Call of Duty a rip-off of Castle Wolfenstein?
Stefanelli: [laughs] That’s what I’m saying! If there were only five first-person-shooters, and Call of Duty was the sixth, they’d probably get compared to Wolfenstein. But there’s not. They’re first-person-shooter number 6,000. Pick one. Which one are you going to compare it to? It’s not even worth people’s time to say a first-person-shooter is derivative anymore because of course it is.
Madureira: I think the important thing, though, is in the sequel, it definitely has an identify of its own. It won’t get the Zelda comparisons anymore. It’s definitely evolved into its own thing.
GB: From the writer and consumer perspective, it comes out of this being a new world, so the first thing you do is try to find a point of comparison. It’s the analogy you use then, but now that Darksiders is established, you can just say “Sure, it shares some of the tropes of the Zelda franchise, but now it is its own thing, and it shares similarities with Darksiders 1, as opposed to the Zelda series.”
Stefanelli: One of our favorite moments when we started working on Darksiders 2 was that somebody asked us what Darksiders 2 was gonna be like. And when we got that question on Darksiders 1, what are you going to say? Without making comparisons to another game, it’s hard to explain on its own terms. There’s this really satisfying moment when our general manager said “Oh, it’s like Darksiders 1.” [laughs] At that point, I think we realized we were becoming better developers because we finally had our own product that we could reference. “Oh, what’s Darksiders 2 gonna be like? Oh, Darksiders 1 with more stuff.”
Dalton: I think we all generally agree that with this one, there’s literally...we don’t think you can get the same experience of what we’ve got in Darksiders 2 in any other title that’s out there. There’s certainly not the mechanics and depth of world anywhere else. Jamming all those mechanics and systems into one place, I think it’s a bit of a victory for the studio.
Stefanelli: And we’ve talked a lot about how we defend sort of the derivative comments, but we still believe Darksiders 1 was a completely unique experience. The alchemy of elements, the stuff that we decided to put in that game, there’s just nothing else out there. There’s nothing else out there that’s like it, and Darksiders 2 takes that even further. You’re just not gonna get many games that offer you loot and character development like we have, while also giving you that type of truly top-rate action combat. We believe the games are now gonna start to stand out on their own for their own merit, now that we have a real name for ourselves and the series.
GB: Given the Zelda comparison, what's your favorite Zelda game?
Stefanelli: Ocarina of Time is mine. It’s the best game ever made.
Dalton: Ocarina of Time.
Madureira: I think it’s unanimous. [laughs]
Stefanelli: Whenever we have a design candidate in, I like to ask him “Hey, listen, this is an important question.” This is towards the end of the interview. “We need to know what your favorite Zelda game is. What’s the best Zelda game? And remember, there’s no right or wrong answer, except for the right answer is Ocarina of Time. Go.” [laughs]
GB: I would have said Majora's Mask, but I'm always a contrarian there.
Madureira: Ooh, Ryan is violent!
GB: When I was playing through the first one, it was probably an hour in before I realized I had to look up on IMDB whether Mark Hamill was a voice in this game. For whatever reason, I'm sure there was a press release, but it went over my head. How did he become involved? What was it like working with him?
Madureira: Mark was amazing. I’ve sat in on all of the recordings for the first game and most of the ones for the second game, and even though we’ve worked with some amazing actors--I think Mark is one of those guys, he’s just so good. I think we scheduled him for four or five hours, and he banged it all out in like an hour-and-a-half. Then, he sat around and told stories about Star Wars and all kinds of stuff. He nails it on the first read every single time. Most of the dialogue that is in the game was the first time he ever saw it or read it off the paper, and there really aren’t many actors that can do that. He’s just amazing. I knew that he was doing voice work and he was definitely our first choice for that character because he has kind of a smarmy, venomous slithery snake--humorous, too.
Stefanelli: You mean his voice, not Mark Hamill. [laughs]
Madureira: Not Mark Hamill! I’m talking about The Watcher right now. [laughs] He was perfect.
Dalton: He was on the list for a while. We actually used him in a project--he did Wolverine on an old game on the Xbox, and he did such a great job that when we also heard him do The Joker, it was like “This guy’s got such great range that he could definitely play this character."
Stefanelli: He’s one of those guys that we had him on the list as “This is what we want this character to sound like” and we were able to get him. Same thing with Michael Wincott. This is the guy we think Death should sound like. “Oh, looks like we can get him.”
GB: When you look back at the first game, what was the proudest moment about a feature you didn't think was going to work? And what was the thing you were most determined to improve upon if you got the chance to go into the sequel?
Stefanelli: It's easy for me. We weren't quite sure if Darksiders 1 was going to be a good game until we finished our first dungeon, which was the Twilight Cathedral--the church. It took us a long time to get to that point, and it was very difficult and very frustrating because it was essentially a vertical slice where we proved out the gameplay for the entire project. Until we had that done, and we wrestled through all manners of design iteration to get it to the point--we put a lot of love and a lot of time, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into that thing. When that was done, and we played the dungeon as a group--I remember our general manager, Dave, who often tends to lead our run-throughs, picked up the controller, and there was the final, magic run-through where he picked it up, just started playing, and there there were no comments, there were no complaints, there was nothing. He finished the dungeon, put the controller down, and went "that was pretty bad ass."
At that point, I think we understood what Darksiders was gonna be, and it was a very triumphant moment. It was necessary for the team. That got us over the hump. I think that it could have either--it made the game or could have broken it, and in this case, it made it. We realized we knew what we were doing, and it was very significant. It's something I'm proud of, that we got to that point and didn't quit. We could have fractured but we didn't. We got it done. I think going into Darksiders 2, we understood how to build a dungeon, so how do we take it to the next level, and still push and challenge ourselves without losing the core of the Darksiders essence, which is that dungeon experience, like Haydn said. I think we managed to find a good way to do that.
Dalton: I definitely think what Ryan mentioned--when we managed to see the first dungeon done with the puzzles and the combat, the traversal, everything tied up into one gold star effort--I think that's when we all looked down and said "Okay, we've got the formula right here." From my point of view, what we wanted to improve upon was that sense of when you finish the game, the game was kind of done, right? There was no need to go back and play it again. Adding New Game Plus and doing all the loot for the customization and holding a lot of stuff back this time around for the player, adding lots of secret stuff for the player to find. We've got a much bigger world this time around, so we wanted to make sure that players could keep playing the game more than one time, and make sure they got depth and they could spend a lot of time in it. That's one thing--even though people loved the game [Darksiders], it was like "I've gone through the game, now I get through it really quickly, but there's not much reason to go back and play it again." We just wanted to give them more reason to keep in our world and have fun. I think loot's been the one big thing that's really helped give that depth to the game.
Madureira: Just visually, I think when Ryan mentioned, when we finished the cathedral. And we threw away the work-in-progress several times. It took like forever to finish that dungeon. I think we even finished other dungeons before we ever finished that one. We started and finished entire other dungeons, or were close to finished.
But I think that, even though it turned out well, because so much of the game took place on Earth, we wanted to add fantasy elements to Earth to make it feel like a more awesome place to adventure. The thing that I'm excited about with the sequel is that it's basically just a fantasy world now. We don't have a lot of the restraints of being on Earth. Our environment team is so much better. I mean, their first iterations of stuff already look ten times better than what it would originally take us six-to-eight months to do. I just think the game looks so much better visually. I mean, the environments are just insane. We really wanted to [convey] "Hey, the player won't know what they're gonna see around the next corner" kind of thing. We kind of did it in the first game, but I think in the second one it's just so much more epic and insane.
GB: There's two small things I wanted to ask about. I don't know why this stuck out to me so much, but I thought it was so incredibly bad ass that the horse comes out of the ground every time every time that you were riding it. Where did that idea come from?
Dalton: I remember seeing….because I came on board a little bit after the four founders and stuff like that. I remember going through the old concepts that Joe had done--Joe had done lots of pictures of the horse, riding across walls on the horse, and one bit where he's just coming out of smoke. It looked like he was just coming out of the ground and he was jumping from the building onto the horse and it was like "Right, that's the way we're gonna summon it." It's just gonna be when you want it--the horse is just gonna be there and we'll materialize it. I think it really came from Joe's original concepts. You just went "Of course, right, there's no need to make it anymore difficult than that."
Madureira: We knew he had to disappear, we didn't want him running around behind you while you're climbing around a dungeon and stuff. [laughs] Or leaving him somewhere and having to whistle for him or something like that. He had to vanish. I mean, he is a supernatural creature. It's one of those things--you just play around with a couple of ideas and just erupting out of the ground, out of a shadow, is way cooler than just appearing in a puff of smoke.
Dalton: Or hanging out.
Stefanelli: Or going into your backpack. [group laughs]
Madureira: I don't think that would have worked!
Dalton: He has an infinite backpack, yeah. [laughs]
Stefanelli: The best thing about Joe on the project is that usually he'll do something once. I think most projects go through a lot of iterations to reach a certain point of coolness or that magic moment where you say "This is good enough" or "This is the one" but he'll just get it on the first try, and we run with it. We get a lot of our cool gameplay ideas just looking through his [stuff]. It might not even necessarily be a concept for a specific gameplay mechanic, we'll just see one of his random drawings and pull something cool out of it, and turn it into a gameplay element.
Madureira: Aww, you guys.
Stefanelli: That's in my contract, actually. [laughs]
GB: Once per interview you have to be complimentary to Joe.
Madureira: Actually, you should have said legendary artist, for the record, but that's something we can fix.
GB: The other element that I was surprised about--again, this is a small thing but it's kind of a big thing, especially for the genre--but it's that the swimming wasn't a total pain in the ass in Darksiders. It was actually enjoyable to get around in the water, which, for whatever reason, is one of those things that action-adventure games, especially the Zelda series, just cannot seem to get right. It's always just a giant pain in the ass. You're going near water, and anytime there's a water stage, you just sigh and grit through it. But, in Darksiders, it was very enjoyable to get around.
Madureira: Are you, in fact, saying that we did it better than Zelda? Is that what you just said?
Stefanelli: Ooooooooh shiiiiiiiiiiit! [laughs]
GB: If you played Skyward Sword, you'd know that it didn't much effort to do it better than Zelda.
Dalton: You bring up a good point, Patrick. We obviously knew that we wanted to change up the traversal, and swimming was one of those traversal changes that we wanted to do. We know that everyone hated the Water Temple, people don't like it, generally swimming in most games is just not fun, so we said "right, well, for starters, it needs to move really quickly, it needs to be nice and simple, no breathe bar--we shouldn't restrict someone like a Horsemen of the apocalypse to breathe underwater." So we just got rid of all the things that were not fun about swimming or restrictive about swimming. Don't worry about going up to air pockets or going up and then back down again. It was like "No, he's going to cut through, he's going to be just as War underwater as he is on the land." That's one of the traits we wanted a Horsemen to be: he just adapts.
GB: Playing through the first game, it definitely felt like this was a fully realized world, where it wasn't clear to the player how much of the backstory had been fleshed out, but it definitely gave the impression that there had been a lot of thought put into the world and the fiction beyond what you were seeing. I'm curious how much of that was actually developed and fleshed out by the time you were building out the game, or if that was stuff you were filling in as you were putting it together.
Madureira: It was a little of both, honesty. We definitely, um, you know, had the story--the story went through about a million iterations because every time we we would expand on a level or cut entire sections of the game, it affected parts of the story, you know? So we had to constantly, you know, [say] "How are we going to do this scene without this character? We just got rid of him." [pause] And, you know, like. So, you know. It was a little of both. I think parts of the story emerged kind of and became more important as we were working on the game. Samael became way, way cooler of a character than I think, you know, he was originally intended. And, uh, I think, you know, uh, you know…um, stop, Haydn! Sorry. I think, you know, you always want to plan ahead. You know, like I said…these guys are impossible to work with. [laughs] STOP IT! Next time I'm going to call into this meeting! [laughs] Okay, apparently we still have fun working together. It was a little of both. We had tons of, you know, notes and things that we could possibly explain later, you know, if we got around to it, and then, you know...STOP IT!
GB: I'm going to include all the "stop it" moments in the interview transcript, as well.
Madureira: Can you just please delete every time I stay stop it? [laughs] And, "you know" ... you know. [laughs] Why are these guys teasing me so much?
Stefanelli: Sorry, not to make this some weird inside Vigil inside joke. Every time Joe says "uh, you know," Haydn's over here giving him shit for it. Even when Haydn points out that he's saying "uh, you know," he then stops to say "uh, you know" again.
Madureira: Yes, there is much story and depth beyond what you see in the game. Even now, there's, you know, a novel series. [pause] [laughs] Oh, my god. I'm walking out of this interview right now.
It's cool you picked up on that. I hope that players enjoy that aspect of it.
[Editor's Note: Almost everyone has a verbal tick, a phrase or word that's uttered over and over again, especially in-between thoughts. "Um" and "like" are pretty common. I remove most of these verbal ticks to maintain a certain flow for the reader, but left them in above so the joke could work.]
GB: The last thing I have to ask is about the ending. A lot of games end with cliffhangers or allusions to a sequel, but in Darksiders, it was one of my favorite endings in a, long time. You are screaming in triumphant victory at the end, and ready for Darksiders II to start the moment it ends. I'm curious how you guys came to ending the game like that, given that you didn't know until later in the process that the game was going to come together and be any good. You didn't know if it was going to be a success, and yet you ended this game setting up something incredibly epic.
Madureira: We tried to do what would be the most impactful ending. Whether we got the chance to make a sequel or not, it still works. If there was never another Darksiders game, you know that the Horsemen appeared and whooped ass. Luckily, we did get the opportunity to make another Darksiders game. We just thought that, either way, it was such an awesome ending that we had to do this. There was nothing else that we could do that would be as memorable or impactful, and you always plan for success. We knew we were going to do another Darksiders game, it was just be weird if we didn't. It is about the four Horsemen.
Dalton: But it is a good point that you brought up. I was talking to Joe about this the other day, and originally it was supposed to be a lot more grand and there was supposed to be that big battle at the end, where Strife and Fury come up and they get you to open the way to the Destroyer and then Joe just went in and simplified it. "We can't have all these characters in at the end, let's just cut it up really simple." I think when we read the script we all thought "Oh, that's gonna be awesome." And when we saw the first iteration of the cut-scene go in, it was just a brilliant moment, and it's great that it's impacted so many people. It comes up on so many lists. People always quote it as being one of the most epic endings of this generation, and that's a big compliment to us.
Madureira: That is kind of funny. Originally, the four horsemen did show up before you beat the Destroyer, and like he said, there's a huge battlefield, and the horsemen are killing demons and they clear the way. You finally make your way to the Destroyer, and fight him. It was an ending that would have taken us probably another year to do. [laughs] It was like "Why don't we just have the comets appear and you never actually see them land, but you know it's on?" It was equally as exciting, and one-tenth of the work, so we were like "Okay, let's try it." I'm actually a little surprised that it has had the impact that it has had and people talked about it so much. Mainly because, in my head, I know what we originally had planned for it.
Stefanelli: I remember when we I saw the first cut and thought "Yeah, that's pretty good. That's really cool. I like that." But that was it. I think it just goes to show that a lot of times in storytelling, you're just not sure what's gonna resonate. And when that came out and people started talking about it as one of the all-time great endings, I wouldn't say we were shocked because we thought it was cool, but it was more like a moment of realization that "Yeah, that really is a pretty bad ass ending," especially if you think about it in the context of how the player sees it. After having fought their way through this pretty tough, pretty epic game, and you end on a note like that. It's pretty triumphant, and also definitely leaves you begging for more. That was definitely a pleasant turnout.
Dalton: Yeah, and you got to kick the crap out of The Watcher, as well. You're pretty much on his leash the entire game, and it's about the time the horsemen turned the tables a bit. It all came together in a few minutes right at the end, and it wrapped it all up pretty neatly. It was pretty epic.
GB: Even though you didn't get to craft the original, epic version of that ending, can players still expect we'll get some sort of payoff for what we saw at the end? I know Darksiders II technically takes place in parallel.
Stefanelli: I think there's definitely...there's...it's weird to answer that question without spoiling.
GB: I don't want to know what it is either, so I'm just trying to set you up so you can say something really teasing without spoiling it.
Stefanelli: I think people are going to be surprised by the ending of Darksiders 2. That's the best I can do because it's really pretty...it's epic in the Joe Mad storytelling tradition.