I tend to put roguelike RPGs into two categories: The games in which we fight people and the games in which we fight something more akin to elemental forces. I usually prefer the “forces” roguelikes. These are games in which we struggle against something that we can’t kick or punch. It’s an idea we battle, something universal and almost mythical in its scope. These are games like Out There, in which we explore a galaxy and pray that we find enough resources along the way to fuel another jump, or Tharsis, in which we struggle against constant mechanical failures aboard a starship, like characters might in a disaster movie. We’re not fighting other people in these games. We’re fighting nature itself: the barren universe and the cruel indifference of space.
When up against such all-encompassing forces, how can we not expect to fail? These kinds of roguelikes make me feel okay about losing, and since they are roguelikes, I’ll be losing a lot. Additionally, It’s nice when those failures don’t sting.
The downside to these “forces” roguelikes is that there’s no combat, since combat necessitates an enemy that we can kick or punch. I’m a sucker for some good RPG turn-based combat, and most of the roguelikes that do feature fights against people, such as Skyshine’s Bedlam, XCOM, or FTL, have great combat. I’ve complained a lot about FTL over the years, but even I can admit that its combat system is great fun.
I’ve always been able to separate roguelike RPGs based on this criteria. It has never failed me — until Darkest Dungeon.
The story tasks us with trying to reclaim our ancestral manor from the Lovecraftian evil that lives in the mines below. That’s all well and good, except that Lovecraftian evils are, almost by definition, things that cannot really be defeated or beaten. They’re primordial things, powers of nature, fundamental constants of the universe — gods that have no use for or any concern about mankind. They’re the “force” part of a roguelike given physical form, the barren universe and the cruel indifference of space incarnate. What hope does mankind possibly have against such a thing? None, obviously. So when you fail and die and the world is consumed by evil, don’t feel too bad. It was gonna happen anyway.
At least that’s how it usually goes with these sorts of eldritch monsters, but Darkest Dungeon does give us a means of fighting back. We can’t fight the ancient power itself, but we can fight its minions. That’s where the combat comes in, and Darkest Dungeon becomes a game about kicking and punching in the most efficient and tactical way we can. Terrible monsters die by our hand, and it’s thrilling. However, even though I may win several battles, I’m under no illusions that I’ve won the war.
These two styles of play shouldn’t work together for that reason. Combat shouldn’t be satisfying. Each win should feel like a loss, since each individual enemy is really part of this unstoppable whole. Each victory is just a Pyrrhic victory that hurts us more than it helps us. But this combination of “vs. people” and “vs. forces” roguelikes actually has the opposite effect. I know my horrible end is coming, it’s inevitable, but each victory delays that end just a little bit longer. There is a clear, tangible, and immediate reward for winning: the ability to fight again.
The horror setting certainly helps as well, giving our endeavor an emotional depth missing from most other roguelikes. This is not a game about people fighting against some vague idea of the universe, but against evil incarnate. We’re clearly the good guys. This gives our struggle a sense of nobility and importance that’s lacking in Out There and Tharsis. We’re not struggling to survive just to survive. Our survival is a righteous act of defiance, a principled protest in support of all that is good in the universe.
There is even a political edge to the story’s premise. Some rich white guy opened a gateway to evil out of a feeling of decadent boredom, and now we have to put together an expedition of ruffians and mercenaries and criminals and wanderers in order to close that portal. The upper class is literally dragging the rest of us to hell, and our only salvation is a united, concentrated act of self-sacrifice. We suffer from, and then must fix, their mistakes.
The game’s structure seems to allow for more nuanced emergent stories as well. Darkest Dungeon is structured around expeditions, but the expeditions don’t represent the totality of the game. This isn’t like The Binding of Isaac in which each run through our basement was the whole game — die, and you have to start over from the first floor. In Darkest Dungeon each expedition takes place within a larger narrative context, and that larger context allows room for me to fail without having to start the game over. If my entire party dies in a dungeon, that’s not the end of my story. It’s a setback, certainly, but all that really means is that I have to recruit more ruffians and put together a new team.
This allowance for failure is wonderful and gives the game a grand narrative missing from other roguelikes. At one point, I had a veteran warrior lead a band of newbies into a dungeon for training. They were ambushed, and the expedition went to hell. I was forced to flee the fight and abandon the quest, leaving one rookie dead, another insane, and the third on death’s door. I quit playing in anger. In any other roguelike, that kind of failure would force me to reset, and my ragequit would likely be permanent, since I knew my story was over. But in Darkest Dungeon, I know that my story isn’t over, and that this failure has become an important part of these characters’ arcs. The surviving rookies just got a harsh lesson that they won’t soon forget. I may have quit in anger in the heat of the moment, but a day later, I found myself excited to play again to see how this story plays out further.
Darkest Dungeon is still full of death and loss and pain, but with great combat, a premise that lessens the pain of losing, and a horror setting that adds thematic, emotional, and narrative depth, it’s the only roguelike that I’ve played that offers me a noble death.