Beneath the steadying fear of Darkest Dungeon

Only under pressure do we find diamonds.

So close to shattering, but still they press onward.

My Hellion is about to die.

This isn’t the dramatic climax to her story.  This is not the point when I realize that all of her character development was leading to this moment, that her braggadocio was a front for a long-standing inner weakness.  There will be no scene in which she declares that even a coward can be brave, when she needs to be, ramming her glaive into the throat of some howling beast before it slices her crippled body to ribbons.  No, in a turn or two she will just die, unless my other team members can save her in time, because that’s the nature of Darkest Dungeon.

And I’m seventeen again, standing outside of my girlfriend’s dorm, my mother standing there and explaining to me in completely alien calm that my father is dead, that the last time I had spoken to him was the last time I would say a word to him, that I had no control over that, either.  Which is why Darkest Dungeon can at once be brilliant and horrid at equal turns, the sort of game that I would recommend to almost anyone but with several rather strict caveats despite how much I enjoy it.

The brilliance of Darkest Dungeon, of course, is almost entirely summarized by the game’s very basic premise.  You are the heir to a family that dug up Something That Should Not Be Dug Up, led to a decaying hamlet with a complimentary gloomy wardrobe and thousand-yard stare.  Your goal is to clear out the nightmares that infest the manor and make the area safe for human habitation once again, but you won’t be going yourself; instead, you will be sending teams of adventurers into the dungeon, adventurers spurred by the promise of wealth and glory.  Much like your average roguelike, what awaits is less “glory and honor” and more “random traps and horrible deaths.”

Unlike your average roguelike, however, a death is not the end.  Not even close.  Send out a team of four adventurers and only one makes it back?  Well, congratulations on the adventurer who now gets to be the veteran.  Not that she’ll be able to appreciate it for a bit, as stress is a very real issue as you work your way through the dungeon.  Too much stress and the party members develop temporary disorders, ranging from irrational behaviors to terror to a refusal to be healed on the basis of wanting to hurt.

I know I wonder about it myself more or less daily.

The fear is real, it is paralyzing, it lies at the heart of us. That too much stress, ultimately, will tear us down, confront us with a challenge that we could in theory overcome but in practice destroys us.

Every single run through the dungeon is an exercise of being on the edge, and the fact is that it makes a certain amount of sense.  Only a certain sort of human being loads up on weapons and descends into dangerous territory to kill monsters.  This is not a safe occupation, and there are no assurances.  Attacks miss.  Heals fail.  Spells fizzle.  And while your characters do have something of a buffer against deaths, it’s just that – a buffer.

No one is more than a handful of lucky hits away from death.  Especially when your Vestal is unable to heal anyone as she falls into hysterics and your Leper, rather than taking abuse at the forefront, is too masochistic to accept even his own self-healing ability.

As I said: brilliant.  But at times, intensely uncomfortable.

I can sit here and feel at least some satisfaction about playing the game.  I recognize that parts of it are entirely out of my control; I control what I can.  And yet at the same time I don’t think I would be so cavalier if I were sitting and playing it three months ago, when I was first told that years of hard work and dedication and devotion to writing about games was being rewarded with a pat on the back and a firm shove.

Not everything is in our control, ever.  That’s a given.  The question, though, is how much of our life is under out control.  It’s a question that doesn’t have a fixed answer, and frequently it’s intensely depressing to think about the fact that we exist more or less at the whims of the world around us.  Even without ascribing some degree of malice to others, the fact of the matter is that when a hurricane rips through your town, your options come down to getting out of the way or risking your life.

Darkest Dungeon is a game about reminding you that you are not in control, and for some players that is not a reminder that needs telling.  I have friends who spend every day being reminded how little control they have over their lives.  The sponsor of this article is regularly forced to remember that fact.  A cruel and capricious existence is not necessarily a video game.

Am I still talking about video games?  Eh, maybe.

You learn the arsenal of your enemies, and in time, you learn to wield it against them with all the mercy they showed you.

The truth is that I don’t know my Hellion beyond the simple fact that she’s a character with a name and certain stats.  I know her traits, I know what I think of her as, but I don’t know her.  It’s the generation part of the story without the nuance, all the parts that make it more than just random happenstance.  Investing yourself too heavily in these characters is a recipe for disappointment, writing the life stories of people who may very well just randomly die before you have a chance to see them do anything.

On some level, it’s a good wake-up call for people who have far too much shelter to understand that yes, people do die.  But a live character is more interesting than a dead one, and the almost terrifying reality of this game is that there will be times when your characters die more or less for nothing.  They just drop.  You’re encouraged to think of this as a machine, a revolving door, and so long as one person makes it out and the expedition wasn’t a complete failure you’ve done better than you could have.  That’s the long and short of it.

Dismissive.  Harsh.  Strict.  A different take on familiar tropes.  Painful, and aggressively so, against people who may well be perfectly fine just having adventures.

On some level, the game reminds me a bit of the all-too-typical phenomenon of the gritty reboot, the attempt to convince people that the things we used to love are silly and unrealistic and need more guns and violence.  Instead of the silly loot-happy dungeon crawls of your youth, now everyone’s an alcoholic nymphomaniac and freaks out at the light level dropping, suffering horrible mental scarring every time they so much as breathe, confronted by horrors at every turn.  It’s knocking off the paint to display that it’s just wood underneath.

But on another level – and this is where I cycle back to it being brilliant again – it’s not setting itself up as commentary on games like Final Fantasy or the like, where the dungeon crawling is almost a side effect of your clearly defined main quest.  It’s taking on the natural roguelike impulse of acquiring more with no thought to what it costs you.  It’s asking you whether or not you would give up shreds of your humanity to claim things.

How do you like those apples, Paul?

No man should be declared guilty by succumbing to sin; rather, it is through sin that we become conscious of virtue.

And sometimes you do pull things out.  Sometimes the stress assaulting your Vestal’s mind crystalizes into a blade, a sharp awareness of what she needs to do.  With your Hellion on the brink of death, the sister doesn’t falter, marching over and healing her, bringing her back from an untimely end.  And the Hellion charges once more, despite her fears, skewering the last enemy of the pack and clearing your quest in the last moments.

It’s a simulation of cruelty and capriciousness, with the game forever telling you that hope and confidence and aspirations are folly.  But among the many bits of narration, my personal favorite is the uncharacterstic and almost breathless joy in one of the narrator’s lines in which he exclaims that these monsters can be driven back, they bleed, they can be beaten.  It’s that single wavering point of light.

Because even in the depths of a life and a world that has no interest in you, that seems arbitrarily cruel and heartless, something remains.  Some faint hope still flickers.  No matter how bad it gets – and it gets bad – there is the possibility of things improving despite your dread that they will not.  All is not lost, you are not doomed yet.  Things can improve.  The task is not to survive everything unscathed, but to survive long enough to see that flickering light form a point, then a path, then a destination.

We don’t need to be reminded that the world can be a cruel place with little concern for human beings, that sometimes our lives truly are at the hands of outside forces deciding our fates without the scarcest hint of compassion.  But nothing is forever.  No pain is eternal.  And when you pick yourself up again, sometimes it turns out that even though you’ll bear the scars of what you went through, you are not unable to stand once more with more pride for having endured.

It’s not for everyone, no, and it shouldn’t be.  But every so often, we can use the darkness to remind ourselves that the light exists.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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