Humans are instinctively afraid of the dark because it hides – indeed, it is – the unknown. Lovecraft’s mythos is horrific because of the themes of the unknowable and incomprehensible. His most terrifying monstrosities are not horrible in their descriptions, but in their defiance of description. As subjects for the unspeakable, Lovecraft included entities from unknowable dimensions, beings of size and power that operated on cosmic scales and geologic time frames. The heart of his weird fiction was the powerlessness and smallness of humanity in comparison to the size and age of the universe. The difference in scope is highlighted by his use of characters of science and academia – those who focused on intellectual pursuits, those best suited to understanding, describing, and explaining anything in existence – and their utter inability to psychologically approach the weirdness confronted in the tale.
We can get through life because we know that Lovecraft’s writings are fiction, and the threat of Cuthulu’s or Azathoth’s indifference evaporates when we turn off the screen of our e-reader. But there is something as unfathomably vast, as untouched by scientific comprehension, and as potentially horrifying that we live with each day: the human mind.
How To Explore The Darkest Dungeon
Darkest Dungeon is a mechanically and graphically simple game. It is a roguelike dungeon-crawler (one of the oldest genres of computer games), with turn-based combat and a small world (though each visit to one of the five locations is a different procedurally-generated iteration). The general structure of the game is not a novel concept: you arrange, equip, and direct a party of adventurers through an unexplored region in which you randomly encounter monsters, traps, or treasure. True to the game’s name, the dungeons are always dark, and so the party must bring a supply of torches in order to see. The level of the light provided by the torch is one major factor that will impact the stress your characters suffer. As the stress of your characters builds, they may become overwhelmed and develop traits which undermine their performance on the adventure.
I’m not very plugged into the survival horror genre, but I remember thinking that the sanity bar in “Amnesia” was a clever idea because of the affect it had on actual game play: making the screen blur and making running actually more difficult. Developers have to make careful decisions about how to guide game play functionality, because too many factors on game play with make the game confusing and disorienting. Because game play is, categorically, what sets games apart from other media, those factors which underpin game play are core to any careful analysis of a game.
Stress and Psychological Damage As a Game Play Mechanic
In Darkest Dungeon, characters overwhelmed by stress will develop a random trait (e.g., Paranoia, Hopelessness, Fearfulness, etc.). This will cause them to have a chance of being uncontrollable—they might refuse to act during combat or act of their own (impaired) volition. The brilliance is making the mental state of the character directly impact game play: rather than telling me that my archer is overwhelmed by the descent through gloomy and perilous ruins, the game shows me that my combat-trained adventurers cannot connect their will to their actions via their mind—that their mind cannot function in that expected capacity.
My most horrifying moment in this game was when my warrior cut himself with his own sword during combat, while madly raving about his need to bleed. Maybe it struck a dormant chord with my memories of people I knew in high school who struggled with self-mutilation as coping effort for their depression and anxiety, but I stared dumbly at my screen for long moments after that turn. Stunned and aghast, I suddenly understood what the game was actually about: the struggle with one’s own mind in coping with a terrifying, hostile, dangerous world. This game is about watching adventurers break and falter as stress overwhelms them, and trying to save them from the total destruction of succumbing to psychological injury while pressing toward a noble objective.
Darkest Dungeon is an Exploration of Something Universally Terrifying: Our Human Psyche.
In the game, you are summoned to your ancestral estate, bequeathed to you by a relative who explored forbidden depths beneath the grounds. As you explore an ancient estate, festering with a recently unleashed and mysterious evil, the real exploration is of the corners of the human mind. As stress illuminates those recesses of impermissible thought and taboo contemplation, characters are set upon by their own inexplicable urges, vices, and fears. However, in an inspired and inspiring design decision, there is occasionally a heroic reaction to the overwhelming stress. A minority of the time, when a character is overwhelmed by the stress of their circumstance, a positive trait (in place of a negative one) bursts forth, imbuing that character with additional power and capacity to carry on.
The exploration of the mind mirrors the exploration of the dungeon: as you explore the unknown, you are likely to encounter danger and harm, but occasionally, you find treasure. Stress becomes the torch by which you discover the parts of yourself that otherwise remain hidden and unknown.
Darkest Dungeon is an impressive example of a game that incorporates mental health directly into the core game play and story without being either patronizing or pitying about it. Indeed, the entire mechanism seems so obvious: would repeatedly wandering into dangerous, scary places have a noticeable impact on your mental functioning? Probably! Yet most RPG-adventures and dungeon-crawlers have the kinds of heroes who are impervious to fear or stress, so this kinds of interaction is scarcely considered in most games.
Dismissing Horror With the Light of Science
Andrew Scull documented the shift in Western social approaches to mental illness over the course of the last few centuries. The general shift was from the view of mental illnesses as supernatural and unknowable to scientific, psychological, and neurobiological. As science began to understand the brain, mental illness became a thing that could be understood and addressed. This progress continues to steadily lessen the fear and stigma around depression, OCD, schizophrenia, autism, and other diseases and conditions whose bearers would previously have been ushered out of functioning society entirely. As afflictions of the mind are understood more as chemical imbalances or neurological disconnections, rather than as demonic possessions or as indications of a subhuman status, the terror of the unknown recedes, as shadows from a torch.
In Darkest Dungeon, keeping your torch at the brightest level minimizes the stress your party absorbs. As much as darkness imposes fear, light invites confidence. Just as Lovecraftian horrors would lose their terror if they could be seen, understood, or described, mental illness is losing its own grip of social terror as science begins to see, understand, and describe the tremendously complex organ that is the human brain.
May your torch burn bright.