For many in the digital generation, spelunking through dungeons in search of treasure and glory has always been a favourite pastime.
Even when pen-and-paper D&D was the only option for truly immersive dungeon-running, players were frothing at the mouth to see what lurked just beyond the next set of descending stairs. It was a joyous time for all involved.
But have you ever paused to wonder what dungeoneering might actually do to the psyche?
In fantasy realms where the name of the game is power fantasy, our heroes are able to bear witness to things that would cause mortal men to quickly lose their grip on sanity. In Darkest Dungeon, loss of sanity is part and parcel.
Released in 2016 by Red Hook Studios, Darkest Dungeon takes our beloved dungeoneers and thrusts them into a shamelessly Lovecraftian universe. Bands of wily heroes ranging from covetous rogues to stalwart paladins willingly enter some of the most dangerous and decrepit dungeons in search of fame and fortune.
The kicker? The experience wreaks havoc on their psyches.
The game features a built-in stress meter that fills up when the party is exposed to the perils of combat and the horrors of what lies below. When any given hero’s sanity reaches 100, they perform a sanity check. Upon completion, there are two options: the dungeoneer becomes virtuous or afflicted.
If the hero becomes virtuous, they receive a random buff that makes them more efficient in the dungeons, allowing them to stray further in, do more damage, become more effective healers, or lower the stress their companion’s receive on any given venture. But it’s when they become afflicted that things get far more interesting.
Afflictions can range anywhere from making your heroes verbally abusive toward other party members each turn (which raises the stress levels of the victim), to being possessed by the Old Gods and casting abilities outside of your control, to even becoming kleptomaniacs with a penchant for impulsively stealing trinkets out of booby-trapped chests. This kills the party.
Atop all of this is a wonderfully interwoven narrative of a disgraced ancestor who begs for you to return home and restore the family manor back to its original splendor, while in turn uncovering the past and verifying the dead town.
As the town grows and the manor is rebuilt, other avenues of attack begin to open up for veteran dungeoneers.
One doesn’t just continue to probe ever deeper through changing scenery – the heroes themselves change.
A veteran party will not only have virtues and afflictions but will bear specific quirks that they have acquired over there time in the depths. For example: how better to let a stalwart holy knight relieve stress than pay penance with self-flagellation in the abbey? It’s little touches like these that really wrap up the world of Darkest Dungeon into something meaty enough for everyone to sink their teeth into.
Speaking of sinking your teeth in, Darkest Dungeon also has a hearty helping of additional content should you find your masochistic tendencies to be unfulfilled with what is offered by the base game. There are several DLC packs that open up even further avenues of horror to submit your party to – from fanatical vampires to disturbed geists, psychological maladies are in no short supply.
Do yourself a favor, and don’t waste any more time before losing your mind.