Rather fittingly, my current Jester is afflicted with Deviant Tastes, Known Cheat, Resolution, Witness, and Unquiet Mind. Therefore, he cannot gamble, drink, pray, meditate or seek relief at the brothel. This is what Darkest Dungeon has given me.
My town, appropriately named “The Darkest Steven Estate,” is supposed to be a place to heal my warriors before their next plunge into one of the game’s many dangerous dungeons. I said “current Jester” because there are three already buried in between the Abbey and the Sanitarium. It’s become rather routine that each time I return to town, I bury another body. Death is one of two things I’ve come to expect in Darkest Dungeon. The other is stress; thirty damn hours of joyous, maniacal stress.
Darkest Dungeon is currently a PC exclusive that will be released this Spring on Playstation 4 and PS Vita. Since its proper launch in late January, the game has commanded a dedicated following. It’s official wiki has over 2,000 pages, curated and edited by a sizable chunk of fans. Despite the wealth of information available, wading through the myriads of dark chambers is unique for each player.
Anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons knows how brutal it can be when “that guy” is the Dungeon Master—the one who enjoys plaguing your battlers with awful diseases, relishes in dismembering your favorite character, and tricks you into seemingly calm situations only to pull the rug out and change everything in a matter of moments. And if you aren’t familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, I’m basically talking about the kid who likes to change the rules mid-game when he realizes he’s losing.
In that bizarre sense, Darkest Dungeon is the most authentic D&D gaming experience. Each level is randomized, and replaying areas always offers new revelations. This kind of “procedural generation,” as it’s called, isn’t a fresh feature in itself. Games like Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, The Binding of Isaac, and many others have brought this mechanic into widespread popularity in recent years. But here unpredictability runs deeper than the setting in ways that make Darkest Dungeon the quirkiest game I’ve played in long time—literally.
In the game, “quirks” are temporary attributes that change a character’s stats and behavior. A party consists of four heroes, each holding a maximum of ten quirks at once, equal parts positive and negative. Quirks can affect character stats or mood and behavior, both in-dungeon and out. My revolving door of a party has experienced over one hundred quirks throughout the course of my journey. This plethora of quirk amalgams leads me to one constant: stress is the most fickle and persistently looming quirk of all.
TAKE MY BREATH AWAY
At first glance, Darkest Dungeon doesn’t take your breath away. The premise is to move from one room to the next, left to right, horizontally across the screen until you reach a door to the next room or a prompt tells you to pick an adjacent room to explore. Occasionally there are enemies to fight with turn-based combat. Scattered throughout are curios—interactive objects such as crates, chests, bookcases, and sarcophagi, that can be searched for gold, usable items and, of course, quirks. To be reductive, that’s the general gist, and maybe that’s the point. Reload in town, rinse, and repeat.
In no way does Darkest Dungeon innovate on combat or exploration. There are many dungeon crawlers that do better with both aspects, and look a hell of a lot prettier doing so. Instead, it pushes the limits of unexpectedness in games while simultaneously cementing an age-old belief that video games can be, and often benefit from being, stressful. It takes this further than inducing stress on the player by doing harm to in-game characters as well, even further stressing the player out.
When a character suffers from an ailment, player impulse says to find a healing item. That’s what games have taught us. However, negatives often compound. Of course, lucky streaks can occur, and your favorite Highwayman could become devastatingly powerful and lucky. The give and take between positive and negative is refreshing and endlessly surprising. Stress, actual human anxiety, comes from the randomness of it all. Characters jump from eagerly enthusiastic to despondently dismayed in a matter of minutes and even seconds. The more you as the player get stressed out, the more likely your actions are to distress your heroes. The more stressed they are, the likelihood of player stress increases. The cycle of stress comes full circle.
What Darkest Dungeon does best is generate overarching and systematic discomfort. At no point inside the dark caverns and decrepit rooms did I feel as if I could coast to victory. Too many things could go wrong. On multiple occasions, my characters have refused to fight, denied healing, and even gone as far as to damage themselves. Once a character loses all of their health, they reaches Death’s Door, and shortly after, if nothing is done to subside their condition, they becomes another tombstone in the ever-expanding graveyard. With each death comes new lessons, but Darkest Dungeon doesn’t allow you to learn enough to avoid future deaths altogether.
It can’t go without saying that Darkest Dungeon tests the concept of fairness in games. There were instances in which I was annoyed with the way a situation played out—when I took immaculate care of every facet of the intricate character customization features, I felt cheated and wrongfully punished for my misfortunes. Through it all, I stuck with it, because it does something that no other game has done with this degree of success: stress me out to the point of bliss.
A quirk is a peculiar behavioral habit. Darkest Dungeon is a peculiar game; it positively and negatively affects behaviors, and it has a habit of straining one’s wits to their frayed ends. I suppose the act of playing this game as much as I have is a quirk that I’ll never fully understand, and that’s probably for the best.
Steven Petite attempts to divide his time between freelance and fiction writing, reading far too many novels, and playing half a dozen games simultaneously. He is a lifelong Cleveland native, and consequently a tortured sports enthusiast. He is a staff writer for Fiction Southeast and The Rock Office. He has frequently written for The Huffington Post and his fiction has appeared in Cigale Literary Magazine.
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