When I asked a family member why he was considering voting for Donald Trump in last year’s election, his answer was something you likely heard many times. “He is a businessman,” he said, “and the country would be better off if it were run like a successful business.”
If memory serves I took the bait and started pummeling away with evidence that Donald Trump is a remarkably unsuccessful businessman. What I should’ve done was question the entire underlying supposition of his argument.
Let’s be real. I’m a progressive soul, and nothing short of bamboo under my nails was ever going to entice me to vote for Donald Trump. But what if a democratic candidate appeared with a strong, successful business background? Would I count that as a boon if the shoe were on the other foot? Would we all be better off if the country was run more like a business?
The most amusing way possible to answer that question is to play Red Hook Studio’s Darkest Dungeon.
Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based dungeon crawler with a light narrative framework. You have inherited the cursed estate of an unnamed relative. In the course of some routine and totally innocent Shou Tucker-style magical science experiments, said relative accidentally unleashed evil horrors upon the estate. Instead of dealing with the problem, he left it to you, along with a series of notes which act as the voiceover narration for the game.
As you chip away at the layers of evil, the layers of your own humanity are chipped away too. Which is… neat!
In Darkest Dungeon, you the player do not exist as a character, per se. You have no avatar, no voice, and no name. Instead, you function as an unseen overseer of the estate. Essentially you are playing yourself, the gamer. Your role is a decision maker, strategic investor, hirer, and firer. The combat system is a nifty position-based, turn-based system that somehow feels both fresh and classic.
A fuckton of monsters need to get killed in this game, but the blood won’t be on your hands. You hire the work out to adventurers. Your role is to equip them, organize them into parties, point them toward a horrible dungeon, and smack ’em on the bottom.
These adventurers are described as being pretty desperate. They help you with your mission not because they are emotionally invested in restoring order to the world, but because they’re broke and this is all they know. Many are low-skilled and willing to start work for free. Others are highly-skilled, but far more expensive to attract and retain.
Key to Darkest Dungeon’s gameplay is that these adventurers are also highly breakable. Human beings are not meant to survive repeated forays into your fucked up nightmare manor. Even if they physically survive, their dungeon sojourns leave them emotionally and mentally damaged. You can reduce their stress by plying them with sponsored trips to the tavern or the whorehouse… but the cost of using such services is huge. It is much easier and more economical to drive your recruits into the ground and release them from service when they have outlived their usefulness.
If the business metaphor isn’t obvious to you by now, it will be by the end of this article!
Once again my partner and I tag-teamed one save file. On several occasions, one of us would approach the other with a penitent, shamefaced air. “I had a TPK” one of us say, in the same tone we would’ve used to say, “I cheated on you but like, with a farm animal.”
It took the two of us probably 70-80 hours of play to conquer the game. You will replay levels multiple times before you beat the main quest line, so I wouldn’t say replayability is great. But with so many solid hours of gameplay, it still feels like a good investment. I’ll probably replay it again some time in a few years when nostalgia pricks at me.
The cost of investment
In trying to describe Darkest Dungeon to friends, I realized it actually has quite a lot in common with the Pokemon franchise. Your role in both games is as a manager who amasses a small army of fighters, and most of the skill involved comes from splitting your charges into an effective party and managing a tight amount of resources.
The main difference between the two (besides tone, obviously) is that healing is incredibly cheap in the Pokemon universe. In fact, it’s free. Fucking socialists!
In Darkest Dungeon, the cost of healing is turned up to eleven. Characters can become ill in many ways. They will pick up habits during their trials. Occasionally they’re positive, but mostly they’re negative. They’ll become fearful of certain kinds of enemies, avoidant of certain locations. They’ll pick up unhealthy coping mechanisms, like problem gambling and drinking and religious mania. Additionally, they can acquire diseases from contact with some of the grosser enemies, which will greatly decrease their overall efficacy. Curing illnesses and removing habits requires massive infrastructure investments plus huge per-instance price tags.
Finally, the worst and most original concern is madness. As the character’s stress level climbs, so does their risk of going mad. Madness also spreads quickly. Being stuck in a life-and-death situation with someone who’s experiencing a mental breakdown is, uh, not great for morale. Stress takes a long, long time to decline on its own, and usually needs at least one high-cost treatment. Unless an insane character is a tremendously valuable member of your A team, it’s often best to banish them altogether.
If Pokemon had anything approaching these kind of upkeep costs, I’ll tell you one thing: I’d have a lot fewer Zubats.
The cheapest resource in this game is human life. The support systems that sustain and recover that human life (de-stressing activities, equipment upgrades, improved skills) are tremendously expensive. This is the game’s way of incentivizing you to devalue human life.
I cannot overemphasize how alien this mechanic feels in an RPG.
The underlying goal in every RPG I’ve ever played has been the preservation of my party members’ lives. Whether you’re playing a tabletop RPG or a video game, every step you take is about party preservation. This is because they’re role playing games. You the player are the character, or you are the party. If you die in a single-player RPG like an Elder Scrolls game, that’s it, your game ends. Same for party-based games like a Final Fantasy. Every step of RPGs is typically about nurturing and sustaining your characters—giving them the experience, the equipment, and the skills they need to grow strong enough to survive the game’s ever-mounting trials.
Gamers really cherish their favorite PRG characters and parties, because the process of investing in them strategically so often leads to investing in them emotionally. Talking about my Commander Shepherd kindles a patriotic inferno in my belly. It’s because I journeyed with her—through her—to hell and back in order to fulfill our mission. It’s an extremely intimate and bond-building process.
Darkest Dungeon flips this on its head by making human life the cheapest resource. Characters are randomly generated. They can be hired on for nothing. And they’ll die like dogs in the dungeon. One good critical hit is all most enemies need to send your character to the edge of death. Repeated forays literally drive them mad.
But despite this, they are still absolutely essential to the game. You can do nothing without them. As their broken minds and bodies pile up, you become desensitized to the losses. I began to view them as failed investments rather than dead human beings.
The hardest boss in the game is you
So what Darkest Dungeon does is incredibly counter-intuitive. It goes against all classical expectations in an RPG. And I think this is rooted in how it centers the player within the world.
Typically you ride around inside a character’s head (in a first-person game) or float directly behind it (in a third-person). In Darkest Dungeon, you sit comfortably outside the chaos. You are the overseer, and your avatar is really the town itself. You exchange human life and human struggle for currency, and use that currency to upgrade and improve yourself. Most of these upgrades make it easier to attract more human life to expend in pursuit of your goals.
It’s a fairly horrifying cycle. But it’s necessary, given the way the game is structured.
You need at least one A Team of players strong enough to conquer the final and hardest dungeon. They need the experience to level up sufficiently, which is sort-of free. But treating their stress-related ailments, equipping them, unlocking all of their skills, and building the in-town support services they need is astronomically expensive.
Dozens of characters will suffer so that a handful will be brought to the pinnacle of their skills. And even then, the purpose of that A Team is to continue to face death and dismemberment within the dungeon.
I mentioned at the top of the article that this game is a great way to understand how governments and businesses are run differently. The reason is this:
Darkest Dungeon has no game over.
This is an extremely simplistic argument, but a classic party-based RPG is a lot like representative government. Let’s use Final Fantasy VIII as an example. In that game, Squall is your avatar. You control him and he makes decisions as a representative of the five other people in your party.
The game isn’t designed to allow you to progress by investing solely in Squall. He needs to dole out strategic support on behalf his fellow team-members. You will survive most easily if everyone in your party has at least somewhat equal access to Squall’s/your attentions. If you fail to nurture your party appropriately, you’ll die in battle and the game will stop. You literally cannot continue to play until you successfully execute your role as a manager of the people whose interests you represent.
A government’s role isn’t to be profitable. It’s to be representative. The goal of Final Fantasy VIII, and most RPGs, is to represent your party: accomplish your party’s shared goal and keep them all alive in the process. Just as most RPGs are designed to grant game-overs for poor performance, a democratic government is structurally designed to eject unsatisfactory representatives.
Think of Darkest Dungeon more like a business. When run strategically, a business is theoretically immortal. As our president’s own business demonstrates, bankruptcy—even repeated bankruptcy—isn’t necessarily a death blow to a business. In both Darkest Dungeon and business, poor management can leave you in a lurch: cash-poor, over-invested in unprofitable areas, deserted by your most talented employees. But your just desserts aren’t a game over screen. You can always start again. There are always fresh-faced, desperate rubes ready to do whatever you ask, at least until they realize you’re willing to utterly destroy them.
A business’s role isn’t to be representative, it’s to be profitable. The goal of Darkest Dungeon is to plumb the final dungeon at absolutely any cost. Unhappiness or lack of representation are minor inconveniences, not fail states. There is no internal mechanism by which my characters can remove me as their overseer for heartlessness or recklessness. They can only move on, leaving a slot empty for the next unsuspecting, hard-up dupe to come along.
Play Darkest Dungeon and ask yourself if you would enjoy your government treating you the way you treated Boudica, the Level 1 Hellion.
Because when Boudica wandered into my town, swinging her halberd, all filled with barbarian spunk, do you know what I did to her? I used her like tissue paper and threw her in the goddamn garbage. I sent her unequipped and unprepared into the Weald. I directed her into an endless series of battles where she teetered constantly on the brink of death. I refused her rest and food out of sheer stinginess. She contracted rabies from the wild dogs I forced her to fight. Eventually the stresses of combat drove her to alcoholism, and finally madness. And when she came back, I snatched the loot she’d brought home out of her arms, stripped her of anything useful, and cast her out into the wilderness to die alone.
I would prefer that my elected representatives not do the real-world equivalent of this to me.
It’s true that there’s lots of skill overlap, but let’s be real here. A serial killer and a grocery store butcher have a lot of skill overlap too. That doesn’t mean that what they do is remotely the same thing. A businessperson’s whole perspective is framed by their willingness to view human beings as renewable resources. An elected representative who wants to keep their job must treat their constituents as non-renewable, and thank fucking god for that.
Is Darkest Dungeon worth it?
Darkest Dungeon costs $25 regularly. We got it on sale for 50% off, which was a wicked sweet deal. As I mentioned, we got several dozen hours out of our campaign, and enjoyed it pretty consistently throughout. It was only toward the very end of our 70-80 hour campaign that we began to grow weary of the same old dungeons. Our parties also became quite refined, as we’d thoroughly explored all character builds and combinations and had settled on the few we liked best. (My husband liked the Highwayman a lot, but personally the Hound Master was my go-to class.)
This was another game from an interesting independent developer, and I would’ve happily paid more for it than it cost. I got a good deal more out of this teeth-gnashingly difficult game than many AAA titles.
This game costs $25, and I would’ve paid $40 for it!
Get this game if you like: incentivizing more games from small studios, strategic resource management, hating yourself, becoming a fucking monster, accomplishing goals at any cost, unreliable narrators, classic dark fantasy aesthetic, super smartly-made self-aware games that pioneer new perspectives.
Don’t get this game if you like: pure lighthearted escapism, stress- and guilt-free entertainment, clear storytelling without any ambiguity, yourself.