I feel like the most damning thing I can say about Darkest Dungeon is that it's boring. Or at least that I found it boring. The repeated 'scene-setting' Lovecraft-lite voice-over dulls all creepiness and atmosphere into a grind of you-will-be-scared-now horror. The prevarication over death - I had a character go down to zero hitpoints something like 5 times in one fight and still not die - robs the roguelike idea of permadeath of any meaning. Eventually, after a disastrous expedition that was entirely my own fault - my first real failure of the game - I felt no urge to retry. I had not been punished just as I had not been tested; I had just been stupid and miscalculated and I was left with the same dungeon to grind through once again and I discovered I had no more interest in proving my worth.
That this is the most damning thing that I feel that I can say is ultimately the thing that upsets me most about Darkest Dungeon. It has, as its signature system, a horribly reductive and rather stigmatising sanity system (bolted onto a somewhat elegant morale system). But everything I've seen written about it so far has praised the quirk mechanic, even while sometimes maintaining that it has its problems, as a progressive step in the way that video games handle mental illness[1,2]. And it makes me feel small and angry and bitter: like my reservations are carping or as if I'm demanding everything now when I should be praising the progress that has been made. And so I resort to sniping about those aspects that I can securely criticise. To being damning about aesthetics and replayability. To talking about it in the most terribly game-centric way.
Culture is monolithic. It takes time and energy to shift even slightly and ordinarily I praise any progressive movement. The small, localised shifts that make the world just that little bit better, that make the next shift just that little bit easier are what I've realised work the best and are what I've dedicated my own small life towards. So why can't I celebrate Darkest Dungeon's small steps towards complexity and representation for people with mental illnesses? Because, fundamentally, I don't think that Darkest Dungeon does anything new. It is mired in decades-old RPG design and all that the automation of putting it on a computer does is make the bookkeeping easier; and when mental health becomes relegated to a bookkeeping exercise, when the advances are based on more efficient crunching of variables and modifiers, then it should be clear that this does not help us understand pain and dysfunction and joy and the life that you lead when you are mad.
Darkest Dungeon's stress meter is fundamentally a morale rather than a sanity system, although sanity systems in general grew out of morale systems in the first place and Darkest Dungeon borrows back a lot of their flavour and understanding of the mind. The differences, in practise at least, are that sanity systems tend towards describing a single PoV character and, as with a health meter, reaching the bottom renders the character unplayable (I have written somewhat more extensively about this here and here). Morale systems on the other hand tend to model a group dynamic (the spread of panic or the steadying hand of a strong leader), are more dynamically affected by success or failure (as opposed to what is experienced), and tend towards mediating between the character and the player in a way that provides for the character's agency to overwrite the player's orders.
Morale systems grew out of tabletop and board wargaming, as a way of measuring how well troops under stressful situations would follow the orders of their generals. They have grown into a staple of the modern wargaming ruleset and an important factor in how a player controls their forces. From the command zones in Warmachine to the animosity rules that could have an entire Orc and Goblin army squabbling amongst itself in Warhammer Fantasy Battle, morale can be deeply embedded in a game or a bit of flavour or both. Although morale systems do seem to be strangely absent from many real time strategy games (the videogame equivalent of tabletop wargaming), which may account for some of the novelty factor in discussions of Darkest Dungeon, they do turn up in things like the panicked soldiers in XCOM shooting wildly at either friend or foe.
The roleplaying game, the structured dungeon/overworld adventure as we know it, derived from tabletop wargaming. Many of the odd traditions and incongruous design choices that still pop up, both on tabletop and on computer, can be traced back to that genealogy, including concepts as seemingly basic as levels and hit points. But, just as interesting as the things that were pulled through from wargaming are the things that were left behind, and morale is one of these. Early editions of Dungeons & Dragons are specific that morale, a concept which would be familiar to its players at the time, should not be applied to the characters. The shift in D&D was that you embodied a single character rather than the general of an army, and the rules are clear that it is up to the player to decide if their character is bold or cowardly, if they wish to martyr themselves for the good of a cause or to flee to fight another day.
The early versions of D&D then were missing this nod towards the psychological impacts of violence and combat. Players, given the option, tended towards bold and calculating powerhouses. Meanwhile, although the option was suggested that a Dungeon Master might use morale to govern the monsters under their command it quickly left the lexicon and the rule books. And so monsters became as stubborn as players, throwing themselves onto the swords of their enemies in waves trying to choke them with their own blood, to wear them down so that maybe someone following can prevail (a process almost like that of trying to change the entrenched culture); a quirk of behaviour that almost no video game has since challenged or subverted. The zero-sum RPG was born.
Unsurprisingly almost as soon as morale, or rather more specifically a set of rules governing how people behave (because role-players like nothing more than rules, especially if there are tables to roll on included), was stripped from the system something was put back in to replace. The most famous of these, as well as possibly the earliest, was Call of Cthulhu's sanity points system (a direct and parallel analogue of the hit point system already in use), but there are many others out there. D&D itself experimented with madness in the standalone version of the Ravenloft setting, Domains of Dread printed as part of AD&D's 2nd edition. In this various events, horrific experiences and the stress of combat against unnatural foes, could cause a player to take fear, terror and horror tests. The more tests you failed the harder subsequent tests became until, eventually, something snapped and you picked up a permanent insanity. Is this sounding familiar? Domains of Dread was printed 18 years ago.
Even then, the idea of permanent, stackable 'insanities' that added colour as well as modifiers to a character was not something new. White Wolf's gritty urban horror games already let you purchase them at character creation to give you a few more points to spend on maxing out your stats. Call of Cthulhu was often house-ruled to allow insane characters back after a spell at a sanatorium, but forever changed by their experiences. I have a copy of an independently produced game called Asylum where the premise is that everyone is mad and locked in an asylum-city; you choose what specific diagnosis you get at the beginning of the game.
I should be clear - I like the stress system in Darkest Dungeon. I actually quite like the sanity meter system in general when it is used intelligently and non-prescriptively. What I don't like, what I think is damaging and makes life worse for those with mental illnesses, is the use of diagnostic labels as flavour text on game modifiers. Or, even worse, the suggestion that diagnosis and illness are coextensive - that knowing the first will allow you to roleplay, to understand, the second.
The Domains of Dread book is remarkably interested in not being offensive, in providing a tool for Roleplaying, but it fails so badly it just makes me sad. Part of the failure is that it is a D&D supplement, and as such it can only model the world in a way that conforms to D&D's mathematics, a maths that abstracts experience in a way that is incompatible with the realities of mental illness. But the biggest, saddest failure is that they did loads of research, they just researched the wrong things. There is a huge section on dissociative identity disorders, or multiple personalities as they used to be somewhat pejoratively known, that is based on the utterly debunked work surrounding alleged satanic cults. It also relies heavily on the DSM, making the usual mistake of viewing it as a dictionary rather than a tool. It tries so hard to not reduce us to our most basic elements, to rob us of our humanity and replace it with our madnesses, even as it does exactly that, and it feels tragic to read now.
So, Darkest Dungeon isn't doing anything particularly new. But why should this be a problem, other than a slight annoyance at the people who are mistakenly calling it progressive. Essentially, it is just the same as the rest of the gaming industry and, for better or for worse, that seems a bad reason to single it out. Maybe that's my problem - I am irrationally annoyed with the game. I am irrationally annoyed that we haven't made any progress and that this lack of progress is being hailed as progress. It isn't even the fact that the quirks in Darkest Dungeon are so often fist-bitingly offensive, that they are wrapped up in the language of sin and redemption (a classic stick with which to beat the insane) or that they can be 'cured' with a simple week in a darkened room at the sanatorium. Its that they are presented in this way at all. This is what we need to work against if we are ever to break the hold that these reductive ways of thinking have on our media landscape. This is what we need to do if we want to be people, rather than a collection of labels and modifiers.
Both of these are great articles, by the way, and fascinating insights into other points of view on this game.