Darksiders (or: The Apocalypse According to Joe Mad)

Jake Theriault
Dec 9, 2019 · 8 min read
War, a Horseman of the Apocolypse and the protagonist of Darksiders (2010)

This article was originally published in video form on Dec. 2, 2019, by Subpixel. Minor alterations have been made to reflect the release of Darksiders: Genesis.

When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.

Revelation 6:3–4

Okay, so the title here is a little disingenuous, but now that’ve we’ve recieved two relatively new entries in the Darksiders series I wanted to take a minute to talk about why Darksiders has had such staying power in the years since its first release.

Darksiders has been around for nearly a decade now, and has had some pretty hefty names attached to it, including the phenomenal vocal talent of Liam O’Brien, Cissy Jones, and Mark Hamill.

Though gone from the public eye for a few years following the collapse of THQ in late 2012, the Darksiders franchise is back and bigger than ever thanks to the diligent work of Austin-based studios Gunfire Games and Airship Syndicate — both of which are chock full of alums from the original Darksiders team.

For anyone unfamiliar with the franchise, Darksiders is a series of sci-fi/fantasy games wherein you play as one (or, now that Darksiders: Genesis has been released, one or more) of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — though very stylized versions of the Biblical figures. These aren’t the Horsemen you’d learn about in Sunday school.

Originally developed by Vigil Games, Darksiders was born in the wake of a series of meetings between then Vigil co-founders, Joe Madureira, Ryan Stefanelli, David Adams, and Marvin Donald.

In Vigil’s earliest days the team had struggled to settle on a concept that could be developed into a full game, until that fateful day when inspiration hit. Here’s how Madureira and Stefanelli recalled that moment:

Madureira: So we met at Dave’s and — I think Ryan and Marvin were there — and we looked at the ideas and went through them one by one … but we kind of left feeling kind of lukewarm on all of them. And then I was just driving — I don’t know what triggered the idea, but it was like …

Stefanelli: What if you played the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? And that was it, really — I think. Once Dave heard the idea too, and Marvin — we never deviated from that idea again.

Madureira: And everyone was kind of like, ‘I don’t know what that means but it sounds so cool’, it had a sex appeal to it.

And the rest, as they say, is history — at least, in regards to the concept of Darksiders. But that was a decade ago, and now on the brink of 2020, and we’ve just recieved a fourth Darksiders title; and I’d argue that the staying power of the franchise is twofold: one, the — as Madureira put it — “sex appeal” of playing as one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; and two, the art direction.

Though the opening scene of the first Darksiders title is decidedly apocalyptic (like the ancient source material it’s drawn from), the remainder of the game falls very much into the category of post-apocalypse. But Darksiders set itself apart from other post-apocalyptic titles of its era by branding itself, as Madureira would often put it, the “X-Men version of the Four Horsemen”. Before Darksiders, folks looking for stories set after the apocalypse would’ve had a handful of Fallout games to choose from, Asobo and Codemasters’ mixed-reviewed Fuel, two S.T.A.L.K.E.R games, and a plethora of other titles set in similarly dusty and dreary worlds.

And unlike the other post-apocalyptic titles of its day, the story of Darksiders — though grand in scale — was small in scope. Madureira said this of Darksiders narrarive in a 2009 interview with Gamespot:

“It’s really a revenge story … it’s not about saving humanity or anything like that.”

And because Darksiders was a fantastical reimagining of the events during and after the Biblical Book of the Revelation, the team at Vigil were able to make the world of Darksiders more vibrant than the post-apocalyptic worlds of its contemporaries — both in terms of its characters and its environments.

But it wasn’t that way at first. The protagonist of the first game, War, was not always the crimson cloaked warrior we all know and love. Originally he was a more Robocop-esque Horseman — and though this design was changed for launch, this iteration was in the game long enough to appear at a handful of press events and show floors — now forever immortalized in the digital hellscape of the internet. But eventually this robotic hulk of a horseman was converted into the more stoic and fantastical version players would take control of in the early months of 2010 (and can now take control of again in Genesis).

Madureira put it this way in a 2009 interview with Gamespot:

“We wanted to treat them [the Horsemen] as if they were comic book characters, and it’s helped us stay out of letting the game visuals get too dark because when you’re working with subject matter like Heaven and Hell it can quickly turn into a horror game and we wanted to keep it ‘fantasy-adventure’”

And though characters like War went an immeasurable distance in setting Darksiders apart from other post-apocalyptic games like Fallout or Metro, the world of Darksiders’ end times went even further still. But while Joe’s character designs were fairly straightforward in their translation from page to screen — the world they would inhabit was not so simple. Gunfire Games Design Director and Vigil alum John Pearl put it this way:

“I think where we finally hit it was figuring out, ‘Okay this is post-apocalyptic, this isn’t human apocalypse. This is demons and angels, this is Biblical level destruction- what does that look like?’. Because even at the time when Darksiders was coming out there were a couple other post-apocalyptic games and we were like, ‘Okay what sets us apart?’. Like it’s these giant demon horns bursting through buildings, it’s these giant chains chains that are stung up across — like, just nonsensical, cool — kind of. ‘Heavy-metal’ is something we’d throw around. What does that mean? Chains, spikes, and skulls. Kind of like, ‘How do we bring that style into it?’. That was probably the biggest challenge, getting the environments to feel on par with the characters.”

Now I actually had the pleasure of being part of a team that went to Austin, Texas, in late 2017 to interview folks at Gunfire and Airship about their roles in the development of those first Darksiders games, and was able to see a little bit of the as-of-then still in development Darksiders 3 and the very early in development Darksiders: Genesis. And when I say very early in development I mean all we really saw was Joe working on concept art — but hey, it’s not every day you get to see the incomparable Joe Mad creating new characters right in front of you.

I recently got my hands on a newly published triptych of Darksiders art books, which included re-releases of the art books from the original two games — a blessing to relative newcomers to the franchise like myself, as original Darksiders artbooks can fetch upwards of $700 from resellers. And though the covers of the first two art books are emblazoned with the words “Joe Madureira Presents”, he would be the first to tell you that the soul of Darksiders — unlike the click-baity title we’ve given this video would indicate — is not the sole creation of Joe Madureira, but the product of hundreds of hours of hard work from many talented individuals. He had this to say of the art books in a 2017 documentary about the Darksiders series:

“You know, as we brought concepts artists onto the team they all contributed to the look of it [Darksiders]. I always feel kind of guilty that everyone’s like, ‘Oh, Joe did everything in the Art of Darksiders books. That’s so great’. And it’s like, maybe you should look at the credits in there. There’s a lot of artists that contributed to the look of the game overall.”

And it was the work of these talented individuals that brought the apocalypse of Darksiders to life. Looking through the art books, you can really get a feel for the thought and care that went into the character and creature designs, even more so than when you’re playing the game, because you can take time and sit with each design — pouring over the little details that the artists put into their creations.

The design of Darksiders tells a deeper story than what’s available in the narrative, and Joe has talked about this at length, particularly in the design of the first game’s protagonist, War.

“Just over time as we were developing it, it just didn’t feel — it felt like fantasy was the right way to go with it. And so I started to push it back towards that kind of stuff, because itf he’s fighting angels and demons and he’s this ancient being maybe he should have trophies on him — hence all the faces all over his armor and all the — I wanted the pieces of armor to look important, like maybe he got them over time from different conquests or whatever.”

The Fall of the Damned | Peter Paul Rubens, 1620

Chaoseater, War’s primary weapon, is so evocative, one can’t help but be drawn in by it, wondering what tales it could tell. The warped faces embedded in the blade recall the great works of the Masters, and their dramatic portrayals of Hell and the underworld.

Now I could go on and on about each little nuance of the characters and world of the Darksiders franchise, but I don’t want to spoil those discoveries for you, if you haven’t ever played these games before. Hopefully over the course of this video I’ve been able to communicate a little bit about what makes the Darksiders franchise so great, and why you should be excited to see it continue. I’m very intrigued to see the world of Darksiders from a new perspective once Genesis hits store shelves in a few days — and I hope you will be too.


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