Games

'Darkest Dungeon', a Masochist's Dream

For as much as you level up in Darkest Dungeon, you will also level down. This is not power fantasy. This is a fantasy of cruelty and self inflicted pain.


Darkest Dungeon

Publisher: Red Hook
Developer: Steam
Release date: 2015-01

I'm pretty addicted at present to Darkest Dungeon. But then again, I've always been a bit of a masochist.

Those who are drawn to games like Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy, and The Binding of Isaac should understand. Play is supposed to be a pleasure, but folks like ourselves recognize that you can't fully appreciate pleasure without pain.

If this sounds backwards, consider the declarations made by Ishmael in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Ishmael explains that “a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich (Moby Dick, Norton, p. 58). Yeah, you heard that right, warmth is a discomfort of the rich. Ishmael explains this seeming contradiction, saying, “To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so long a time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable anymore” (p. 58).

In some way, this sense of the importance that contrast plays in truly enjoying a thing seems to be the central principle of the design aesthetic of Red Hook Studios's game Darkest Dungeon (presently in early access on Steam, though quite polished and playable in its current form). For as much as you level up in this turn-based role playing game, you will also level down. Nearly every new trinket that your party of explorers finds in a dungeon will confer some bonuses to the character that equips them, alongside some penalty that is also incurred for having made it active.

You just found a trinket that gives you ten percent more hit points? Cool, hope you enjoy the -5 accuracy penalty that comes along with those extra hit points.

Underlying the genre of the fantasy role playing game is traditionally a sense that experience always makes one better, stronger, mightier. Most role playing games are a steady progression upwards, the story of a farm boy that becomes something godly and nearly omnipotent. Despite their lowly beginnings, they will become a jedi -- both eventually and inevitably. Darkest Dungeon is set in a Lovecraftian universe, a universe in which experience is not assumed to be in of itself a positive thing, usually quite the opposite. Experiencing the monsters and horrors of Lovecraftian lore twist you, wear you down, destroying your body and mind.

The mechanisms of Darkest Dungeon promote the idea that experience is a double edged sword. When you level up in the game following a dive into the corrupted spaces in which monsters dwell, this affords the opportunity to upgrade your equipment and to buy more powerful versions of spells, skills, and other abilities. But such advances always come at a cost, and this cost is paid twice, through the experience acquired by crawling through a dungeon, but also in the coin needed to actually purchase upgraded weapons, armor, and abilities.

The first cost, spending time among evil things, libraries filled with corrupted and corrupting texts, and kitchens filled with the remains of slaughtered adventurers, takes a toll on the mind and the body in the game. One might be happy to receive a level and a positive character trait like toughness after completing a dungeon, but you may also come back carrying disease and having developed some mental disorders, both of which will weaken your character, something to carry with you right alongside the positive passive bonuses that you also received.

In addition to health, the game also includes a “stress” track. If one of your characters executes a particularly exceptional attack, that character and his companions may become hopeful, allowing the stresses of constant slaughter and constantly confronting nightmarish creature to diminish. More often, though, a monster's successful attack or a failure in disarming a trap or the reading of a bizarre passage from an old tome found in a dungeon will lead to increasing stress. If pushed to the brink, characters will gain mental maladies. An abusive character will harass their fellow adventurers, increasing the stress of the party. Masochistic characters will refuse to be healed or stab themselves. Hopeless characters may pass their turn at a crucial moment during a fight.

Everything is contrast here, one step forward for any given character will probably also mean one or even two steps back. I believe the level cap for characters in the game is currently six, which might seem absurd, but when you start a game at level zero and frequently get penalized for seeking out the treasures of a deadly and dark space, hitting even level two actually feels like an accomplishment. The fact that Darkest Dungeon also features perma-death also means that when you finally scratch your way up to a level four character, for example, you may see he or she slaughtered in the blink of an eye during their very next adventure. Time to find yourself a new level zero crusader that will need to grind his way back up to that level to face off against whatever horrors his predecessor was felled by.

However, as Ishmael's observation implies, within discomfort or within (in this case) hopelessness, one is more clearly made aware of the comforts and hopes that emerge from small accomplishments. This is the pleasure of playing Darkest Dungeon and maybe explains my addiction to it. I'm addicted to accomplishment that feels hard won and horribly earned, not the accomplishment that other games usually provide, accomplishments that are inevitable given their developers' belief in only the positive aspects of experience. This, I think, is what drives the gamer as masochist, a recognition that pleasure emerges out of pain, if only because pain makes one most truly aware of pleasure, heightening it through hopelessness.

8

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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