Several weeks ago, I stumbled across Darkest Dungeon, an indie game under development by Red Hook Studios. It's been a while since I've seen a party based RPG on the market worth it's sticker price, and Darkest Dungeon seems poised to finally sooth an itch I've been wanting desperately to scratch for the last several years. Dark fantasy, party-based, adventuring will be coming to a PC near you, hopefully sometime next year. In anticipation of the game's upcoming Kickstarter campaign, I got in touch with two of the minds behind Darkest Dungeon: Chris Bourassa, the game's Creative Director and Art Director, and Tyler Sigman, the game's Executive Producer and Designer.
Q: So I guess the most obvious question is, what's Darkest Dungeon all about?
[Chris] Darkest Dungeon is a challenging take on the dungeon crawling genre that puts the gameplay emphasis on your characters’ personalities and stress levels. We’ve heard people refer to us as 'X-com meets Dark Souls’, and there’s certainly some truth to that. Players recruit, train, and manage a stable of heroes, grouping them into parties of four, and completing quests in a variety of awful places. Unlike many rogue-likes and crpgs, the heroes in darkest dungeon are flawed and (very!) human. They get stressed, develop phobias, proclivities, and other emotional baggage. Their personalities evolve based on their experiences in the dungeons, and players can expect some interesting group dynamics to emerge when the party finds itself in a dire situation.
Q: Could you tell me a little about the Affliction System?
[Chris] The Affliction System is the name we’ve given to our emotion and stress modeling gameplay. It’s essentially made up of several interconnected systems that deal with stress, personality quirks, and afflictions themselves.
Your heroes’ stress levels respond dynamically to virtually everything they experience in the dungeon. Running short on food, seeing something horrific, getting cleaved by a ghoul - all these things add to a character’s stress level. Conversely, landing a crit, finding a shaft of sunlight, or scoring a rare piece of loot will embolden your party, decreasing stress on the characters.
In times of extreme stress, a hero’s resolve may be tested and he or she may develop a serious emotional response like depression, abusiveness, masochism, etc. When a hero is afflicted, they will act out unpredictably in a wide variety of ways, outside of the player’s direct control. For instance, a masochist might charge to the front line in combat, damage themselves, or refuse to eat or rest. Over time, each hero will develop a propensity towards a particular kind of affliction, and this will factor into a player’s decision making when composing a party. Protip: Don’t put four nihilists in the same group.
Q: Is there any way to cure or avoid these Afflictions?
[Tyler] Yes! First, you can always do things to try to minimize Afflictions and negative quirks. It all comes down to how hard you push your party and how many risks you take. Although lots of bad things will happen to you in DD no matter what, you do have elements of control. When something really bad happens, we want you to look in the mirror and have to say "my bad." Did you not take enough food? Did you adventure in the dark too long before camping? Did you choose not to run away from a fight that looked really bad? Have you taken your best Crusader on too many missions in a row? Maybe you should have given your "A Team" a rest in town. Of course, you can’t get anywhere if you don’t take any risks, so that risk-reward tension is something you should always be juggling. Prepare well, execute well, and take smart risks, and you’ll reap the rewards.
All this means that how you play will to some degree affect how many Afflictions and things happen. But no matter how careful you are, some will happen, and we expect (and want) heroes to have to deal with Afflictions and develop baggage. Most of the gameplay mechanics in the game are built around dealing with them and managing them. Camping, for instance, is a key phase where you can perform skills such as Encouragement or Inspirational Speech to try to reduce stress in your heroes and talk them down from the ledge. And Town is a big deal: that’s where you have to spend gold and time managing your heroes and trying to restore them to fighting shape. You’ll give them R&R at the tavern or the church, train them to overcome their fears, and more.
Q: What sort of heroes will there be in the game? I've noticed there are some interesting classes like the Highwayman and the Plague Doctor. Those don't seem like traditional hero archetypes.
[Tyler] We spend a lot of time on the team talking about how everything in the game (classes, dialogue, items, diseases, and so on) must adhere to the creative vision of this dark, gothic setting that is a mix of medieval and renaissance. We want the whole Darkest Dungeon experience to be distinctive and memorable in this way. Classes and characters are critical because that is the biggest way that the player identifies with the setting (and the game). We absolutely want to avoid generics, like "Fighter", "Thief", and so on. But it goes beyond just the naming. The classes need to have interesting abilities, strengths and weaknesses to them, and those strengths can be spread between Combat, Exploration, Camping, and even Town. So this allows us to do some really interesting thematic stuff that will in turn create some really unique gameplay challenges and moments.
We’ve had such great feedback about the Plague Doctor so far, and she really represents what we want the game to be: a sobering glimpse into the dark "realities" of dungeon crawling for a living.
All this is to say, we have a bunch of other classes planned that are also in that same wheelhouse, and we will be revealing more of them as time goes on.
Q: Where will the player recruit these heroes?
[Chris] The Pub, where else! Players who check their pubs will notice that wandering freelancers come and go. Inspecting these heroes will reveal their quirks, proclivities, skills and gear, and players will be able to decide if they are a good fit for their roster. Once a hero is hired, players can continue to upgrade, modify and refine them.
Q: What else will we be able to do in town?
[Tyler] Town is where you upgrade and upkeep your heroes. You can train up skills, buy new skills (Combat and Camping) and deal in some loot. But it’s also where you can mitigate the stress, Afflictions, and quirks that your heroes have. Drink your fears away? Find religion and meaning? Cure your syphillis?
Town consist of multiple buildings, which are themselves upgradeable and tie into the metagame and story. You are required to upgrade the buildings to gain access to the various abilities to train new skills, deal with Afflictions, etc.
Last but not least, Town is where you select your next quest and outfit your expedition with supplies before setting off!
Q: How many heroes can the player recruit?
[Tyler] The cap will be somewhere around 15 or 20. We want you to be able to have a few teams going at a time if you want, and be able to swap heros around based upon condition, level, and so on.
Q: Are the heroes randomly generated, or will the same set of heroes be appearing in every game?
[Chris] Heroes are randomly generated, and will wander into a player’s town periodically. Your overall town level and other factors will determine which classes are available, and players can expect adventurers of varying seniority to show up. Some will have advanced gear and abilities, while others will be green recruits.
Q: How will the heroes level up? What sort of abilities will they get as they advance?
[Tyler] We are taking a different approach to character building than most CRPGs. In Darkest Dungeon, a character is more than just the sum of their loot and skills. They are also the accumulation of experiences (not "points") which leads to emotional and physical baggage, strengths, and so on--really all relating to the Affliction System. These experiences are also critical for preparing the character for tougher and tougher expeditions. We tie all that together with some really cool mechanics.
You can train new combat abilities and camping skills in town, and can also upgrade your heroes’ armor and weapons. You can spec or shape the class dramatically with those choices and there’s great party strategy about what roles you build for each character.
But the things you can’t buy with gold are those that come out of experience. We have some mechanics that affect how a character deals with greater and greater stress, so if you take a lower experience character and attach them to a bunch of veterans and throw them into a nasty dungeon, he’s probably going to emerge with a host of nasty psychological baggage--kind of like taking a soldier directly out of training and throwing them right onto the beaches of Normandy.
The baggage--positive and negative--that a character acquires will make them more or less suited for a variety of situations. Managing a party of characters such as this is really what the core of the game (and the fun!) is about.
Q: In one of the articles about your game, I remember that someone mentioned that the dungeon itself is an antagonist. Could you elaborate on that?
[Chris] This notion of the environment as an antagonist is really central to the game’s design and philosophy. In many rpg’s, the environment is really just for tone and mood, but we wanted to make these places something to be fearful of. You can get lost, you can run out of food, out of firewood, you can get sick - even discounting the hoards of monsters, survival itself isn’t certain, and we think that’s a powerful and important differentiator for our game. The simple movement from room to room is hazardous, and keeping your party alive and motivated as they stumble around in the dark is a challenge in and of itself.
Q: One thing I've seen mentioned in the game trailer and in some of the dev blogs is the importance of light in Darkest Dungeon. Could you talk about the role of light while the heroes are out adventuring?
[Chris] Speaking of darkness, it’s not called 'Darkest Dungeon’ for nothing! The party’s torch and relative amount of light it affords are supremely important to the party’s well-being. Every step you take in the dungeon diminishes your torch’s strength. Thematically, we’re equating the encroaching darkness with the overall level of danger to the party - the deeper you go, the darker and scarier it gets. Mechanically, this translates into tougher enemies, more stress, and a higher frequency of hazards...but the loot is better, and you might be surprised what some heroes are capable of when the torch goes out! Camping allows you to 'recharge’ your torch, so player’s will have to think carefully about when and how often they choose to camp. It’s all about striking a balance between risk and reward...
Q: What are the heroes doing down in this dungeon in the first place?
[Chris] Well, we’re revealing a bit of backstory in our kickstarter trailer (coming in Feb!), but suffice it to say at this point that you, the player, are trying to redeem your lineage and reclaim your ancestral lands. To do so, you’ll hire your own stable of heroes, and manage them through the various dungeons, toughening them up for the ultimate confrontation deep below the ruins of your family estate.
Q: Loot is really important in dungeon crawlers. What sort of sweet loot can we get our hands on in Darkest Dungeon?
[Tyler] Similar to with character building, loot in DD spans more than material goods and we’re doing some stuff that is again a little different than your standard CRPG. We’re not ready to reveal everything here yet, but rest assured there will be sparking gems and gold, incredible and strange magical trinkets, and also heirlooms and artifacts with fiendish history. Best of all, some positive character attributes are loot, too.
[Chris] Loot has absolutely become the focus of many dungeon crawlers, but we’re bent on elevating the importance of the characters themselves. What good is a 'glowing magic sword of swording’ in the hands of a scared, catatonic newbie adventurer?
Q: In the past, I know you guys have talked about some of the creative works that have influenced your game. A lot of people I've talked to have mentioned that the art style for Darkest Dungeon is reminiscent of Hellboy. Were Hellboy and Mike Mignola an inspiration to you guys?
[Chris] Absolutely, I’m a huge Mignola fan, but our aim here isn’t emulation for it’s own sake. The art direction for Darkest Dungeon is meant to reinforce and carry the themes of the game’s design. Hard, high contrast edges play to the uncompromising nature of gameplay, while the pooling blacks and heavy shadows ensure that the darkness permeates everything. Mignola’s work was a great jumping off point for us, but I’ve also pulled in other comic book influences like Guy Davis’ work on 'The Marquis’, Viktor Kalvachev, and Erik Larson, among others. Medieval woodcuts were also a great source of inspiration, and I think referencing them helps the game feel like it’s playing out in an illuminated manuscript.
Q: What else helped inspire Red Hook while you worked on Darkest Dungeon?
[Tyler] Classic CRPGs and RPGs are a huge influence for me. I think you can find traces of inspiration in DD from titles like classic rogue-likes, The Bard’s Tale series, Darklands, Ultima IV & V, and then pen and paper games like Rolemaster, WFRP and such. I am definitely inspired design-wise from many older-generation games because of a combination of nostalgia and some interesting mechanics that sometimes hold up. However, we are doing a lot new mechanics that are pretty cool, too. So those old games are inspiration but really just starting off points for thinking of how to make a modern strategy CRPG that will be something fresh.
[Chris] In a lot of ways, the growing culture of gear-grind, fx-heavy, 'pat-you-on-the-back-for-logging-in’ type games was also a big inspiration for us to try something different. I miss the feeling of wonderment and consequence that games like Eye of the Beholder 2 gave me as a kid. Thief 2 had a really great tone, so understated and sombre, which I think always stuck with me. Warhammer’s intense, gritty and dystopic vibe is rife with inspiration. Also, Dark Souls.