Editorial

A testament to emergent narrative: How failing made me love Darkest Dungeon

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So I’m going to tell you a story. A story about a game. A game you should buy. It’s not a perfect game, nor is it the flashiest or most polished game. But it is an amazing game, and a game that perfectly encapsulates one part of gaming that I love but don’t see very often.

First though, on to my story:

My ragtag party of adventurers was traveling through the ruins beneath Hamlet, a town that was once picturesque but has been overcome by a malaise of madness thanks to my relative, who squandered the family fortune seeking out the hidden power beneath the town. In doing so, he unleashed a Lovecraftian horror upon the town, which brought with it madness and despair.

Thanks, dude.

Anyways, it’s my job to basically run an adventurer screening agency and send groups of four cannon fodd–errrr… heroes into the various dungeons, catacombs and otherwise horrible areas in, under, and around my ancestral home. There, they must clear out the shapeless, faceless, unknowable, unnameable horrors that dwell in those inhospitable locales and make the place habitable again.

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In this case, my group was fairly solid but not yet very experienced. We had Reynauld, the kleptomaniac crusader (“I’ll just be taking this… …for Jesus.”), Dismas, the hard-headed and surprisingly heroic highwayman, Omand the apprentice plague doctor who was maybe just a little too eager to conduct his borderline unethical experiments, and the faithless vestal Mustel, who wielded the power of the Gods even without true belief.

The group was doing pretty well up to that point. They traveled through the depths, cleaning out the catacombs of the undead like some crazy cross between the Ghostbusters and a zombie plumbing service. The party was hot on the trail of the apprentice necromancer who was to blame for the infestation, so they could hand him his eviction notice.

Don’t look at me like that. The bum wasn’t paying his rent, I had no choice. Not to mention the toll the walking dead has on property values. I have to look at recouping my family fortune, after all.

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Unfortunately, the journey was also taking its toll on the minds of my dutiful and quirky adventurers. The malaise of madness (remember that?) is a constant strain on my adventurers’ imperfect, squishy brains and the challenges of the ruins began to become too much for them.

Reynauld was the first to snap and started to become abusive to his fellows, questioning what right they, faithless heathens, had to be battling the legions of the dark. Dismas began to see plots and ambushes in every shadow… and in his own allies, whom he no longer trusted at his back. Omand the plague doctor started to become engrossed in masochism, using himself as guinea pig for his unspeakable experiments. By the time they’d set up camp for their first night in the ruins, even faithless Mustel too gave in to her own special brand of madness, babbling incoherently about the invisible light of the sun and stars.

That night was particularly tense. An insidious trap brought Dismas to death’s door just before they set up camp, so I set Mustel and Omand to setting his wounds. It took some time, however. At first, he was wary of them, dismissing the vestal’s prayers and claiming he would have no part of the plague doctor’s “mad experiments” (which seemed rude considering he’d spent so much time experimenting on himself to get them right). They eventually managed to bind at least some of his wounds, but it took a prohibitively long amount of time and they weren’t even able to get to Reynauld’s own crippling injuries… likely because they didn’t want to go near him considering how verbally abusive he’d become.

Serves him right. No one likes a jerk, Reynauld.

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Shortly after the group settled in for the night, spread out throughout the room – either not trusting or not liking their fellows enough to spend the night anywhere near them – they were awoken by an ambush. Fortunately, their training and natural skill was enough to keep them from being killed in their sleep, but it was a difficult battle against cultists and more skeletons… a battle that proved to be too much for their already broken psyches.

Mustel continued to try and heal Dismas, to call upon prayers that even she didn’t believe would work, but he would have nothing to do with her incantations. “I see what you’re plotting,” he said, waving off her attempts to aid him. It was after one of these attempts that he took a blow that finally felled him… ironically, for all his paranoia, he didn’t see it coming.

Seeing his ally fall sent Omand spiraling into his own masochistic malady. Somewhere between euphoric bliss and jealousy, he cried, “HE WHO HEALS IS TRULY IMMORTAL!” and cut himself to prove it.

It turns out he wasn’t immortal after all.

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Shielding his still-babbling ally, cursing about his fellows’ ineptitude the whole time, Reynauld managed to finish the battle all but single-handedly (which did absolutely nothing for his insufferable attitude, let me tell you). Finally, the battle had been won.

Unfortunately, the damage had been done. Two were dead, one’s mind completely lost and, in the most pragmatic sense, her usefulness at an end. The ruins had broken my “heroes” and they were forced to retreat… not entirely empty handed for they had found some dusty relics and a small amount of coins, but I still had a freeloading necromancer in my dungeons and I will need to organize another party to clear him out before his big skeleton block party next weekend. Hopefully the next “heroes” I mobilize will prove to be of tougher stuff than the first.

But I doubt it.

This horrific scene was the tipping point that made me go from liking Darkest Dungeon (which I was prepared to do from the moment I heard the phrase  “psychological horror dungeon crawler” used to describe it) to loving Darkest Dungeon. Through a series of numbers, random (and sometimes repetitive) dialogue and a stress mechanic that is both surprisingly simple and yet has potential for infinite depth, Darkest Dungeon doesn’t so much tell a story (it does, but it’s a pretty basic story we’ve all heard before… not bad, but not exactly innovative) as invite you to tell your own.

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I love it when a game incorporates random elements in such a way that gives you the tools to craft your own tale. Emergent narrative, some call it. Dwarf Fortress does this beautifully, though if infinitely (and some might say prohibitively) more complexly. Sure, everyone who plays the Darkest Dungeon will, at some point, go after the apprentice necromancer as I did, some with greater success and some with lesser success. But each of those attempts are going to be different.

Perhaps this guy over here will have managed their heroes’ stress better so they didn’t all snap (or maybe they all snapped in different ways or at different times). Perhaps that girl over there didn’t lose her heroes to insanity but to the mundane… a skeleton’s axe or a trap.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll find your adventurers overcome with a sudden surge of heroism rather than madness, and their courage will be an inspiration to their fellows, enough for them to carry on their duty to completion. The random element can often be the difference between success and failure and it is quite often completely out of your control.

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This is not a game for the faint of heart. It is prohibitively difficult at times (because, as I said, a lot of the success and failure involved in the game is random) and almost painfully unforgiving. It also may not be a game for those who lack imagination. I suppose there is a sort of mechanical challenge to the game, something meant to be studied, broken. and beaten like any other mechanical challenge, through aggressive management of mechanics and numbers… but I think approaching the game like that is doing it a disservice. My above story could have gone very much like this:

My crusader, highwayman, plague doctor and vestal went into the ruins dungeon for the apprentice necromancer quest. Since I hadn’t done any stress management for them after the last quest they were on, their stress scores were high and they eventually maxed out. My crusader got the abusive state, my highwayman got the paranoid state, my vestal got the irrational state, my plague doctor got the masochistic state. The paranoid state made it hard to heal my highwayman. He was killed by a skeleton. My plague doctor was dropped to zero hit points and killed himself because of his masochistic state. I won the fight with my two remaining characters and left the dungeon.

Strictly speaking, that’s what happened in a mechanical, gameplay sense. And it’s boring (well, ok, playing it wasn’t boring, but it’s not the sort of edge-of-your-seat story that’s going to be fun to tell at parties). But if you have the imagination to look at the sometimes-random, even nonsensical things the game does and take a moment to think a little deeper about it, then Darkest Dungeon is a game that will engage you for countless hours, long after the mechanical challenge has ceased to entertain you (whether because you beat it or it’s too difficult and you hurl your computer out the window).

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If you let it, the Darkest Dungeon will engage that part of you that used to play make believe in the yard, to pretend you were a pirate or a cowboy or an astronaut when all you really were was just a hyper kid who’d eaten too much sugar, running around in some overgrown grass. Sure, there’s some joy to be gained from the strictly mechanical, overcoming what is a pretty unforgiving and difficult dungeon crawling rogue-like game, but I think it really will speak more to those of us who can still allow an experience not to hold our hands and slap us in the face with a story, but an experience that can take us out of the ordinary and put us in a place with a bag of tools to tell one ourselves.

If you’re still capable of that sort of wonder, or if you’re simply a fan of dungeon crawlers and rogue-likes in general, then I can’t recommend Darkest Dungeon enough.

Darkest Dungeon is currently available for Early Access on Steam for $20. Since its February early access release, the game has received several major updates (including one this month that introduced, among other things, a new class called the houndmaster) and is ramping up for a full, 1.0 release in October this year, just in time for Halloween.

Reid Gacke
Writer, journalist, teacher, pedant. Reid's done just about anything and everything involving words and now he's hoping to use them for something he's passionate about: video games. He's been gaming since the onset of the NES era and has never looked back.

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