Darkest Dungeon, the game’s initial splash screen informs you, is about making the best of a bad situation. You can probably relate to that proposition, if you’ve spent any amount of time on planet Earth at all.
We are, regrettably, living in a renaissance of “roguelikes”; that is, games claiming to be inspired in some part by the classic dungeon crawler Rogue. The main two elements that most roguelikes borrow from their progenitor are some degree of procedural generation of your environment – ensuring a technically unique experience each time – and permadeath. If your character dies, that’s it, the save is deleted, they’re gone, game over. The latter part is arguably the one with the most appeal. Your decisions are irreversible, and your pixel avatar has to live with the consequences, or die from them.
I’ll refrain from extensive speculation on why exactly these life-or-death stakes have suddenly become so popular; I’m sure someone has written that thinkpiece already. For me personally, roguelikes bring out a desire to protect that abstract representation of myself, and help them succeed at their nonsensical, arbitrary tasks. It could also be the perverse thrill of gambling with my life, or at least a good chunk of my time. The randomness and variance present in most roguelikes can definitely put you in unwinnable situations, or help you engineer such situations through carelessness.
At least, that’s how someone who calls themselves a “hardcore gamer” might put it. I’d rather say that these games – and a lot of games in general – are composed of systems of sufficient complexity that it becomes unrealistic to pay full attention to every decision at all times. Both of these phrasings of the same idea are ideologically motivated in different ways, and I prefer the ideology that acknowledges bad outcomes as more than just failures on the part of a perfectly rational Player.
At the same time, games like these – as long as they’re well-designed – definitely make it possible for a rational player to minimize bad outcomes and maximize good ones, and therefore provide a safe environment to make mistakes, learn from them and do better next time. This is much closer to how humans actually learn things than how many supposed institutions of learning tend to function in the real world. Doing everything correctly on the first try is an absurd idea, but one that a lot of us have been saddled with, sometimes so forcefully that we’d rather not try at all.
Darkest Dungeon is not a game especially invested in “realism”. Its setting is gothic and Lovecraftian, and one of the prime features of the gothic aesthetic is excess: passions too torrid, deeds too foul, blood and gore far too plentiful. The game’s ubiquitous narrator, masterfully voiced by Wayne June, plays the genre’s conventions completely straight, giving life and weight to phrases such as “a Mecca of madness and morbidity” and “penance for my unspeakable transgressions”, which, in print, would seem unbearably florid.
Much like other forms of gothic fiction, however, the excess brings forth a different sort of realism, if we take the term to mean not some kind of photographic versimillitude, but an experience that we can connect to our own. Your own emotions and preoccupations will always seem excessive, after all, after a lifetime of being told to tone them down. What I love about gothic fiction is that while very demonstrably not true, it is nevertheless true to life, albeit through very different means than capital-R Realism.
Darkest Dungeon is a strategy game. It presents you with the problem of managing a number of limited resources – money and precious heirlooms in the town management section, and in the dungeon crawling part, food, torches, medical supplies, and the hit points and stress levels of your characters. Stress is a fundamental mechanic – as the band of unlikely heroes under your command faces more and more horrific monsters and near-death situations, they take their toll on the mind. Past a certain threshold, the characters will “snap” in any number of ways, from despair and self-neglect to taking it out on their companions, in turn accelerating their rate of stress accumulation. The system is simple, and should not be taken as a representation of human psychology in any sense but the most schematic, but the mere fact of there being a concrete mechanical expression of mental distress makes the heroes feel more human and alive than many protagonists in ostensibly more narrative-driven games.
One of the most satisfying effects of the stress system is the low chance that, upon reaching their breaking point, a hero will instead “become virtuous”, that is, find new reserves of courage and focus, and inspire their comrades with various buffs. Counting on these events is a suboptimal strategy compared to keeping stress low, but it’s difficult to describe the satisfaction you feel when it does happen, since the numerical advantages are usually enough to turn a losing battle around. It’s one of the best instances of emergent storytelling I can think of: tension, drama and triumph generated as a result of rolls of abstract dice.
The characters under your command are archetypal, but vivid: the Man-at-Arms bears the scars of countless battles; the Occultist has made a Faustian bargain; the Grave Robber used to be a lady of the court. They have just enough personality to feel like more than chess pieces, and to make the prospect of their death – always possible, even with very careful play – feel much less palatable than a pawn sacrifice. To drive the point home for even the most callous players, a high-level hero represents a large investment of game time and resources. As you lead your band of misfits on their horribly dangerous adventures, you naturally become attached to them, and reticent to put them at risk.
And when they die, that’s it, they’re gone.
What the game deliberately neglects to tell you is that on the default difficulty setting, you can’t actually lose. There is no fail state: even if your entire roster gets wiped out, new recruits are free, and you can just throw them into the grinder repeatedly, until at least one of them comes back alive and with treasure. The result is a learning curve that, despite all the gloom and dire portents, is very forgiving to new players, and gradually more exacting as both you and your underlings gain experience.
This also has the very apposite effect of the game getting you to manage your own emotional state as much as you do it for your characters. Both the mood and the mechanics deliberately exert pressure on you; between the randomness, the uncertainty of what might be waiting in the next hallway, the dramatic visuals of enemy attacks, the possibility of devastating critical hits, and the narrator’s constant doomsaying, Darkest Dungeon is out to mess with you. Rather than creating difficulty, as many traditional roguelikes do, through excessive complexity or counterintuitive systems, it acknowledges the player as a person with emotions, rather than an abstract rational agent solving a problem of economic optimization.
Strategy games are generally a series of optimization problems: given X information and Y resources, how do I produce the most favourable outcome? This is almost, but not quite the same thing as making the best of a bad situation. Losing pieces and giving up position in chess is frustrating, but to care about preserving pieces more than securing victory is detrimental to being a good chess player. No wonder that the game has been so popular with kings and generals through the ages. Games like Darkest Dungeon (and XCOM – that’s for another time) end up telling a wholly different story about being a commander, one where every lost life has an emotional cost. It gets you thinking: where did I go wrong? How can I do better? How can I prevent this in the future?
Darkest Dungeon wants you to care. It tries to use that caring against you, and push you towards making bad choices, but it also makes it crystal clear that if you don’t learn to care for your people properly, victory isn’t possible.