‘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.

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.

RATING 8 / 10