I Like: Darkest Dungeon

Posted by Mat on 17th March, 2015

[Content Note: Mental Health, Alcohol, Eating Disorder]

Constant sobriety is the most boring solution to decade-long problem drinking, even though I’m happier now than any moment during my excess. I liked drinking, that’s why I did it so much. I catch myself wondering how to be sober but also keep funnelling shit-litres (the liquid equivalent of shit-loads) of booze into my fucking body. The second worst thing about quitting drinking is that, in the same way problems don’t disappear after being drunk enough to forget them, quitting means still having to navigate the remaining ills and try to find another less destructive way to unwind.

Darkest Dungeon has a lot of ideas about how to discuss stress, stress reduction, mental illness and the effectiveness of how it’s medically treated. It’s more interesting than good (proving the Arcane Kids manifesto true once again) since half the game’s formed of a repetitive JRPG which doesn’t introduce enough new ideas. Some overlapping systems elsewhere, though, have worthwhile allegorical points greater than the game they’re in.

A Rich Uncle becomes bored by their wealth and rather than take up yachting or self-publish an experimental hip-hop vanity project they open up a hellgate at the family’s estate and plunge the surroundings into eldritch horror.

On receipt of a note from Rich Uncle, Sad Nephew travels to his family home, intending to recruit adventurers to try and reclaim a lost fortune. Each of these mercenaries suffer excessive stress every adventure and begin to develop neurosis, needing to blow off steam and seek professional help to cure whatever habits emerge. All of this is done on Rich Uncle’s Sad Nephew’s dime, the adventurers eschewing payment for their risks and instead letting him cover their bar tabs and trips to the sanitorium, also paying for the potentially life-saving equipment taken along or, often enough, avoided in favour of giving them the less expensive meagre basics.

Each adventurer is only as valuable as the amount of time and money already invested in their training and upkeep. New meat arrives after every mission and each is free to recruit. This single mechanic informs the rest of the game’s decisions. Rapidly emptying coffers incentivise seeing the parties cobbed together out of whoever’s not stressed out too much as tools instead of humans with aspirations. In order to progress it’s impossible not to start role-playing as someone who has little concern for the wellbeing of the people they’re using in order to seek a fortune. There simply isn’t enough money to move forward and also work with the betterment of these mercenaries in mind, mostly there’s enough cash to ensure that most are just about combat ready and hope for the best. If someone’s too scarred by trauma, well, there’s a button to kick them out of camp and another which replaces them.

I’ve enjoyed thinking about what leads these adventurers to your encampment. It can’t be an attempt to provide for a family at home if none of them are being paid in much more than a few spins at a roulette wheel in their off-hours. Each of them presumably hear of the potential for a fantastic holiday earned with only a few days at a time navigating a labyrinth slaughtering pig monsters and assorted cultists. A similar pitch that likely entices people to start working on oil rigs or at Butlins. A friend of mine says he once worked at a pub solely for room and board, the food he needed and whatever cocaine was left lying around. On his days off he’d just take a trip downstairs and begin drinking for free. He’s still a young man now, but has grown to have slightly different direction. Without much else going on at the time I can believe he saw this agreement as a good enough stop-gap. He was alive. He had fun. He worked long stressful hours too.

The most satisfying conclusion I’ve reached for this conundrum is that these adventurers might similarly be at a loss for other occupation. I wonder if they’d had training in coopering or thatchery they might still want to pull apart walls made of corpses so that they can reach a fight with a necromancer. Their skillset is built toward navigating dungeons. They are experts at murdering and hopefully at least intermediate tiered at remaining alive. Maybe this isn’t even what they want to do with their time on earth, but they’re unable to find another occupation. I feel this.

I’m similarly under-equipped to do much but work with the skills I’ve already obtained. I can serve behind a bar and I can write about video games. Both activities have their ways of negatively impacting my mental health. I mentioned before that I have to find new ways to unwind now; but even after watching five episodes of Steven Universe in a row I still don’t have much of a choice but to return to whatever stressed me out before*. My job is still my job. I still have to do it. The cause of stress doesn’t go away just because there’s a way to relieve it afterward.

Just because it’s possible to become calm again doesn’t mean the dungeon disappears. Just because you’re calm doesn’t mean that the ways in which problems with your mental health manifest go away. Characters in DD gain, to use the game’s nomenclature, “Quirks” as a response to stress. It’s often very video gamey, very Binary, reduced stats when they’re fighting, say, pig-monsters. Other times it’s obsession with performing certain activities, kleptomania,  claustrophobia.

Darkest Dungeon’s best statement, perhaps one made unintentionally, is that getting treatment for a character’s negative traits doesn’t result in a reduction in stress. They’re still as stressed leaving help as they are entering. Therapy is stressful, even if it does lead to a result. It’s also not necessarily effective every time, which is great system design as much as it is a realistic and responsible portrayal of real-world treatment.

Characters also gain “Positive” Quirks as they deal with adversity, though labeling them this way might be considered a little thoughtless even if it’s thematically appropriate. I remember one of my crew returning from a mission with a trait where they eat less at high stress rates. It’s coloured yellow to signify this is a good thing and, in the context of the game it is (it means that your supplies are slower to run out, you don’t have to spend as much money), the Sad Nephew would see this as a positive, even if my real world reading is that this is grossly mishandled. No matter the intent, it suggests something positive from an eating disorder.

Darkest Dungeons wants its audience to rethink the fantasy tradition of adventuring and consider the actual mental toll of exploring a trap-laden ruin filled with monsters attempting to kill you. This theme carries a lot of baggage along with it. Thankfully the game does a fairly excellent job at normalising the existence of mental health issues and the importance of care, if it’s let down slightly by instances of poor consideration. It’s a successful conversation piece, not particularly interesting to play (which is why I’ve described so little of the majority of your activity within it) but there’s a thread here that’s so necessary to see in our entertainment.

*(Importantly: I’m lucky and thankful that my main cause of stress is essentially avoidable if another opportunity becomes available, that I’m not subject to other factors beyond my control. I can do little but provide my own perspective here.)

Leave a Reply