Masterful, Merciless, Madness

Darkest Dungeon

Red Hook Studios/ Horror, RPG, Strategy

20170716_212924I’ve had a long standing relationship with the darkness and with hopelessness. Quite likely stemming from a very intimate history with depression; how riveting it can be to peel back the layers of the shadows and to peek into the fragile minds that dare to delve within it. When you realize that the people behind great deeds are, in fact, human and prone to the same weaknesses we all are, it reduces an idol to a breathing soul.

It’s perhaps one of the things that’s always irked me most about fantasy stories and adventures: how inhuman all the main characters are. In human in the sense that, despite overwhelming and impossible odds, or great horrors, their minds remain unblemished after the battle ends. Sure, they’ll be distraught by loss or over joyed with victory, but these are fleeting emotions before they just kind of… move on.

This is why games that have mechanics to really reflect the fragility of the human mind are something I strongly value in many game genres. And while I certainly don’t, for a moment, think that every game needs to have such mechanics: the ones that do are a very welcome change of pace. As such, Darkest Dungeon has become something of an obsession of mine in the recent weeks.

DarkestDungeon_Metadata_BackgroundPDP_1That’s a slight lie on my part: I was infatuated with the game when I first discovered it last year late, late into the summer. I poured many hours into it before I was dealt a series of devastating losses that I , personally, was having a hard time recovering from. More on that later.

Let’s start from the beginning of things here: in the game, you play as the ancestor of a once great and powerful family. Of course, as your ancestor (know in game only as The Ancestor) grew bored of more conventional diversions, he began to dabble in the forbidden and the insane. This dips very heavily into H.P. Lovecraft‘s works as the Ancestor discovers ruins and gateways beneath the family manor.

And anyone familiar with Lovecraft knows that, when you find a door guarded by squid-faced statues, the correct answer is always, ALWAYS nope right out of there. Breaching the gateway, of course, releases unspeakable and unfathomable horrors into the mansion, and a creeping doom begins to infect the lands surrounding.

It is your job, dear player, to play clean-up. Tainted monsters, blood-thirsty brigands and all manner of eldritch horrors need killing. But since you are by no means a fighter yourself, your only option is to hire others to do the cleaning for you. That way, when the terrible realities of what it is they’re seeing start to sink in, you’re no worse for wear. Kinda.

I’m going to by-pass a lot of the mechanics of the game in favour of getting to the real meat of my interests with this game. And in all honesty, if understanding the mechanics in more depth is your thing, you can find 1000 and 1 reviews out there that’ll pull them apart. No, my interests lie in the unique stories each and every of these characters you’ll hire tell. And, most fascinatingly, how the game encourages you to either be a caring or apathetic commander.

Let’s take this one step at a time, shall we. Starting with point one: these strangely unique characters who’ll wander their way into your town, looking for gold and glory. Or perhaps redemption. Aside from the first four characters you get when you start the game, each character is randomly generated every time you return to town from an expedition. And while the base stats of each class are very uniform and all the faces look the same, what’s more interesting is the random quirks that each character begins with.

chesterThese quirks come in two flavours, good and bad. And with a little bit of imagination, you can conjure up all sorts of fascinating potential backstories for each of these new arrivals. Of course, this requires a degree of acknowledging the cannon lore for each class, as according to the official IG write-ups: each class represents one specific person. For example, the highwayman’s name is Dismas, and upon game completion, you can unlock a comic strip that tells a little of his specific backstory.

This begins to fall apart a little when you consider how many Dismas’ are running amok at any given time. Not too long ago, I had 3 highwaymen in my roster, one of which was named Dismas, and the other two were very nearly clones aside from their scarf colours (in the couple of expeditions that followed, pretty well all of them died horrible deaths. #adventurerlifegoals ). Upon inspection of each character, their personalities were quite different, and because of how I was trying to save some IG money by not unlocking each and every one of their skills, they all had a slightly different way of fighting and working with a team.

I got to know each of these characters rather well. In one case, a highwayman (I’mma keep using these guys as an example for reasons well beyond my own comprehension) names Meri arrived in town. About as low level as they come, he seemed to be more skilled in swordplay than in the use of his gun. What was interesting, though, was that his positive trait was Weald Scrounger, meaning he was more comfortable in the woods and better at scouting ahead there. But his negative quirk was Witness. At some point in his life, he had seen something unsettling happen in a place of worship, and as a result, refuses to go back inside.

darkest-dungeon-review-crop-a_480.0Like I said, a little imagination and you can start to piece together Meri’s backstory. Off top of my head, I can picture a young lad who was training to be a knight in the service of God. Perhaps it was a scandal from the local abbot, but he saw something in his youth that caused him to turn his back on the church. He was a skilled swordsman already, so carving a life for himself out in the woods as a brigand would be no major difficulty. With rumours persisting of a wealthy family hiring explorers to delve into dangerous ruins and the like for good coin, Meri signed on to the nearest caravan and found his way to the Hamlet.

Kind of hits the realm of fan-fiction in many regards, but a good piece of fan-fiction can serve as the basis for great writing material.

Each and every of these characters seem so interesting in their own way, which made leading them further and further down into despair and danger all the more harder. This ties in that second point I mentioned previously quite nicely, and also relates to that point on a crippling defeat I had brought up some ten paragraphs ago. As you begin to get to know these characters, invest a lot of time and effort into raising and improving them, their deaths become all the harder to burden.

Perma-death mechanics are a fickle mistress in gaming. You either love or loathe them. In this case, I view it as a necessary part of the experience. Because I do feel sad when I lose an adventurer I had grown fond of. Sure, I don’t know them on a personal level, and I didn’t watch any cut-scenes featuring exposition or points from the Writer’s Guide to Making Audiences Love Your Character nonsense. No. Instead, I watch these brave, sometimes desperate souls, fight impossible odds or losing battles against mind-breakingly strong adversaries.

So when I would watch, of that party of four who left confident and full of vigor come back as only one or two, horribly broken both physically and mentally, it can be very draining for me. As I’ve learned, I’m not the sort of leader who can just throw bodies into a meat-grinder if it meets a goal. I want to see as many of those heroes return after the battle and celebrate victory with me.

The last time I had played extensively was November of the past year. I don’t remember all the details specifically, but I had suffered a string of terrible losses that forced me to surrender to the demons, as it were. Many of my best and favourite adventures had died one after the other, my coffers had become so light the only option was to send out more parties with bare minimum equipment and pray for the best. Of course, these expeditions would end in disaster, if it were the best case scenario anyway.

After a couple of IG months of this, I turned back and surrendered the Hamlet to the creeping demonic influence that was laying claim to the land. I lacked the emotional fortitude to keep going and I surrendered.

There’s something very visceral and powerful about experiencing that in a game. Not because it was a scripted loss where the game was stacked against me (though, with the nature of RNG dungeons, that very well may be the case sometimes), but because of the circumstances, I found my breaking point. And the best thing about it is, aside from time invested, I didn’t actually lose anything for the experience. No one actually got hurt of worse, and I personally grew from the experience.

Now I’m back delving into the Darkest of Dungeons (with a new file, obviously) and applying the lessons I learned from my previous incarnation to wage war against the Eldar Ones. And these lessons are also useful outside of this game.

I know now that, in the heat of the moment I will make a choice to sacrifice everything to obtain my goal but will very much regret it later on. I also know that the individuals are important to me, and that the ends don’t justify the means. Care and caution are paramount, and I can’t ignore that about myself.

This didn’t fall under the category of your typical review. I didn’t assign it an arbitrary number, I didn’t discuss extensively the graphics or even the team that made it. I needed to review my own process and thoughts with this experience and how it has shaped me today. Because that’s what games and experiences do: they shape us.

Even if, to do so, they expose us to horrors our rational minds could never fathom.

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