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The first sign that I was playing something unique — a rarity in my 30-plus years of taking on role-playing games — came after my first encounter in Darkest Dungeon. I looked at my Vestal, the priest character with healing powers, for a spell to cast after combat to cure my Crusader, as I’ve done in dozens of games before. He’d take a copious amount of damage from some brigands.
No such spell existed. In fact, I learned you couldn’t even use your characters’ abilities between encounters.
I smiled, to no one in particular. “Well, this is going to be different,” I chuckled.
This is the world that sprung from Red Hook Studios’ first game. A Kickstarter success in 2014, Darkest Dungeon recently hit the Steam digital store’s Early Access Program, enabling a host of RPG fans (err, test subjects?) to check out this stressful take on dungeon-crawling and roguelikes. It takes many genre conventions and, well, gives them a swift kick to the groin. You must take risks. You don’t hoard healing potions and other useful items. Expect your characters to die. And expect to fail.
I talked with studio cofounder and game designer/producer Tyler Sigman and cofounder Chris Bourassa, who is also the creative director and artist, on what could be the first “RPG noir,” the influence of Lovecraft and gothic horror, balancing risk and reward and sacrifice, and Sarah McLachlan.
Wait, Sarah McLachlan?
Welcome to Darkest Dungeon, indeed.
GamesBeat: Are you guys sadists?
Chris Bourassa: No? Not that we’ve commented on publicly.
Tyler Sigman: Our public persona is not. I think we’re realists. We both—I don’t know. We’ve been working for a number of years, had a lot of management jobs, personal lives, etc. All those things have led to inspiration for the game, for sure, the kind of suffering that you sometimes have to do on the way to trying to accomplish something good.
Bourassa: We always wanted to make a challenging game. We’ve both been managers for a while and both played poker together for a while. This is kind of like management poker.
GamesBeat: The one thought I had, and this kind of goes with the avatar Tyler uses on social media, is that it does have the gothic feel to it, but there’s also a noir feel. Was that something you were shooting for?
Bourassa: Yeah, in the sense that everything that can go wrong will go wrong in a noir. There’s definitely some overlap there. I started trying to make it look more like an old illuminated manuscript or medieval woodcut, just to give it that feeling that when you’re playing the game, it’s almost like it’s describing the time period it’s from. But I think there’s some—you could argue there’s some noir there. Maybe not overtly. I didn’t watch a bunch of detective movies before starting the game. But the stories you can weave feel a little bit like noir adventures.
Sigman: The flaws—it’s interesting. Chris drew avatars for all of us on the team in the style of the game. That is representative of his creative direction. There are flaws in the characters, just like in noir, where the detectives solving the case are usually—if you read James Ellroy or whatever, there’s a lot of flaws in the heroes. It’s funny, because as Chris drew each of our avatars, almost every person he drew said, well, my nose isn’t quite like that. Do I really have those tired-looking eyes? Do I look that hollow? It’s funny. Those images are—the flaws are key to the characters in Darkest Dungeon, as it were. We’re conscious of our own as well.
Bourassa: Even more so now, having been through development.
GamesBeat: The patch that just came out on Feb. 11. Heroes don’t like it when you prolong combat unnecessarily. I remember somebody said, “you god damn monsters.”
Sigman: Yeah, [game streamer] Northernlion.
.@DarkestDungeon patch: "Heroes don't like it when you prolong combat unnecessarily" you god damned monsters
— Ryan Letourneau (@NorthernlionLP) February 11, 2015
GamesBeat: When the game first hit early access, one of the things you suggested people do is stun the enemies, and that way you could manage combat better. That prolongs it. Now here you are completely neutering that advice. Was that part of your plan, to fit the theme of the game, or is it just a reaction to try and stay ahead of players?
Sigman: We haven’t neutered stunning. I think the inspiration for a lot of the mechanics in the game has been the theme. That’s something that’s really important to us. Even in this change we added a couple of days ago — as you said, heroes don’t like it when you prolong combat unnecessarily — we think that’s really thematic. If you’re in a battle and you’re toying — it’s a bit like Apollo Creed toying with Rocky and not realizing the guy can punch. If you toy with something, sometimes you get the bite end of that. And so I think stunning is still really valid, because you can basically render a really damaging enemy momentarily [irrelevant] without an attack. But the stun-locking in particular, I think, it takes away from the game. It was something we knew was in there, but we were curious to see how many people would abuse it. It was always on our road map to address it in a way that was both thematic and fair, because the other thing is, we added a stun recovery buff. That applies to heroes as well. That’ll sometimes be nice. Your best crusader’s been stun locked for a couple of turns, it’s less likely to happen to him now as well.
Bourassa: I think the game is at its best when you feel like you’re playing with a high level of risk and reward. We were seeing a lot of people just stun locking the last enemy, healing up to full, dropping stress down to zero. All the tension was lost.
GamesBeat: Yeah, that was me.
Bourassa: I was getting furious watching people do it. I was like, no, the players themselves need to be more stressed out. So that was the rationale behind addressing that. It’s not to take away a viable stun strategy, which is still in the game and works really well, but just to curb that abuse and keep the game tense.
Sigman: We thought about other ways to address it, but I think this is both thematic and fair. It’s definitely an interesting concern. I think we’re never going to make apologies for trying to shape the game in a way that we think will be the most interesting. That’s something, for example—you can’t heal outside of combat. A lot of people want to ask why. They want to know the fiction. There’s kind of a great quote from Sid Meier, which is never let history get in the way of fun. Although this is not history, I think it’s an insightful approach. We want you to feel some of these things with Darkest Dungeon. If someone goes and mods it — which they have, and it’s cool — that’s fine, to make it easier. But we want you to suffer a little bit.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that you say that about history, because if you take it into the context of Darkest Dungeon, you’re not talking about history as in the timeline we’ve been in, but you can think of it as the history of RPGs.
Sigman: That’s true. Chris and I were both inspired by a lot of classics.