There’s been a lot of good words said about Darkest Dungeon (by Red Hook Studios), a new dungeon-crawler-tactical-turn-based-gothic-horror-themed RPG in Early Access at the moment on Steam. I’m generally not a fan of early access games, but Darkest Dungeon is already (in my opinion) a pretty well polished product and has enough content to justify the £15 purchase for me. But this post isn’t a review, it’s more of a discussion of the way its mechanics make is so good. I like deconstructing these things, so I hope you do too.
Darkest Dungeon is all about a group of mere mortals – people – striving to fight against a kind of Cthulhu-esque corrupting evil which resides in the titular Darkest Dungeon. The player is the heir to an estate where some time in the past the unidentified “horrors” were broken loose by the owner, and it’s your job to “claim your birthright”. So time to charge in all guns blazing, yes?
“This game expects a lot out of you.”
The first and most important thing about Darkest Dungeon is that it isn’t fair, and it’s not designed to be. In fact, it’s explicitly unfair to the player, and I think that’s what makes it such a good game. The whole game revolves around how relatively powerless your heroes are – although they are prodigious fighters all, your team is outnumbered and outgunned on all sides. Every action you take has repercussions, and they are designed to disempower you in some way.
Some of these disempowerment mechanics are long-term, like the Stress mechanic (which could take up a whole post on its own), and some are much more short-term such as trying not to run out of torches, or food, or bandages, all of which are essential for success.
The overall aesthetic of the game just shouts about the fact that you’re not meant to succeed – from the music to the enemy design, things are creepy or horrifying or … worse? What’s particularly interesting, though, is that the game mechanics serve to really reinforce this aesthetic. Your opponents suffer less from debuffs and persistent damage effects than you do, and long-term effects such as bleeding characters persist even after battles, forcing you to make decisions about whether to use your limited bandage supply out of combat. Healing is rare and precious, so every time your enemies land a critical strike you really feel more vulnerable as a result. When you’re walking the thin line between survival and failure, your hero missing a crucial attack feels genuinely unfair.
But that’s the point – it’s not fair – and the inherent frustration of the RNG (which feels like it’s biased against you) makes for a perfect microcosm of the overall picture. When every action you take in each fight is inherently risky, you start to feel paralyzed by decision.
The general idea permeates every part of the game, beyond the fight mechanics and the visuals. Even the tutorials reinforce this overall feeling of dread, despair, and unfairness. After about an hour in the game you come across a new mechanic – camping – which allows your heroes to take on longer missions for higher rewards. But the game doesn’t actually tell you how much longer the new missions are. In fact, it gives you completely minimal advice for any new mechanic. That leaves the player sitting trying to work out how to plan for the new type of mechanic – do I take double the normal food supply, will that be enough? (not quite) Will I need proportionally more or fewer torches? Do I have to camp, and what are the associated risks? (ambush).
Not giving that information to the player, or letting the player test things out in a safe environment, really is unfair to the player since Darkest Dungeon punishes you harshly for bad decisions. Again, the unknown consequences of the player’s actions makes the player feel like the whole endeavour is hopeless and unfair.
Here’s what I think is so masterful about this game – all of these mechanics conspire together to put the player directly into the same mindset as the fictional character who they play. Darkest Dungeon isn’t an RPG because it has character stat sheets and skill upgrades and levels; it’s an RPG because the experience is crafted delicately to put the player in the same mental state as the character which they have taken the role of. You, the player, are the protagonist, and your struggle against the darkness is real.