Few games open with a warning. Most will do something like offer a sensible selection of difficulties, a little challenge cheeseboard, maybe with labels denoting what you can expect from each option. Darkest Dungeon offers shot after shot of smouldering spirit, and politely encourages that you try the strongest variety, right after telling you how much it’s going to burn.
What makes Darkest Dungeon compelling seems obvious. It’s got deliciously Gothic aesthetics, solid (and bastard-hard) turn-based combat, and a wonderful narrator whose resonant, bassy exposition underscores the whole experience. All that, and a ludicrously grim tone that dances along the boundary of camp, but never quite pitches its tent. None of that stuff hurts, except when it’s meant to. What really draws players, like particularly masochistic moths, is its unique approach to the profession of adventuring.
At its heart, it’s a Lovecraftian horror story. Darkest Dungeon frames you as the descendant of a quite foolish man, the aforementioned narrator in fact, who unlocks ancient, eldritch evil beneath the family home. Ancient, eldritch evil of the ‘send the bravest man insane just to behold’ sort. This misguided ancestor promptly ends his life, but not before sending you a loquacious message begging you to come sort out his arcane mess.
In your capacity as a kind of horror janitor, you hire heroes to explore the ruins of your ancestral home, and battle monsters, with the goal of driving back the ancient evil from the abyssal plane whence it came.
Now, battling maddening evil is not without consequences, and the heroes you hire to assist you will suffer psychological strain and emotional stress as they encounter Darkest Dungeon’s horrid menagerie of skeletons, ghouls, beast-men and worse. While Darkest Dungeon’s Gothic-horror fantasy is thoroughly removed from reality, its stress mechanics are a harsh reminder of what effect violence has on the human mind.
Estimates and studies vary, but for reference, just from some quick searching around Google, somewhere between 7-14% of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to suffer from post-traumatic stress or depression. That number is sometimes as high as 20%. Estimates for Vietnam veterans can be as high as 30%. If conventional warfare can cause long-term mental health problems in a fifth or more of veterans in reality, it’s easy to imagine how fighting supernatural beasts and the walking dead in dark, claustrophobic tunnels might affect someone.
Darkest Dungeon isn’t by any means a damning indictment of war, nor a serious exploration of traumatic stress, but it does acknowledge that violence is stressful, where other games simply ignore it. It’s a little silly, even crass, to compare very real combat stress to the very fictional horror of fighting a walking skeleton, but fiction is great for exploring inconvenient realities.
Darkest Dungeon wisely maintains respectful distance by setting itself not only in a fantasy world, in the past, but by peering at trauma through the lens of Gothic and Lovecraftian storytelling. Its soldiers are Gothic caricatures. You might have a sex-crazed occultist, or a zealous crusader, who will only relieve his stress through prayer. Still other heroes in your charge might be a guilt-ridden highwayman who compulsively flogs himself in penance, or a bounty hunter who turns to drink to cope. Sometimes, the vices and foibles hit closer to home, and when the characters feel less over the top, it can bring the game’s cartoon Gothic horror into a sobering focus.
Like any RPG, your characters will gain skill and toughness as they fight, but in Darkest Dungeon, they’ll also accrue a litany of psychological quirks: nymphomania, nyctophobia, kleptomania, and cannibalism to name just a few. All of these will have an effect on gameplay. For example, nymphomaniac heroes will only visit the brothel for stress relief, and kleptomaniac heroes will pocket treasure for themselves; treasure that could be used to pay for someone’s treatment in the game’s grim, Victorianesque sanatorium. If this is all sounding a little silly, well, it is. Like I said, Darkest Dungeon isn’t a sober reflection on mental illness, it’s a Lovecraftian horror story, with all of the attendant themes: madness, depravity, doom, and the insignificance of humanity.
In this article, you can find a proper academic talking Lovecraft. Charles Baxter here calls “fear inspired by shock” the “familiar condition” of Lovecraft’s work. It’s strikingly reminiscent of Darkest Dungeon’s mechanics; there are traps around every corner, enemies will ambush your party as they rest, heroes struck with a critical hit will recoil in fear, continued stress will break the resolve of a party member. They’ll lash out at their fellows, sapping their willpower in turn. The language of its gameplay shock, fear, and horror.
Baxter goes on: “The mood of unappeasable, apocalyptic menace gradually overcomes those who are unprepared for it.” He’s still describing Lovecraft, but you couldn’t write a better description of Darkest Dungeon. As with the game, Baxter also notes Lovecraft’s removal from real trauma in “the pile-up of adjectives” and his “hyper-inflated tone” noting that whenever “he tries for anything resembling realism, he typically fails.” Watch this video and tell me Darkest Dungeon isn’t winking its bloodshot eyes out of its head referencing Lovecraft’s florid, breathless terror.
And again, Baxter’s description of Lovecraft seems to anticipate Darkest Dungeon:
“His narrators cannot calm down; the fever never breaks. Accordingly, simple human decency, kindness, and generosity have no place anywhere in the stories. Their emotional range is limited to dread on one end of the spectrum and hysteria on the other.”
He could almost be describing the video above. In this way, Darkest Dungeon is a modern, digital evolution of the Lovecraftian tradition. It wears its influence on its dusty leather coat, and uses Lovecraft as a way to, if not explore, at least acknowledge mental health and trauma within the context of a game.
What’s special about it is that acknowledgement. Where most RPG’s ask that you simply manage the bodies of your heroes, it has you contend with their minds. You have to pay for their treatment, or fund a night on the town to take the edge off, and your oldest soldiers might just have to be let go, as the continued horror of facing otherworldly evil makes them a liability.
It’s not the first game to toy with mental health and sanity, a number of horror games have tried. Amnesia, and Eternal Darkness to name a couple. Most pertinently, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, which opts to portray insanity with lots of screen shaking and then you shoot yourself. It’s curious how often games simulate unstable minds with shaky screens and blurred vision. It’s in the way trauma is portrayed as an ongoing issue for the characters, the way that stress heightens their emotions, causing paranoia and bickering, that makes Darkest Dungeon stand out. It may be fantastical, as well almost satirically grim, but Darkest Dungeon incorporates themes that other games simply skirt around or crudely pastiche with dodgy visual effects. Most of all, it reminds us that skeletons are scary.