When it comes to most vampire stories, you can count on three things: blood, death and a sexual link between the two. Since Bram Stoker published Dracula in 1897, a certain segment of readers (and later, moviegoers) have exhibited an escalating macabre fascination with these stories of men and women doomed to undead immortality—technically alive, but inexorably driven by their thirst for blood, a drive often written about and depicted in decidedly sexual ways.
In recent decades, Anne Rice took up the "plight" of the vampire in her popular Vampire Chronicles series. It's hard to say if her violent, sensual novels single-handedly renewed interest in the genre or if she was merely one of many dedicated to keeping the mythology alive. Either way—in print, on the big screen, on TV ... and in video games—bloodsuckers have become far more than a niche interest.
Taking a Bite Out of Crime
Enter Darkwatch, a first-person shooter game that pits recently bitten outlaw Jericho Cross against the might and minions of the vampire Lazarus Malkoth. The twist in this preternatural showdown involves its setting: The Wild West. Call it a vampire-cowboy duel at high noon, err ... high moon. Jericho had been minding his own business—that being robbing trains in Arizona—until one fateful night in 1876 when he picked the wrong one. One freed vampire lord and an unfortunate set of fang marks later, and his destiny is forever altered.
Only by killing Lazarus can Jericho undo the vampire curse and save the West from Lazarus' plans to unleash hell on earth. But Jericho isn't alone in his quest. For generations, an organization known as the Darkwatch has kept the threat of vampires in check. Two Darkwatch regulators, Cassidy and Tala, play crucial roles in guiding Jericho in his crusade against the undead (and add disturbing sexualized elements to the game as well).
Descending Into Darkness
As you'd expect in any first-person shooter, there's no shortage of opportunities to unload buckshot. Jericho begins with his trusty Redeemer revolver, then graduates to firearms with more bang for the buck. Fire precise shots at foes with names such as Riflemen, Braves and Vipers, and you're "rewarded" by seeing their skulls blown clean off.
In a ghoulish turn of events, Jericho absorbs dead enemies' blood and is recharged by it. His vampire-like tendencies are also evident when he sinks his teeth into a hapless horse and drinks deeply as it convulses. (A so-called "Blood Bar" monitors how much blood he's consumed.) Fully sated, Jericho can unleash the vampire powers he's earned. His choices with regard to attacking innocent civilians determine whether he wields "good" vampire powers or "evil" ones.
Tedious and Troubling
From a gameplay perspective, Darkwatch left me underwhelmed. One repetitive level after another seemed as mindless as the undead foes forever limping toward me. As sad as it is to say, reading about Darkwatch's backstory on its Web site was considerably more interesting than actually playing the game.
Worse than weak interactivity, however, is Darkwatch's M-rated content. Drinking blood and forcibly sending the undead back into the netherworlds is dark enough. But not nearly as dark as the twisted mix of sexuality and violence that emerges as the game progresses. In a dream, Jericho briefly glimpses Cassidy's bare backside and topless torso (what we see looks like a naked Barbie). And Tala's plans for Jericho include seducing him and having sex with him on an altar. Before doing so, a nude Tala slashes her neck, invites him to drink her blood and says, "Take all of me." Sexual innuendo (as well as mild vulgarities such as "d--n," "a--" and "h---") permeate the characters' dialogue.
Lead designer Paul O'Connor told gamestar.com that his team pushed content boundaries to appeal to an adult audience. "We didn't see any sense in doing a 'soft M' [rating]. It made no sense at all to make a game that aimed at the teen market and slipped into M because of one or two pieces of mature content. ... Our market is 18 and older. ... We're doing a game that's intended for the adult market."
That's the very reason, it seems to me, why teens want to play it.
Regardless of who designers say Darkwatch is intended for, the game blurs the lines between sex, death and violence in ways that are troubling for any audience. O'Connor's own testimony makes it clearer than ever why continued vigilance is critical when considering today's M-rated games. His words tell us everything we need to know about leaving Darkwatch where it belongs ... in the dark.