I’ve always loved difficult games. From the nail-bitingly complex Dwarf Fortress to The Binding of Isaac to Bloodborne and Furi, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of beating a level, puzzle, or boss, and knowing you overcame a challenge with nothing but skill. Even when things go wrong, and the game seems unfair, you know it was your fault for not taking the proper precautions, reacting slowly or making the wrong decision – and when you eventually pull through, victory is all the sweeter.
Today, we’ll be looking on the opposite end of the spectrum – at a game that punishes even the best players and instils a sense of dread and hopelessness in all who lay their hands on it. It’s pretty wonderful.
Chris Bourassa, Creative Director and co-founder of Red Hook Studios, describes Darkest Dungeon in grave, yet thrilling terms:
‘Darkest Dungeon is a gothic roguelike RPG that explores the stress and trauma that might result from a life spent fighting monsters in long-forgotten tombs, catacombs and other awful places. Steeped in cosmic horror and occultism, the game challenges players to recruit and manage a roster of heroes, grouping them into parties and sending them out on expeditions to reclaim their family’s estate. Unlike many RPGs, however, the heroes in Darkest Dungeon are human – flawed, and disadvantaged against the legion of supernatural antagonists that they must face. Combat and exploration take a mental toll on the adventurers and players must manage their roster’s mental as well as physical wellbeing in order to succeed.’
My first couple of hours with Darkest Dungeon were a harrowing experience. After an encouraging first expedition into the old, abandoned halls beneath my family manor, I got cocky. If I had enough torches, food, and bandages, I told myself, my tight-knit team of adventurers – and gamer’s intuition – would take care of the rest. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My team was confronted by a group of Lovecraftian cultists hurling eldritch magic – leagues above what my simple Crusader, Highwayman, Vestal (healer), and Plague Doctor were capable of. Though we dispatched the cultists, one of their spells had a permanent effect on my Vestal: she became abusive, throwing insults at her teammates wherever possible, raising their stress and making it easier for them to succumb to Darkest Dungeon’s many Afflictions. Shortly after that, my Highwayman lost all hope, my brave Crusader became a snivelling coward, and my Plague Doctor skulked off to the nearest tavern for a long, hard drink.
Oh, well. There’s always more fodder– I mean heroes, arriving by wagon.
As you might expect, Darkest Dungeon is famed for its mercilessness, turning against the player on a dime with its hair-trigger Afflictions and ferocious enemies. I asked Chris if he thinks Darkest Dungeon is balanced – i.e. fair to the player – and I really shouldn’t have been surprised by his response:
‘Darkest Dungeon has never purported to be fair. In fact, we go out of our way to tell players that they can expect bad strings of luck, unfortunate events, and general disaster around every corner. Things are also not always in your control as a player – the game is built on the idea of making meaningful choices with permanent consequences, often with limited or imperfect information. Darkest Dungeon is how you cope with the unexpected and the unfortunate, and as such, it can never really be ‘balanced’ in the conventional sense of the word. You will lose a hero or two or five to bad dice rolls, the same way even the most experienced mountain climber can slip and break his leg. The real question is: how do you deal with it?’
The real stars of the show are the poor, tormented Heroes that make up your dungeon-scouring teams. Fresh and eager, they arrive seeking their fortunes – and almost uniformly end up dead, or far worse. Any long-lasting hero owes their success to intense therapy, prayer, drinking, strategy on the player’s part, and lots of luck.
I asked Chris about the process of creating a new character class.
‘It’s been a little different each time we go to bat. Most of the time, we’ll first explore what we feel is fertile creative ground, always looking to sidestep mainstream RPG classes, or at least put our spin on them. Leading with the creative has served us well, and often sparks interesting game design discussions. As the game has matured, however, mechanical opportunities have presented themselves, and we’ve developed outward from that – pairing a hero’s underlying skill mechanics with a strong thematic direction. In the end, we’re looking for a strong visual, creative and mechanical identity for each of our heroes. We want them to feel different from one other, and be memorable enough to stand out in a crowd.’
Regarding unique characters, Darkest Dungeon has them in spades. While ‘normal’ RPGs tend toward the standard knight, rogue, healer, mage combo, Darkest Dungeon sports Heroes such as the Leper, the Abomination, and the Grave Robber. Over time, you’ll come to love your twisted little party as bad roll after bad roll inflicts them with disease and crippling mental trauma – until, eventually, they are too great a liability to keep around, good for nothing more than suicidal supply runs.
It’s refreshing when a game offers a thematic style of play that is – wait for it – a natural result of the game’s systems. You aren’t told to treat new or useless characters like disposable drones to fuel your main party’s later expeditions, but as you learn of Darkest Dungeon’s cruel, merciless nature, you become cruel and merciless.
Despite this, a lot of people complain about games that are ‘too difficult’ – Darkest Dungeon, in particular, has received some flak for its random nature, but that’s the point. The game isn’t about constructing an unbeatable team that can crush dungeons with ease, but just barely sustaining yourself against tides of bad luck and character deaths. I think there’s a lot to be said about generic assumptions stopping people from enjoying great games, but instead, I’ll let Chris explain why Darkest Dungeon needs to be punishing.
‘It feels good to succeed when the odds are stacked against you! From the outset, Darkest Dungeon has always been about subverting the power fantasy that exists in many RPGs. When the game itself is the player’s chief antagonist, beating it can feel incredible. The lower the lows, the higher the highs – and the more memorable the experience!’
I finished by asking Chris for any hints about the future. What is Red Hook doing now? Is a Darkest Dungeon 2 on the horizon?
‘We’ve just shipped a smaller DLC – “The Shieldbreaker” – which introduces a new hero to the roster. Most of our team is now focused on a new, somewhat larger DLC, while a couple of us have started to break ground on our next game. No details to share just yet, but it’s an exciting time at Red Hook!’
Darkest Dungeon is available on Steam, PS4, PS Vita, and the Nintendo Switch.