I want to start by saying that I don’t believe there’s a wrong way to enjoy a game; they’re entertainment products, so if you’re enjoying yourself you’re automatically doing it right. There are however cases where a player enjoys a game in a way that blatantly wasn’t the intention behind its creation – where the enjoyment seems to fly in the face of the game’s core design philosophy. This is the position I find myself in playing Darkest Dungeon: a game built around the idea of continual loss…and a game in which I negate the majority of my losses.

Darkest Dungeon garnered considerable media interest while still in development due to its masterful commentary on the idea of dungeon-crawlers, whereby developer Red Hook Studios set out to explore the catastrophic effects that extended dungeon exploration and constant battles with horrifying monsters would have on the psychological and physical wellbeing of the heroes sent to endure them. No other game I’ve played has so aptly portrayed the grim realities of managing such expeditions: your heroes can break from the unfathomable stress, or risk starving or bleeding to death if you fail to bring enough supplies. Recovering from trauma or disease puts heroes temporarily out of commission, and it may be that the rest of your roster don’t have the skills necessary to survive the next excursion. Failure to keep an eye on your coffers could mean you don’t have enough money to treat the afflictions of your heroes and provide enough supplies to the next expedition team to ensure their survival. Your party could be wiped out by an abomination too powerful for them to stand a chance, or a lowly slime could just get in a few lucky hits on your only healer. There’s a myriad of risks and balancing acts at play, from long-term planning to split-second decision making, and failing to handle any one of them could cost lives.

Darkest Dungeon expects you to lose a lot of soldiers in the course of your campaign. You can tell that just from looking at the graveyard: a special part of the estate acting as your base of operations that exclusively serves to remind you how many heroes have died under your command. A stagecoach brings in a constant supply of fresh warriors to replace the dead and the damaged. Your campaign is a meat grinder that takes the fresh-faced, the ambitious and the noble and turns the ones who survive into shattered mockeries of their former selves, leaving you to wonder if it is they, or the dead, who are the lucky ones. The only way to cope as the overseer of this madness is to accept loss as an inevitability, not allowing yourself to feel anything when it happens. This idea is at the heart of everything Darkest Dungeon does. It’s a game about learning to cope with losses.

Except, as it turns out, you don’t have to accept the losses. Which is good for me, because nine times out of ten I actually can’t.

I hate losing progress in video games. Managing depression has taught me not to tolerate anything that generates stress unless it’s absolutely necessary for me to do so (much to the chagrin of many people I’ve known who’ve had the luxury of psychological wellness), and losing a bunch of stuff in a video game ranks as one of the most categorically unnecessary irritations I’ve ever been exposed to. Doesn’t matter how great my day’s been otherwise; the feeling of having such a big investment of time suddenly rendered completely moot can ruin it in seconds. Based on this, it might seem counter-intuitive that I would even subject myself to a game like Darkest Dungeon, let alone enjoy it. The oppressive atmosphere of a nightmare that wants to take everything from you engenders a stoicism that I find quite romantic in the traditional sense, and by god do you feel invincible when everything’s going your way despite it all…but much like the game itself, this is a question of risk and reward; draw the risk out for too long and the odds always catch up with you. What happens when, inevitably, one of my best and brightest heroes finally runs out of luck?

As it turns out, there’s a short window where consequences can be reversed: the map is comprised of a series of rooms connected by corridors that the heroes must traverse. The game auto-saves every time you enter a room. If, therefore, something happens to your party while in transit through one of the many connecting corridors, you can quit out of the game entirely and start it back up to find your merry band in the last room they entered with no consequences whatsoever. This also works with encounters in the rooms themselves: if one of your entourage dies in a room battle and you’d rather they hadn’t, just quit the game, start it back up and start the battle over as if nothing had happened.

This, clearly, is not how the player is supposed to respond to adversity in Darkest Dungeon. If it was, there would be a “load game” option and you wouldn’t have to close the game down entirely in order to go back. Nevertheless, it still adds an interesting edge to the experience for me; every botched quest turns into a Steins;Gate scenario where I send myself back in time trying to find a way to prevent the deaths of my cohorts. There’s no way to go back further than the last room you were in though, and the game auto-saves again at the end of every room battle, so whatever the state of play was at that point is what you’re going to have to work with. Depending on what condition your party was in at the time of the last auto-save, it may ultimately be impossible for all of them to leave the dungeon alive anyway. To get anywhere in Darkest Dungeon, you still need to accept that your campaign will incur some losses. Someone who finds that difficult to swallow is still going to struggle.

Fortunately for me, my concerns aren’t quite as noble as I may have led you to believe. When I go back in time to save my party, it’s not that I don’t want them to die – it’s that I don’t want them to die yet.

I’ll reiterate what I said earlier: I don’t tolerate stress unless it’s necessary. I’ll reverse any loss that I feel would hamstring the expedition and force me to retreat with nothing, or when I know I’ll have to retreat anyway and want to at least perform some damage control…but if the right beast can be slain, or the right treasure won, at the cost of a hero’s life, it’s often easier just to let them die and take the win rather than restart the encounter from scratch. Yes I’d invested a lot of time and money in training and equipping Linesi, my most experienced leper, but he’d become a liability. His selfishness kept him from attacking while his comrades-in-arms boiled alive in the cauldron of a monstrous hag, and if I just let him die I could slay the witch in that turn. Passing up that opportunity and starting the fight from the beginning for a broken soldier who’s given me so much grief already would be far more of an annoyance than watching him die, regardless of how well he’d served me before then. Sacrificing him just made economic sense.

Sometimes I’ll even let my heroes die just if the way they perish is poetic enough. I had a hellion who died in a completely avoidable encounter with some spiders that didn’t seem interested in attacking anyone but her. Poisoned and sustaining a constant stream of blows, she broke and became masochistic. When a hero in Darkest Dungeon becomes masochistic, there’s a chance they will refuse to be healed. Refuse she did, and she perished in an agonising and furious assault – laughing at the pain, all the way to the abyss. It was too perfect a death to merely be wiped away. So I didn’t.

Quite by accident, Darkest Dungeon for me is no longer a game about being a cold, calculating employer who can respond to deaths and defeats; it’s become a game about being a manipulative and mercurial Atropos deciding when to cut the threads – sometimes because it suits my ends, sometimes just because it amuses me. What fascinates me is that despite how obviously against the point of the game it is, there’s something so undeniably thematic about this idea. Imagine what it would do to the heroes if they knew. Imagine if they had gone through so many horrors, watched so many of their companions die brutally amidst gruesome caverns and gnarled, twisted hellscapes at the hands of unthinkable demons and unnameable terrors – only to finally discover that they had done it all at the behest of a capricious demigod who could have undone every tragedy they had been subjected to…and chose not to.

Imagine discovering higher forces had been rewriting your life on a whim.

THAT’S cosmic horror.

I don’t believe there’s a wrong way to enjoy a game. There are however cases where a player enjoys a game in a way that blatantly wasn’t the intention behind its creation – where the enjoyment seems to fly in the face of the game’s core design philosophy. But “unintentional” and “wrong” are two very different concepts. In fact, these emergent experiences can sometimes be so thematically perfect that, if not for a few telling signs, one could be forgiven for thinking it was the intent all along.

This is the position I find myself in playing Darkest Dungeon: a game built around the idea of continual loss…and a game in which each loss is accepted or rejected at my fancy, while the heroes remain blissfully unaware that they serve a creature of more terrifying implication than even the dungeon’s most nightmarish abominations.

About The Author

Purveyor of "deep thoughts", talker of Things, non-associate of crows: Indie Haven's resident Good Video Boy lies in wait deep within the Clown Tower for your audio-visual enjoyment. Creator of Worth Mentioning and co-star of ThingsTalk and The Indie Haven Podcast.

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  • This is the exact loop at play when playing games with an emulator. Only it’s not so much the stress that is too much to bear; It’s just that you are an adult, and you don’t have time to start over, so you have to choose between quitting (for good) or rewinding.

    I’m sure many “checkpoint” based games work the same, but with save-states in emulators, there’s the same kind of trade-off, in that if you are too casual about your saving, it’s possible to find yourself in an insurmountable state.

    I think video games infantilize us to a detriment. We’d be much better off if we can always change the “game state” to meet our real life needs. And if that’s too much responsibility for some, it should be on them to bind their own hands, much like parents can exercise parental-locks over children. If you want to infantilize yourself IOW then do so, but the product has no right. It’s actually an accessibility problem, that can lead to things like parents having to choose between whether to play a game or answer a phone call or even to feed their children.