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Darkest Dungeon – A slow and insidious killer

Introduction

After my look a Hearthstone last time, I figured It’s only appropriate to cover a game next where randomness really does screw you over. Enter the Darkest Dungeon. I’ll only give a brief introduction to the game. For more information I recommend watching the various Let’s Plays of the game. It’s funny to watch people suffer.

 

Darkest Dungeon Title screen

 

Darkest Dungeon is of the rogue-lite breed. While actual rogue-likes aren’t really made all that often these days, there has been an abundance of rogue-lites in recent years. Rogue-lite usually really means three things. Permanent death, a lot of random nonsense and high difficulty. By this definition XCOM is a rogue-lite as well. Huh.

The gameplay of Darkest Dungeon consists of two parts. First there is what one might call the base building, where heroes can be recruited, relieved of stress and upgraded. Buildings may also be upgraded permanently. The other part is going into dungeons with four hero’s at a time to bring back loot and kill bosses. That is basically it. It is the wide variety of classes, trinkets and quirks that make the game.

I mentioned relieving stress. It is of course important to understand that Darkest Dungeon is inspired by the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

Theming

Specifically it transferred the idea of cosmic horrors to a medieval setting. If I had to give a reason why Darkest Dungeon is as successful as it is it would probably be it’s theming. And not just the chosen theme itself, although it is quite imaginative, but rather the way the game is designed around it.

The inclusion of a stress meter is only the most obvious example of this. What the cosmic horrors are fundamentally about is despair and the realization of ones own lack of control and insignificance. This is something Darkest Dungeon reflects wonderfully in its gameplay. Which is why the game shouldn’t really be played with the same mindset as most other games.

So how does the game incorporate the theme in the design? First there are the critical strikes and misses/dodges. This isn’t a new thing by itself. Lots of games have those. But here they are tuned up to eleven. Enemies have very real chances to hit critically, often resulting in a character being close to death immediately. Enemy crits also stress out characters, while player crits heal stress. This creates massive swings in a battle. Even worse, the game is balanced in a way where a fight is already challenging when everything goes right. An unlucky hit from an enemy and the game is flat out unfair. I’m not complaining. It is part of the point. The player is never completely in control. And they are not supposed to. And indeed, sometimes a high level hero will be hit critically by four of the damn spiders before I can do anything. But that’s despair for you.

This isn’t an universal excuse though. If there were a large number of players who don’t “get it” I’d argue that the game doesn’t do enough to communicate it’s theme. This isn’t the case though. And sometimes we as consumers should be able to take a step back and realize that some things just aren’t for us. Just like a horror game can get away with bad combat, so does Darkest Dungeon get away with huge swings and setbacks. It is not an excuse for bad design in other fields though.

If a game banks on its theme as much as Darkest Dungeon does, consistency becomes very important. And for the most part it is consistent. There is just one mechanic which makes absolutely no sense in the game. I’m speaking of course of veteran and champion level heroes refusing to go into lower level dungeons.

 

Darkest Dungeon Base

 

Imagine a game with the same mechanics as Darkest Dungeon. Image that instead of fighting an unknown horror it is about leading an adventurers guild. Imagine sending a champion, slayer of orcs and rescuer of damsels, to kill rats in the taverns cellar. It makes sense that this champion would refuse to do so. This is thematically consistent. However in Darkest Dungeon it is not. The stress mechanic implies every character to be close to their breaking point in every run. There is no way anyone would feel like some tasks were too easy for them. It shatters immersion by contradicting the theme.

There are mods to remove this. But they miss the point as well. By removing the limitation altogether they break the on-the-edge difficulty of the game. Which is an even bigger deal. From a pure game design perspective the mechanic makes sense. Blocking of characters forces to experiment with new parties and keeps every aspect of the game challenging. I’ve seen suggestions to delevel the characters for the dungeon. But that only solves half the problem as well. Part of the reason this mechanic exists in the first place is that it shouldn’t be possible to go through the game with the same one or two teams, forcing the player to try something unfamiliar (again being consistent with the theme).

Grind

Darkest Dungeon also has a lot of grind in it. Grind being loosely defined as repetitive tasks in gameplay with various distinctions like “it’s only grind if it is not fun”. Personally  I disagree. I think grinding can be perfectly fun and it is also fair to like a game despite or even because of the grind. I propose a definition of grind in video games as “A factor correlating to the amount of time the game goes on without expanding its possibility space“. This probably sounds very technical. But what I mean is if nothing new is happening in the game it becomes a grind. These new things things can be anything from introducing new game mechanics (skills, classes, enemy types) to story or purely visual additions.

 

Darkest Dungeon combat

 

From this perspective Darkest Dungeon is very front-loaded in its approach. In the beginning of the game there are new classes to try out, new buildings get unlocked and the different dungeon types to be explored. Around the time the player has killed the level 1 bosses though, most of the possibility space has been explored. A handful of new enemies and changed up attacks are all we get until the very end of the game. This isn’t to say that this is necessary a good or bad thing. In fact I very much dislike the way games use game mechanics like breadcrumbs because the designers feared players would immediately stop playing if nothing new happened every ten minutes. Darkest Dungeon isn’t on the roller coaster side when it comes to these things. But it is very much the other extreme.

It doesn’t help of course that the grind is mostly artificial. The afore mentioned blocking of characters is one thing, but the most egregious example of this is found in the endgame. The Darkest Dungeon has four floors. Every character can only finish one of those. Meaning we need 4 * 4 = 16 unique high level heroes to finish the game.

I get the reason for it. Taking your A-Team through all four levels would be too easy. The solution is just as bad though. If I have let’s say eight level six heroes I’ve already proven that I can beat the high level dungeons. There is no need to prove it again. This is what I call you-did-it-now-do-it-again-syndrome, where a game refuses to end properly and instead forces the player to grind just that little bit more. This is by far the most annoying part of the game. The Darkest Dungeon itself is a perfectly good last challenge. It’s just all the preparation before it that feels unnecessary. Darkest Dungeon is one of those rare cases where being a shorter game would have benefited it.

 

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