Ah, “darkness”. Few words conjure up so much immediate meaning and are still so subject to arguments about semantic terminology. What is dark to one, after all, may not be to another. What some find distastefully morbid, others mine for inspiration.
Yet to some degree we all know what’s implied when the term is used, and if you have a tendency to love dark art as I do, you’ve probably spent some effort in justifying your loves to the people you’re close to. I’ve had any number of discussions with family members trying to explain that I’m not depressed or morbid, and that these things thrill me rather than making me feel gloomy. And I’ve certainly talked about my love for dark art here at Bookruptcy before, as well as its use as an emotional tool in game design, and I’ve talked about those who don’t understand what it is that draws some of us to works of a darker nature. As a young(ish?) person without so many of the cultural filters that were still common to the average citizen even just 40 years ago, these works tap into a part of me that does not remain silent. It speaks when prodded. It screams both glories and blasphemies. And for me, it’s an integral part of being human.
As some of you may know, I’ve recently chosen to back a Kickstarter campaign for a PC game (future platforms to follow) called Darkest Dungeon. This will be the 12th Kickstarter campaign I’ve gotten involved in, and I knew I had to back it just as soon as I saw it, as much for the gameplay and design concepts as the tone of Chris Bourassa’s stark, Mignola-inspired artwork.
I won’t go into too much detail about the gameplay, as I assume you’ll check out the Kickstarter page if you’re interested in the mechanical elements of the game, but I’ll give you a quick rundown on what makes it unique:
Instead of just taking a party of adventurers into a crumbling ruin, wiping the floor with some bad guys, and coming back home to roll around in your piles of gold, Darkest Dungeon explores the more realistic idea that delving into halls of forgotten humanity to face off against reanimated horrors must necessarily take a toll on people. If your heroes manage to survive the adventure, how eager will they be to go back? They’re going to need to unwind, carouse, pray, rest, and generally do whatever they must to stay sane enough for further forays into the dark. The game acknowledges that these heroes may be less than heroic, perhaps driven to pursue the mercenary life more by need than because diabolical confrontations and the risk of a horrifying death are so much fun. It gives us heroes with real flaws, and asks us to remember that these can only be exacerbated under the extreme stress of constant combat.
Hell, there’s a character class representing an actual leper, for God’s sake. I think you can take that as a reasonable signpost as regards the tone of the game. And that’s awesome. That’s real. Concrete.
But you’re not me, so maybe you don’t get it. Just what is it about all this that’s so attractive? If I were to tell you that this is probably my most anticipated game in the last 10 years, would it baffle you as to why? Would you accuse me of being a glutton for emotional punishment even in my entertainments?
If so, let me explain why this title, above most others, is doing something not only unique and bold, but artistically important to the industry.
I’m a writer and editor. Fiction and art are important to me, but not only in terms of appreciating the works of others as a consumer. I watch the ways those things are crafted, try to learn from them, try to understand through the work the people that are behind it. I believe firmly in what Stephen King has so often said, that we have an obligation to tell the truth. Even if what I’m writing is fictitious, I can’t just take a road of convenience because I want to. If my work is going to matter, it has to be true not only to itself and the characters it creates, but to the ideas it propagates. I want my work to be relevant to the world that reads it.
And heroism surely has its place. There’s something glorious about playing a hero, a strong-armed bastion of light who pushes back the tides of darkness in his quest to make the world a better place. The thing is, we already have a glut of that, and while getting it every once in a while is uplifting, maybe even inspirational, getting too much of it cheapens the idea. It could, if we aren’t careful, even leave us dismayed that so many of our real-life attempts at heroism get thwarted in their infancy.
So while I’m not saying we shouldn’t aim to be heroes, because we absolutely should, it might be the better for resolve if we reminded ourselves just how difficult a task that actually is. And what better way than through interactive art? Being a human “hero” isn’t about transforming ourselves into paragons of virtue or strength, it’s about overcoming just how weak we actually are, remaining steadfast in the face of overwhelming difficultly.
I’m attracted to the characters in Darkest Dungeon because they’re so thoroughly human. We get a sense that their courage really means something because it comes at the expense of both body and mind. Many of these characters may be at the end of their rope, only undertaking mercenary duties because they’ve run out of saner career options, and for those that may have more high-minded or even spiritual motivations, they must necessarily ask themselves if that ideology is worth what they’re giving up.
Isn’t that the truth? Isn’t that life? While we can always use stories to inspire us through a knight in shining armor, how much more important might be that knight in the bloody, corroded, acid-chewed armor? How much better to have stories reminding us that no matter how bad things get, no matter how far gone we may be, no matter if we perish or see our friends fall, life will go on? I think it’s healthy to remember that our sacrifices, regardless of secret motivations, can contribute to a greater good. Even in our weakness and imperfection, we can still wage war against real evil; maybe not with swords and pistols, and maybe not against otherworldly beasts and nightmares, but real war nonetheless, through even so trifling a thing as the decency of daily life. Just like Darkest Dungeon’s flawed protagonists, we can become points of light greater than the sum of our dim afflictions.
Games can sometimes be an escape without a lasting connotation. And I’m not suggesting there’s something wrong with this kind of entertainment, only that there are more facets to both pleasure and inspiration than just overlooking a pretty scene or engaging in a moment’s conquest. Sometimes what lasts is what’s awash in shadow, because those dark notes resonate a stronger music in our lives than a song that sings no opposition.
Life is rough. Our best laid plans frequently meet with catastrophe, and our dreams are crushed at least twice as often as they’re realized. Even when success does come, few are lucky enough to find it at the end of a road less than long and treacherous. I think it’s healthy to acknowledge that.
Dark art is, more so than people tend to give it credit, about hope in the face of the worst, hope for success despite all those things that will inevitably hurt and change us, damage us, make us different people—probably a lot more flawed—than the people we set out to be. While it may sometimes be far less nobly born, real heroism is flawed heroism. Human risk and sacrifice, sometimes even springing from desperation. For a noble birth, after all, does not make a noble person. That’s a gift of the fires of experience.
It’s for these reasons, amongst others, that Darkest Dungeon has the chance to be so fantastic. The concept is an amazing roguelike with all manner of Lovecraftian goodness in its twisted heart, and that’s backed up by real, personal craft from a team of talented individuals. The themes I’ve talked about may be undertones in service to a game whose ultimate goal is to entertain, but you can’t look at Chris Bourassa’s art and tell me there isn’t a deep current of intention running through it, in the thick blacks, the shaded eyes, the contrasting hopelessness and heroism of his adventurers. And I see Tyler Sigman’s design work supporting that in the mechanics, making this game’s world one that I not only want to explore and invest time into, but confront, even when the raging face of madness stares back at me, or my heroes don’t make it back in one piece.
If any of you were on the fence about backing the game, I hope you’ll make the leap, because this has the potential to be something important: a reminder to the industry that not every character has to be a hero, villain, or victim. Most of us, after all, are all three rolled into one.
Bring it on, Red Hook! Your vision is my vision; and the darker the dungeon, the better.