Darkness In The Dungeon of the Mind

Unknowable Darkness

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.

 

 

Thoughtless Atrocities: Why Lots of Shooting is preferable to a Little Raping.

I address a debate between Penny Arcade and Jim Sterling. http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/jimquisition/5972-Rape-vs-Murder

The issue is: For videogames, is shooting morally different from raping? They’re both bad things, obviously–  but isn’t the point of video games to let us go into a different sort of reality where we can do bad things without actually hurting anyone? There are at least three recognized approaches to questions of morality: Utilitarian, deontological, and virtue.

Utilitarians are interested in total net outcomes, so if no one is actually hurt and someone is happy because they played the game, it’s probably ok. (If the player ends up hurting people as a result of playing, the utilitarian might object.) Deontologists have to decide whether the rules that govern morality apply to imaginations and simulations of immoral behavior (18th century Kant doesn’t say much about virtual reality as we think of it).

Virtue ethics is general more concerned with how a person is motivated and what traits she or he cultivates. They might want to know: “Why do you want to simulate shooting or raping?” If you have a desire for immoral behavior for which you are simple finding a socially acceptable outlet, the virtue theorist does not approve. Goodness, on Aristotle’s view, is not wanting to do something bad but choosing not to. That is mere continence. Being good consists in wanting to do good things, not in merely avoiding the evil one desires to enact.

There is another approach to this issue, perhaps from the camp of the phenomenologists (who are interested in what we experience and how). In modern video game, I can shoot and kill 100 “bad guys” in minutes. I can shoot them with sniper rifles from hundreds of yards away. I can surprise them when they turn a blind corner. Not that we would want to, but could we imagine a simulation in which our avatar rapes 100 people in only a few minutes? Without wanting to get too into the awful details, rape seems (and I’m lucky that I wouldn’t really know) to be a very personal and intimate crime. It takes more time than does the pulling of a trigger. It involves being in the other person’s space— part of what makes it horrid is how up-close and deeply personal it is. It has a feel and an experience altogether distinct from running into a room of enemies and spraying bullets and running out. The murders of video games may be considered more acceptable than the simulations of sex crimes because the experience of the simulation is decidedly different. One can be uninvolved or unaffected by a repeated and impersonal slaughter-simulation, but one cannot be aloof or disengaged in a simulation of a personal, knowing, invasive act.

(NOTE: I have never done, nor ever intend to do, EITHER of these things! Sometimes explaining hell means imagining hellishness. Maybe killing a room full of people feels just like committing a sex crime. I hope I never get to find out empirically.)

Most videogame slaughter can be understood as mechanical and impersonal. It is inconceivable that sexual crimes could be simulated in a comparably impersonal and wholesale fashion. I conclude that the impersonal slaughter of videogames poses less of a moral problem than does the simulation of rape because of the distinctly different phenomenology of the experience. (Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to accept the same conclusion that do not conflict with the reasoning I offer here.)