I’m going to ramble a bit about games and game design now.
I really enjoy Darkest Dungeon. Despite how tough it is, I think it provides an excellent strategic challenge that really focuses on management skills over tactical ability. Actually executing the plan is extremely important but your success is mostly going to be determined by how well you’ve prepared. So many things can go wrong in a Darkest Dungeon run that your only real chance is to give yourself as wide a safety net as possible.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not good at games. Darkest Dungeon is an extremely frustrating game to play because of how often even the best laid plans seem to go wrong. It should be the kind of game that totally turns me off because of how often I fail, at least given by my general track record with getting stuck in games. Yet I come back to it. Why?
Of course, I’m very interested in strategy games and I tend to spend more time on them than others. Darkest Dungeon also has a great atmosphere that seems to always reward. But also I think there’s something more fundamental going on.
A lot of my like for the game has to do with exactly how Darkest Dungeon achieves its difficulty.
I’ve written before about games like Darksiders which are very superficially difficult. This applies to a lot of action games I’ve played. In Darksiders, jumping between ledges etc feels incredibly clunky; the game feels like it wants you to just stand there and fire out combos but it constantly forces you to do a bunch of other stuff. For contrast, Shadow of Mordor and Space Marine are two of my favorite action games. Not difficult at all to play and you can coast through them pretty easily. This is because the game actually gives you all the tools to do what it wants you to do and it doesn’t try to make you do more. So in Space Marine, you never get an awkward sequence where you need to lock on enemies or platform. In Shadow of Mordor, you do a bunch of running and jumping and it all feels fluid because the game intends you to do that.
This is a problem I’ve always had with Half-Life 2 as well. I’m fine at the shooting parts, but the game is really not meant for the hard run-and-gun which you’re constantly forced to do: you don’t have any running roll or charge attack, can’t melee with guns, no strong defense, etc. It’s not built for the platforming which it throws throughout. Sure, you can get through the stuff, but my frustration came from the fact that you really work against the game’s set-up to achieve it. Half-Life 2, in my mind, controls like a game where you are spending 95% of your time shooting and never having to awkwardly control boats.
Darkest Dungeon is much more like Shadow of Mordor than Half-Life 2 or Darksiders. That is to say, it presents you with a goal, gives you all the tools to reach that goal, and then makes that goal actually difficult to achieve. The result is that when I fail, the sense I have is that I need to learn better how to cope with the situation, how to use my tools to succeed.
This isn’t actually different than how I play other games. I get stuck, maybe I ragequit, but on the first or second time I’ll typically try and figure out what I did wrong and go back to it. The issue with a game like Darksiders is that knowing what to do isn’t the difficult part, it’s being able to marshal the controls to do what they don’t want to do. If I keep dying at an enemy that I’m supposed to lock on to, even though the lock on is awful — it is impossibly slow, the camera movement is slow, in every other situation you use it only on enemies which are not moving, but this particular enemy is very fast — my feeling is that the game is not made to purpose, not that I personally haven’t figured out what to do.
Again, sure, one might say that I just need to practice, but that’s against my philosophy in playing games. I’m perfectly fine with practicing in order to make increase my playing skill but I find simply sitting down and learning patterns tedious. That’s what these games require you do: in order for you to win, rather than you just using all the skills you were given to defeat a challenge, you have to perform the operations in an exact order which you can only learn by going through it and being beaten. That has nothing to do with skill and everything to do with repetition. And, in the end, especially when you’re hampered by un-fit controls, your success comes down to one thing: luck.
Luck, or the RNG, is one thing that people bash Darkest Dungeon for. It’s also a common complaint against X-COM, another favorite game of mine. I’m not going to tell you that I’ve never had a problem with randomness in the game. I’ve tried short Cove jaunts which got ruined in the third battle: numbers 1 and 2 were 4 ranks of Groupers while battle number 3 included a Sea Maggot that gave two of my people diseases.
Is that ‘fair’? Maybe not. But the game is built around that sort of thing happening. That’s one of the hazards of going out on the adventure and one of the things you’re specifically supposed to deal with. Have you got a diseased person? Send em to the Sanitarium. Stressed people? Book em in the Tavern or the Abbey. So wacked out you can’t even use them? Fire them, look on the Stage Coach for replacements. You’re supposed to do all that and the game doesn’t try to stop you from it, it encourages you.
In the Tiamat battle in Darksiders, the luck you rely on is whether or not your dodge left your camera in a close enough position to swing around and lock on. No, if you miss it you won’t die, but you might be stuck around there for another minute or so waiting for your next chance. When that might happen again. And you’re supposed to kill this boss by doing exactly this, so the fact that the controls feel clunky isn’t showing that you’re doing it wrong, the controls are just… clunky.
In Half-Life 2, the luck you rely on is whether you’re in the exact right spot to make a jump, because your character can’t jump that far and has no ledge-hanging or other techniques to make the best of a bad fall. This is common in games designed for platforming — like Guacamelee which gives you a double jump, Mario games which typically have a very long jump (and a double), or Assassins’ Creed & Shadow of Mordor which let you hang — but HL2 forces you to rely on the most minor tricks of positioning. Luck.
In effect, the test I use to decide if a game is worth it is very simple: after I get frustrated and look the answer up, does the game lose its appeal? Because, ultimately, even if I do beat the game on my own, once I do that the game will lose a large part of its pull. This is definitely my experience even with games I’ve beat and loved in that first go-through, like Bioshock Infinite. What I liked about it was the atmosphere and the twists, but now that I know them, I’m left with a fairly lackluster game that’s just built on throwing a bunch of enemies at you. Deus Ex: Human Evolution is much the same in that respect, even though I hate that game. I dislike stealth games in general and this one felt very constrained in its approach. Once I figure out what to do, actually executing it is not that interesting because I don’t find the game fun to play through.
With Darkest Dungeon, knowing how everything works will help you a lot but you cannot necessarily prevent everything from happening. Being prepared and actually pushing the plan through are two different experiences entirely.
And sure, you could argue that I’m just into strategy games over action, but Space Marine and Bully are yearly replays for me and I fully expect that Shadow of Mordor will join them. On the other hand, I don’t really get into Civilization (even though my issue with that is not the same as what I’m talking about in that article), and my criticisms of the Total War series pretty much echo what I’ve said here. The Total War endgames are basically not the same challenge that they give you up until that point, but once you know what it is you can pretty effectively thwart it every time. It’s not a matter of skill, they just wanted to make it ‘difficult’.
I didn’t write this to try and convince anybody they’re right or wrong to like Darkest Dungeon, or any other game I talked about. I do think core game design, especially the design of challenges and controls, is very often overlooked. Total War and Half-Life 2 got it wrong. Darkest Dungeon and Space Marine got it very right.
image not captured by me