Darkest Dungeon. | Promotional image courtesy of Red Hook Games.

There was something about the oldest computer roleplaying games – I’m talking obtuse slogs like Ultima I or Darklands or even Fallout – that was just callous. You got the impression that you were a small person amidst a massive world that didn’t care about you. It wasn’t so much that it wanted you to die as it didn’t care whether you lived.

One day, maybe, I will defeat some of those titles. Darklands in particular is an inspiration for my own attempt at game design, one which is progressing as well as it can while I juggle a full-time job, ramping up responsibilities as a freelance writer, and, yes, a serious relationship. In the meantime, damn it, I refuse to give up in my quest to defeat Darkest Dungeon.

I want to talk about Darkest Dungeon because it’s a game that has systems. You will come to know those systems, or you will fucking die. I am somebody who plays more video games than some. It is the rare video game, even today, that asks anything of me beyond going from Point A to Point B or memorizing a pattern or two. Games, sadly, don’t do as much as they used to.

It’s a long read, but check out this article about the 1992 game Dune, based on the movie that was based on the book. Dune did all sorts of things. You needed to progress through a story, explore a whole planet, build an army, balance your need to mine the land for resources with your need to terraform it to win the loyalty of your rebel troops. Oh, and you also needed to fight a war and become a messiah to an entire people. The grandest console games are not remotely as expansive as this 25-year-old, VGA graphics game.

This is a lot of fucking shit. | Promotional image courtesy of Red Hook Games.

Darkest Dungeon kind of isn’t, either. But I give it points for making me think, making me agonize, making me strategize. The game’s story is not remotely important, but it’s a great framing device: One of your older family members has gone bumping about the family mansion and succeeded in waking up fucking Cthulhu. The entire countryside is overrun by hideous creatures and a pack of mostly interchangeable adventurers are volunteering to come in and stop it. You build parties, outfit and equip them, train them in new skills, and send them into the caves, forests, ruins and eventually the demonic mansion itself.

All death is permadeath (that is to say, no raising anybody from the dead). There is a harsh sanity mechanic that degrades as the party moves through the dungeon. And if a party member should reach the end of his or her mental rope, he or she will snap and become afflicted with some type of insanity. Characters who have gone loony will take actions without your say-so, pilfer treasure to keep it for themselves, heap abuse on their fellow teammates, or run toward or from danger precisely when you don’t want them to.

Each character is his own freaking spreadsheet. | Promotional image courtesy of Red Hook Games.

The systems within systems within systems keep you thinking at all parts of the game. Here are all the things I can think of, off the top of my head, that you need to keep track of:

  • The level and gear of each character
  • Each character’s “relics” or “charms” or whatever you call his or her stat-buffing accessories
  • Where you are placing each character in your party formation (as there are four slots)
  • Which of each character’s attacks will strike which parts of the enemy formation (this matters a lot)
  • What personality quirks each character has (which can affect gameplay in unpredictable ways)
  • What diseases might be afflicting a character
  • How many torches, rations, keys, excavation shovels, antidotes, and vials of holy water you can afford to bring with you
  • Which shop in town you are going to upgrade with the loot you scrape off the dungeon floor
  • Which character you are going to bench for the next foray into the dungeon so they can recover their freaking sanity
  • Which characters won’t abide together in a party because of their judgmental nature toward, say, your party’s lycanthrope or demon summoner
  • Which party members are so high in level that they refuse to dirty their blades on a low-level dungeon
  • How long a particular foray into the dungeon will be and therefore which campfire skills your party has and how they compliment one another’s
  • Should you press on through a hallway, not knowing what lurks beyond the door, or stay back and make camp?
  • Should you stun the enemy at the front of the formation to stop him from acting, or poison the enemy at the back of the formation so his life bleeds down?
  • Should you heal a comrade or attack an enemy?
  • Should you light another torch and increase visibility now, or save it for when you are more likely to get an easier fight in a room coming up?

There are more I’m not thinking of, I’m sure. That is, to put it mildly, a lot of stuff to be thinking about. And I do not exaggerate when I say that to ignore or fail to understand any of these questions will result in catastrophic death and the loss of progress.

Because of these interlocking systems, because life is fleeting and any of your hard work can be undone by intellectual laziness or carelessness in how you proceed through a dungeon, a session is addicting, exhausting, and has the potential to either be rewarding or utterly deflating. But here’s the thing: You learn. And if you learn, you get measurably better at it. And for all the complexity, the game graphically presents all of this to you as clearly and cleanly as can be asked. You will, before long, know how each part of this mad machine works.

I can’t hope to build a game so complex as all that, but it does inspire me. Or drive me mad. It’s hard to tell while you’re playing the thing.