Red Hook Studio’s Darkest Dungeon challenges some of the more commonly accepted rules of video games through its high tension design and the near constant power struggle of the player vs the machine. While the title does stick to some of the more common technicities of the dungeon crawler genre (good vs evil, turn based mechanics), the jarring leap is in the difficulty; the player is always on the back foot. Every inch of progress must be wrested from the jaws of total and complete failure, turning even small victories into monumental mental rewards for the player. Setbacks are common, and often compound into disastrous spirals.
One of the more striking mechanics in the title is the introduction of the Stress system. This system operates as a second health bar. Characters who gain too much stress can become afflicted, resulting in negative stat changes and the player losing control of their actions. The conveyance of this system is something unique; in dungeon crawlers we seldom consider the personal mental hardships of the individuals that we so haphazardly send into these horrific dwellings. While is serves its mechanical purpose, the mechanic adds a level of realism to these characters; they react in a realistic manner to combating an endless tide of eldritch entities. Combined with the perma-death system and the quirk system, no 2 characters are truly identical. These all work to create bonds between the player and these character in a way that is not generally used in the genre. Looking at other popular modern dungeon crawlers like Legends of Grimlock, the characters there are simply faces slapped onto stat blocks. We aren’t made to care about them beyond their mechanical use.
Now these sort of systems exist in other genre’s of videogames, where untold time is spent expressing to the player the character’s feelings and motivations. Darkest Dungeon does not spend the time to create these connections; the mechanics generate them and the player subconsciously connects while interacting with the game’s mechanics. This challenges the notion that the character must be completely explained to the player in order for them to care about the character’s fate.
Darkest Dungeon also strays from the technicities of games in general in the player feedback; this game does NOT praise you. Even near perfect execution and planning is rewarded with the narrator saying:
“Remind Yourself That Overconfidence Is A Slow And Insidious Killer.”
You are meant to fail is the tone of the experience. You are meant to struggle, to bleed, and to die for an iota of progress. This is generally considered counterintuitive; players want to be rewarded for their efforts and praised. This dissonance is definitely aimed at a specific audience vs the general industry standard of trying to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible.
Darkest Dungeon challenges many of the industry and genre’s rules, and in so created a niche experience that polarizes the player base. You either thrive in the gritty, desperate struggle and cherish each small reward, or you despise the game’s penchant for overwhelming odds stacked against you.