Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.
It’s bleak, grey dawn over The Estate.
I assemble my heroes, dragging them from rest at the tavern and sick-ward respectively— they are beleaguered, exhausted, traumatised, but they are also seasoned, powerful. I hand them bandages, torches, food, and marching orders: venture into a horrifying dungeon and exterminate eldritch horrors from beyond our world. For a small share of the treasures plundered along the way. Please and thank you.
The party is halfway to their goal, and my knight catches a disease that makes his attacks impish, weakened. Meanwhile the healer, the cornerstone of the party, starts cackling to themselves, and refuses to eat any food.
The party rolls up to the boss — a gigantic, Lovecraftian ooze of flesh and magic, and the vampire I’ve built my entire battle strategy around succumbs to stress, cries out in confusion, and has a heart attack, dying on the spot.
The knight, traumatised by the death of his comrade, grows suspicious of his friends, and buries his sword into the healer’s spine, leaving her on death’s door.
The ooze rears forward and finishes the healer in a single blow.
The knight flees, wracked by madness, guilt, and staggers back to town, taking refuge in the brothel.
This is a normal day when you’re in the driver’s seat of Darkest Dungeon, and it’s like being the worst boss ever.
The game is built on a simple premise: thanks to the estate owner’s hubris in digging too deep under the estate, then tinkering with magic and vampires and sirens, the Estate and countryside is overrun by eldritch horrors and bandits. Now things are Lovecraft as heck.
You, the caretaker, must hire adventurers to delve into the dungeons and fight back the monstrosities. In doing so, you rebuild the town, strengthen heroes and gather precious, powerful relics to assist you. It is the world’s most depressing Human Resource Manager job. With one catch: anyone can die, any time. For any god damn reason.
As you fight through tunnels, dungeons, and swamps, you not only face abominations and evil but disease, stress and famine. The psychological vulnerability of your heroes is as important as their health bar, and after a while, the harrowing nature of the dungeons takes its toll on everyone.
Heroes are changed permanently by disease or psychological landslides. They develop maladies and proclivities, virtues and resistances. Other less fortunate heroes die and are gone forever. The game’s biggest resulting strength is offering the player responsibility for everyone in your party.
Most team-based, turn-based games offer the consequence for losing as a minor set-back or return to a previous checkpoint.
In the Darkest Dungeon, losing means watching characters you’ve spent time, energy (not to mention precious gold) and care nurturing be murdered because you weren’t good enough or didn’t prepare properly or just because the dungeons are dangerous. On more than a few outings, I’ve had heroes die because I sequenced attacks wrong or one of my own heroes has lost their mind and refused to srike. Or maybe a skeleton got in a lucky blow.
The adrenaline of forty round boss fights only escalates as combat progresses, and in the best moments of the game, you stop min-maxing mechanics and try to understand how to best an opponent. There’s a tactile sense of psychology behind your enemies — large, heavy-hitting defend-y baddies are rendered useless if you can maneuver them to the back of their party, while rogues with knives pose a huge risk if they get too close.
It’s a frantic, emotional mess, tied perfectly with tactical combat.
You don’t wonder if a skeleton is weak to bleeding damage, you begin to intuit that creatures without flesh are vulnerable to being stunned by heavy blows, or that with the right strategy, you can poison the shit out of that skeleton so it explodes into a gooey green mess.
You learn very early on that health is hard to get back, so healers are valuable but if you heal too much or linger too long in a fight, it may do more harm than good as more enemies arrive to join the fray (the first time this happened I nearly cried). Sometimes it’s better to ditch healing and go with hard, huge-hitters, and hope you can blitz through the enemies before your party runs too low on health.
Every single decision — even looting a dead body, chest or buying food — comes with consequences. Taking less food on an adventure saves money and inventory space but could leave your heroes hungry and stressed. Opening a treasure chest might poison your hero, or leave them with permanent trauma.
This would all be fine if you were forcing faceless mannequins to fight for you, but different heroes have dialogue that changes based on their situation.
A holy vestal may land a mighty blow and cheer on in the name of the lord to inspire her fellows, but if her mind has been twisted by eldritch horrors, she might screech about blood and sacrifice. Which, you can imagine, stresses out the rest of your party.
It adds an element of character to each hero — and when they die, you don’t just lose the progression and money and time you’ve sunk into that person, you lose their unusual dialogue or useful quirk. More commonly, because new heroes arrive randomly on a wagon in town, you may not come across that class of hero for another twenty in-game weeks, which can cripple your strategy against a boss or particular area.
The darkness mechanic speaks to the game’s philosophy around loss and greed directly. The mechanic is straight forward: the less light there is, the more potential loot you will find. But, the less light there is, the more stressed your heroes will become.
Basically, if you’re greedy, you can allow your heroes to crawl through the darkness, gathering gold and treasures for you, but they’re more likely to go mad, to have heart attacks, not to mention when they return from their mission you’ll need to pay for their stress relief activities.
Or, if you’re a cold, ruthless monster like I am, you can wait until they return safely, arms full of gold, and then fire them.
It doesn’t feel good, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.
Worse is sending in some poor schmucks to gather gold for you in the dark, and then they all get killed and your gold is lost, lying on the floor of the dungeon forever.
The flip side is paying for a ton of torches to keep your heroes well-lit and sane. But torches take up an awful amount of inventory space, so you have less room for any treasure you might find, though you’re finding less treasure to start with.
It’s a curious comment on greed and risk. You’re punished for both options — there is no “good” option in Darkest Dungeon, just the best of bad choices.
Where a normal turn-based RPG would have a character penalised for losing, the darkest dungeon punishes you, the player, the boss-man in charge of these heroes, directly.
I’ve found myself planning for boss battles and bringing in a character as a sacrifice to get me through the boss fight — and I felt genuine guilt. I knew it had to be done, but it nagged at me the whole fight, and when my strategy paid off, the rush of victory came with a pang of culpability.
This nuanced decision-making doesn’t come from a dialogue wheel or “fight” button. It’s an organic part of the world to the point where even talking too deeply about some of the mechanics spoils a few surprises in late game that blew my mind.
It’s a game of hard trade-offs and unpleasant revelations, a bit like being a real manager of real people.
When people ask me about my favourite works of fiction and world building in video games, I point to Darkest Dungeon, not just for depth but nuance.
I’m afraid of certain enemies.
I’m scared of fighting certain bosses.
I’ve sacrificed heroes.
I feel responsible when my favourite characters are afflicted by maladies.
I’m so invested in my hamlet and the deviants within that it feels more like a simulation of my own personal Eldritch-Armageddon than a turn-based game.
The Darkest Dungeon is more than just grown up Adventure Quest or edgy Mapplestory. Eventually, the game erodes your humanity, eating away, one step at a time, at your ability to invest in another hero who will probably find their end in the twisted depths of a cave.
I kind of stopped caring for the heroes after a while. They became numbers on a spreadsheet, tools in my utility belt, nothing but pawns to help me make more gold to upgrade more buildings to create stronger heroes to make more gold… and so on…
At a certain point, I viewed every hero as expendable.
By the time I beat the game, I didn’t feel a rush of adrenaline. There was no clamor of victory. Just a numb throb, and the vague sense that I could finally rest after 200 hours of gameplay.
You can watch my muted reaction below.
Not to say the ending is bad — far from it — but that I had become the very kind of manager I hate. The game, in its insistence on forcing me to make the best bad choice, inoculated me from the guilt of my decisions.
Perhaps this says something about capitalism: the game is, after all, a perfect micro-simulation of middle-management. You hire a bunch of inexperienced guys, and put them to the test to make you money. Eventually, you bring on more staff of varying levels, weed out the weak ones, and watch as everyone around you succumbs to stress, health issues or is just too burned out to be of any use.
The worst bosses I’ve ever had treat their employees like this. One in particular, when I worked at a restaurant during high school, treated us by the dollars we were worth per hour. It was all about minimising spend and maximising profit, never mind the cost to the employees.
He would hire young, in-experienced chefs, over-work them, and stop giving them shifts if they under-performed. It was cut-throat, immoral, and totally how I play Darkest Dungeon.
I despised that boss, but I sort of… am him in this game, and I’m not proud of it.
The real horror of the game may not be the monsters after all, but employment. Delving into the darkness to fight monsters sucks, but you know what else sucks? Jobs.
The Darkest Dungeon is a crude nightmare of middle-management, and it asks the same question, over and over, as your torches run low and your heroes turn to madness: how much are you willing to sacrifice, and what will you need to become to banish the darkness, save the hamlet, and breach the final dungeon?