“Any fool can fight a winning battle, but it needs character to fight a losing one, and that should inspire us.”

Games like Darkest Dungeon, where there isn’t a character-specific story and players are asked to inhabit lots of different roles or create their own characters, encourage some of us to build our own. As humans our brains are designed to build context; even if some of us don’t take it as far as the Elder Scrolls fan base buying leather-bound journals to record their character’s journey, there’s still a natural tendency to identify with the thing representing us on our screens. If you play video games, you probably have a little more of an active imagination than the general public because you’re used to being given a few blanks to fill in on your own.

Games exert a strong psychological pull on us to find meaning in what we’re doing beyond just the text of the quests we’re completing. Most games facilitate this with a pre-written story – even a rudimentary one like “rescue Princess Peach” gives us some context for what our characters are doing. Other games are designed for players to create their own stories. Darkest Dungeon is on its surface a dungeon-delving rogue-like. There’s a basic structural story to it – you, the player, are part of a noble house on the decline, tasked with ridding the town of a terrible and ancient evil that has awakened from its slumber from underneath your manor.

That’s the basic story scaffolding holding up the mechanics at play here, but there’s a parallel one you build with every dungeon dive. On each trip down into the crumbling ruins of your family inheritance, you take along four heroes from your roster of randomly-generated recruitables. Each one begins with a positive trait or two and a couple of negative ones, designed to help or hinder you in your explorations but having the added effect of giving a bit of individuality to your cannon fodder. Every trip you send them on, they’ll acquire new ones. Maybe you get too curious about examining an iron maiden and a characters gets trapped, coming away with a case of claustrophobia. The dungeon dive gives you loot and XP but it also leaves scars on your characters, for good or for bad, writing a little side-story unique to them.

madness

Rule Number One of being an effective field marshal in Darkest Dungeon is: don’t get attached.

If you’re like me and you’re driven to that fill-in-the-blanks tendency, you’ll see these and you’ll subconsciously flesh these characters out. What’s a Crusader doing with syphilis? My brain turns this over and examines it for a meta story, a reason that this guy is willing to throw his life away looking for treasure in some stranger’s decrepit old murder-hole. A sinner looking for divine redemption, maybe.

Dungeon heightens those feelings with melodrama: voiceovers laden with Lovecraftian purple prose, pivotal moments in combat defined by crushing criticals and sudden twists of fate, dizzying highs and crushing lows. The game’s entire structure is rooted in risk versus reward: practically every trinket has a pro and a con, every item you can interact with has a chance for profit or ruin, and every time you run up a character’s sanity meter you can either set off a catastrophic domino effect of psychosis or trigger a redemptive, tide-turning moment of heroism. It emphasizes turning points – the elation you feel as a battle turns in your favor, or the moment you realize a run is doomed.

262060_screenshots_2015-02-07_00001The tightrope-walk inspires a real sense of personal stakes. There are times where a battle can feel unfair, where the numbers just don’t roll in your favor, but in the end I always come away from the game feeling I had control over the situation, for good or for bad. Dungeon’s difficulty never seems arbitrary, or insurmountable. But actual strategy and tactics aside, Rule Number One of being an effective field marshal in Darkest Dungeon is: don’t get attached. Even the game’s opening credits have a warning about characters dying. Be ready to let something go.

The first couple of hours I played of this game I didn’t rename characters, though I realized that was something you could do. I didn’t want to get attached, or to follow my brain’s tendency to create a story for the little paper dolls I marched into battle. I didn’t think twice about throwing someone in the sanitarium, even if they pleaded for me not to. On an early embarkment my Crusader asked simply, “please, I beg you – don’t make me go back down there.” He went back down there, because he was my highest level character. But this game wears you down, just like it wears down your characters. I came to a turning point of my own. I had started caring.

I hovered over his new character trait, wondering if someone could see my own complicated relationship with alcohol if they moused over me.

My favorite Highwayman character came back from a mission stressed and despondent, and I plunked him down in the tavern to get his head back in the game. When I returned from another expedition he had developed a drinking problem, and I knew it was my fault. I had left him there because I didn’t have a lot of gold and the tavern is the cheapest “therapy” the town offers. I hovered over his new character trait, wondering if someone could see my own complicated relationship with alcohol if they moused over me. The thought wouldn’t have occurred so poignantly to me had I not felt fundamentally at fault for what had happened. The game hadn’t arbitrarily bestowed this upon him – I’d failed him by making a series of stupid decisions.

After that I started naming all my characters after close friends and family. I thought that if I viewed my party members as interchangeable cogs, I wouldn’t try hard enough to save them. If I got attached, I wouldn’t be letting my feelings cloud my judgment – I’d be forcing myself to be a better tactician if I had something at stake. My Highwayman even got my own name, as a way of taking responsibility for what I’d inadvertantly done to him through poor planning and callousness. When one of my Occultists fell in battle, I recruited another in town and named him after the first, appending a “II” to the end of his name, and it softened the blow. I was comforted by honoring a dead friend. My brain sought meaning.

Oh, but pride cometh before a fall, and Dungeon will humble you at some point or another.

For a few hours more of gameplay I felt even more capable and prepared for every skirmish. I crushed my first couple of bosses, had a few epic loot hauls, and leveled all of my best characters to the ‘veteran’ level 3 out of a possible 6. Oh, but pride cometh before a fall, and Dungeon will humble you at some point or another. My time was coming.

It wasn’t even a boss quest. Just a regular old ‘clear all the rooms’ trip, with plenty of supplies and preparation. I had about ten rooms to clear and the first eight I handled easily. I was cocky as I neared the ninth room.

My Crusader fell first. A critical in the enemy’s favor put him on death’s door, and then a crossbow quarrel struck him before my healer could act, instantly killing him. I felled his murderer almost immediately after, but I was rattled. I had one battle left in the dungeon to complete my quest. I couldn’t let him die in vain, I had to finish what I’d started, right? Everyone else was doing well, HP-wise. I camped in the next empty room, hoping to recover enough of their health and sanity to just scrape by and make this whole thing worthwhile. 262060_screenshots_2015-07-09_00001

My three party members sat around their campfire, the empty 4th spot where my paladin should have been conspicuous and damning. My cleric sang a song to lift her friends’ spirits. My heathen barbarian cursed the gods for their divine malfeasance. My Highwayman cleaned his guns and made a comment about a beer waiting for him at his tavern haunt. They were dealing with the situation with their own individual coping mechanisms.

I got greedy, as we’re all wont to do in a game like this, and I wanted to keep rolling the dice.

I could have left. I could have abandoned the pursuit and gone back to town to let the other three of my party live another day, with a huge haul of loot and trinkets. I got greedy, as we’re all wont to do in a game like this, and I wanted to keep rolling the dice. I could handle one more fight.

Three turns into that last skirmish the enemy landed a critical that killed all three of them at once. Deathblow, deathblow, deathblow. I don’t know what the statistical chances of that are but it felt like destiny, punishment for my hubris. I had rolled three hundred-sided dice and all of them came up ones, in some cosmological alignment. At least none of them died alone.

I’ve never been the controller-throwing type but in that moment I was very tempted. Sadly this is a keyboard-and-mouse game and throwing a keyboard is a lot harder and less satisfying, so instead I just shoved myself away from my computer, stood up, and angrily paced around my apartment. Why had this affected me so badly? Did I need to rethink that whole ‘getting attached’ thing? Letting down a bunch of chibi throwaways was one thing, letting down a whole group of them named after your friends and family was another. Getting someone with hours’ worth of backstory you’d created for them killed ends that story.

Risk and reward, redemption or damnation, god or the bottle.

I thought back to what this game is all about: that bitter/sweet balance that makes failure so hurtful but success so rewarding. Risk and reward, redemption or damnation, god or the bottle. It makes for great stories, even if they end badly. In a way, I had completed these characters’ stories, not cut them short. I’d made a miniature little Greek tragedy all my own. It’s actually a lot more fun and interesting to tell an “I got my whole party wiped in what felt like heaven’s wrath being rained down upon my fool head” story than an “I beat all the monsters and leveled up and got some treasure” story.

It’s easy to let yourself cry over story-intensive games like The Walking Dead or The Last of Us. Everyone understands the power of a well-told story. I think it’s harder to explain why this kind of game, one without direct traditional exposition, can inspire the same emotional reaction. Our human need to make a cohesive narrative from our experiences drives us to seek meaning, even from just a party wipe in a video game. Sometimes the stories we inadvertently create for ourselves are even more effective because they are wholly our own.

About The Author

Contributing Editor

Erin was born in a sci-fi convention hotel room, cradled in a bed made of gold box D&D games, and swaddled in a blanket sewn from pages of the Silmarillion. Her first writing gig was in 3rd grade when she was paid one whole dollar to make a cutting satirical pamphlet about the lack of pop-tarts in the cafeteria. It won a Peabody.

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