2K Games creates a rare comic-to-game franchise

While Hollywood has spent years mining comicbooks for film and TV show ideas, gamemakers have largely left graphic novels alone.

Top Cow’s “The Darkness” is proving a rare exception, however, and 2K Games hopes to turn the property into a lucrative franchise when it releases a sequel in October.

While the first game, designed as a traditional shooter, sold more than 1 million copies in 2007, 2K is sticking closely with what made the comicbook popular since its mob hitman Jackie Estacado, who inherits a sinister power known as the Darkness, was introduced 15 years ago.

Gamemakers tapped the books’ author, Paul Jenkins, to pen the storylines for both “Darkness” games, while developer Digital Extremes is also borrowing heavily from the lush hand-painted graphic noir look of the novels and adding fantasy elements, like the character’s four demonic tentacles that allow him to fire guns.

“The first game was hyperrealistic” and more grounded in reality to attract newcomers to “The Darkness,” said Sheldon Carter, creative director of “The Darkness II” at Digital Extremes. “But we were so smitten by what the comics look like, we wanted to create a sequel that feels like a true adaptation and makes it feel like you were playing a graphic novel.”

Sequel takes place two years after the events of the first game, in which Jackie’s girlfriend was murdered and he took revenge on her killer. Jackie now heads the New York crime family he worked for and faces a new threat in the Brotherhood, which wants to capture the power of the Darkness to achieve its evil plans; the enemy and plotline are borrowed from the books.

“The mythology has not been changed,” said “The Darkness” co-creator Marc Silvestri and Top Cow’s CEO, who developed the property with Garth Ennis and David Wohl. “When you take one medium to another, you have to make some concessions sometimes,” like getting rid of the character’s otherworldly costume, which was considered too complicated to explain in a more realistic setting. One idea to eliminate the character’s long hair by shaving him was nixed.

“Changes were made so people outside the comicbook world would understand it,” Silvestri added, “but Jackie is Jackie as he is in the comics.”

Silvestri admits there was a risk in branching out into the games biz.

“It’s a comicbook game, but it’s not ‘Spider-Man’ or ‘Superman,’” he said. “It wasn’t in the world’s consciousness. The vast majority of people probably weren’t aware it was a comicbook.”

And that wound up as the primary reason to make the game in the first place.

Sales of “The Darkness” comicbook rose at bookstores after the first game bowed. “The awareness shot right up,” Silvestri said. “Whenever you hit the mainstream media, that’s when you notice a bump.”

It’s only a matter of time before more publishers start spinning off their top titles into games, especially if “The Darkness II” catches on with gamers when it bows on Oct. 4.

“These days, the comicbook publishing market isn’t what it was back in the early 1990s,” Silvestri said. “You could make a lot of money back then publishing comics. Those times have changed. It’s still a great place to create intellectual property, but business-wise, you really do have to now embrace other media opportunities.”

That includes getting into toy lines and collectibles and publishing a prequel of “The Darkness” to hand out during Free Comicbook Day that gives new readers and gamers some background on Jackie and his powers and fills in the gap between the first game and its upcoming sequel. More issues are planned ahead of the game’s launch.

As for the games biz, 2K Games is looking at other comicbooks to adapt.

“Our medias are really close; it’s the same target audience,” Carter said. “I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often. It’s awesome as a game creator to have something that has tons of lore behind it (and) you can sink your teeth into it. With a film, you’re looking at a quick bite and don’t have to get too deep.”

The key for comicbook publishers, though, is to be willing to collaborate with gamemakers and “not give anyone any reasons not to make it. There are a lot of opportunities for derailment.

“Whatever media you’re talking about, you create a character and concept and put it out there,” Silvestri said. “But at a certain point, as a creator, you have to realize your ownership of it transfers over to the public. It belongs to them and on any platform they want it on. The biggest mistake you can make is to be too self-indulgent. You have to respect the people who now love and enjoy what you’ve created. If you do your job right, they do and want more.”

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more