Image courtesy of THQ Nordic

What 'Darksiders 3' Teaches Us About Gaming's Weirdest Company, THQ Nordic

THQ Nordic's whole pitch is picking up your favorite but ignored franchise, and bringing it back to life. This doesn't bode well.

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Dec 4 2018, 7:38pm

Image courtesy of THQ Nordic

There are a few constants in life. Every day, the sun will rise, there will be a Trump tweet, and THQ Nordic will buy a new game franchise, to the complete bewilderment of yours truly. That includes yesterday, naturally. THQ Nordic now owns Carmageddon, calling the purchase “the start of a new chapter in the story of one of the world’s most anarchic game brands.” It remains unclear what THQ Nordic will do with Carmageddon. Unimportant! They own it.

Darksiders 3, THQ Nordic’s signature release since it went on its escalating buying spree, arrived last week. It’s the culmination of THQ Nordic’s big pitch: They buy your favorite but ignored franchise and bring it back to life. To date, though, that’s mostly involved cleaned up digital re-releases—de Blob, Titan Quest, etc.—and not full-fledged sequels. It’s all tied up in the same idea, but Darksiders 3 is a different beast entirely, and the promise is much bigger.

Is THQ Nordic the gaming equivalent of Ikea, selling surprisingly good stuff at a reasonable price, undercutting the notion spending more means getting better? A way to make riskier AAA games, in a world where companies are getting conservative due to rising budgets? Is THQ Nordic masquerading as Big Lots, a valuable “YO, we’ve got everything and it’s cheap as hell,” store, but one that works because it’s honest about what it’s selling? Or is THQ Nordic a flea market, full of cheap knockoffs and hand-me-downs in questionable condition?

(I love Big Lots and flea markets, but when I go to ether, I know what I’m in for.)

Think of a few companies, and tell me what comes to mind about them. Bungie? Games with unbelievably good shooting feel. Nintendo? A relentless focus on fun. Companies tend to cultivate an identity over time, even if they deviate from it. Now try THQ, the bankrupt publisher from 2012. THQ published a lot of cool games—hello, Saints Row—but it ultimately never stood for much of anything. It might have been better known for Nickelodeon and WWE games, if we’re being honest. Which made it all the stranger when the previously unknown Nordic Games acquired a bunch of THQ properties during bankruptcy, in essence turning the company into THQ 2.0. They made it official in 2016, becoming THQ Nordic.

“One could say the most defining moment for our company happened in 2013, grabbing headlines like; ‘Who the FUCK is Nordic Games?’” reads a THQ Nordic press release from 2016. (Though I tried, I could not find evidence of any news stories published with that headline.)

In 2013, THQ Nordic, then Nordic Games, acquired Darksiders, a series that initially gained attention as a “mature, violent take on Zelda” but the 90s comic aesthetic was misleading; under the hood, Darksiders was a tremendously creative adventure game taking the right cues from Nintendo’s franchise, and a huge reason it hit was because Nintendo wasn’t making especially great Zelda games at the time—Twilight Princess in 2006, Skyward Sword in 2011. It was a Zelda game by Zelda fans, and it also happened to have a fun, goofy story about heaven and hell that concluded with one of the greatest video game endings of all-time.

A few hours into Darksiders 3, a sloppy and unambitious mess of a sequel for a franchise dormant since 2012 and deserving of better, I struggled to come up with a way to describe what I was playing. It hit me: a Darksiders fan project. We’ve all seen something like this: Some diehards cobble enough for a 60 second video teasing a sequel the market won’t deliver, and while it doesn’t look great, it’s amazing for a bunch of fans in their spare time. But I expected more from the surprise reemergence of a personal favorite, even if that favoritism is increasingly connected to a single game from 2010, which feels like a million years ago.

Maybe we should have seen this coming. Look at this quote from from 2013:

“THQ spent $50m making Darksiders 2,” said THQ Nordic founder Lars Wingefors. “We can produce a product of the same quality but for a lower cost. $50m is ridiculous, I can't afford that. Many of our IPs will only generate $50k a year, but it's still money. Sure, it's amounts that EA and the big guys wouldn't care about, but now we have hundreds of IPs, and in a few years we'll have a few hundred more. It will add up to something much bigger.”

It’s possible THQ overspent on Darksiders 2—I have no idea. The company died due to “death by a million spider bites,” according to a former executive. Nowhere in Polygon’s extensive feature on THQ’s death does the game Darksiders 2 come up. But the notion game companies could find more efficient ways to spend their money seems plausible.

But that quote explains the Darksiders game I’ve nearly finished, one that looks and feels cheap, despite the $60 price tag. It’s not just the main character, Fury, clipping through objects in the world; textures popping in and out at will; most environments taking place in tight, bland corridors on a major city in Earth that has no personality whatsoever, down to a subway sign merely pointing the way towards the “stadium,” rather than anywhere in particular; combat that wants to be Dark Souls but buddy, you’re not Dark Souls; a story with characters but no credible motivations.

Around the time I wrote this paragraph, I also took this screenshot:

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The floating box reminded me of a metaphor. Darksiders 3 is like—oh, to hell with it. It’s a glitch, in a game is full of them, to the point where you’re eventually just happy when you can make it through an entire fight without the frame rate tanking while trying to time a dodge, or the game pausing for an impressively long five seconds to load a new section mid-combo, without any indication a load is coming.

For a while, I wondered if THQ Nordic was the Blumhouse of video games. Blumhouse is the production company behind movies you’ve heard of, like Get Out, The Purge, and Halloween. They’re also behind dozens of movies you haven’t heard of, like Incarnate, Curve, Like.Share.Follow, Delirium, Family Blood, Viral—it’s a really long list. Blumhouse’s business model is simple: eggs in many baskets, not one. They don’t spend much money on any one film, which lets them make a ton, spreading risk. If one film takes off—like, say the way Get Out did—and the rest bomb, it’s fine. Get Out picks up the slack. It convinces top-tier talent to write, direct, and star because of what’s called “points on the back end,” where you share in the movie’s profits. It’s gambling if the movie’s going to be a hit, but also likely more money.

Blumhouse’s movies are made cheaply, but don’t feel cheap because they’re conceived within the scope of their available budget. They also have more misses than hits, but that’s baked into the company’s DNA—it’s constantly taking risks. Darksiders 3 feels like the opposite, buckling and breaking under the history of legacy, failing to make anyone happy.

If THQ Nordic’s goal is to make the kinds of games THQ was spending $50 million on, without radically changing what those games are in the process, without being more honest with the audience in the process, this won’t last. For example, Darksiders has always been about exploring a big, open world—open in terms of raw area, not colliding systems, ala Far Cry—and by comparison, Darksiders 3 takes place in a crawlspace.

One of the primary ways you moved around in previous Darksiders games was riding a horse, but in Darksiders 3, Fury’s horse is killed off. The game plays this off as incitement, the emotional driver of Fury’s mission, but the game spends no time building a relationship between Fury and her horse. The horse is unceremoniously killed off because there’d be no room to ride the horse. In reality, the death of Fury's horse is the cutting of Darksider 3's budget.

We should celebrate alternative ways of funding and publishing video games, especially when it provides opportunities to new voices. How cool would it be if THQ Nordic kept buying up these old, weird properties with niche fanbases, and paired them with risk-taking studios looking for a shot on minimal funding? Something like Carmageddon has a loose enough premise that I’d love to see someone else come in and try something weird and subversive.

I’d have been far more interested in a weird take on Darksiders, rather than...well, this.

I find myself coming back to this quote from Wingefors: “Many of our IPs will only generate $50k a year, but it's still money. Sure, it's amounts that EA and the big guys wouldn't care about, but now we have hundreds of IPs, and in a few years we'll have a few hundred more.”

On one hand, there have been meaningful positives. Games like de Blob, Titan Quest, and Lock’s Quest have been rescued from the void, and live on via Steam, etc. Those games deserve sequels, too, but simply keeping them alive is worthwhile. Our industry is awful at managing history, and if THQ Nordic makes a few bucks along the way, more power to ‘em.

If the goal of THQ Nordic is to eat up dormant franchises from studios not doing much with them (see: Carmageddon, TimeSplitters, Alone in the Dark) or companies with money problems, and patiently wait for the accompanying digital sales to make the cheap investments worth it, then maybe Darksiders 3 it just a weird experiment along the way. Maybe it’s an aberration, a crummy first impression, as the company finds its footing. Or maybe anyone who’s a fan of the franchises it’s picking up—like, say, the Kingdoms of Amalur fans who lost their minds earlier this year when THQ Nordic plucked it from obscurity—should exercise some caution.

And who knows about its most recent major acquisition, Koch Media, aka the company that owns Deep Silver, aka the company publishing Metro: Exodus next year? Don't mess with Metro, please.

It won’t be long until we see the company’s next attempt, either. THQ Nordic will release Jagged Alliance: Rage!, a reboot of the beloved strategy series it acquired from bankrupt German publisher bitComposer Entertainment, on December 6.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

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