The Making Of…
The RPG that makes suffering a selling point
Red Hook tells the story behind
Darkest Dungeon, the RPG that makes suffering a selling point
“A KLEPTOMANIAC, ALCOHOLIC CRUSADER KNIGHT IS AN INTERESTING PROSPECT STRAIGHT OUT OF THE GATE”
An RPG in which heroes grow more potent and more unstable with experience, Red Hook’s Darkest
Dungeon is both a brilliant corruption of its genre and a sly piece of workplace satire. The premise blurs HP Lovecraft with Diablo and
Ultima – it tasks you with reclaiming your family manor from a tide of evil unleashed by the wayward Ancestor, a process you work through by hiring and training adventurers at a nearby hamlet. But in its representation of stress as a stat that creeps up as warriors push deeper into the shadows, peaking in an affliction that may see characters sabotaging each other or spurning your orders, the game also channels something a little closer to home. Red Hook founders Chris Bourassa and
Tyler Sigman have seen their share of stressedout teams. A one-time aerospace engineer, Sigman was lead game designer at Backbone Entertainment until 2007, where he worked on
Age Of Empires: Age Of Kings for DS, and later studio lead at Z2Live’s Vancouver subsidiary, after negotiating the acquisition of Big Sandwich Games. A fellow Backbone alumnus, Bourassa co-created the Monster Lab IP and was associate art director at Propaganda Games from 2007 to 2010, overseeing the cancelled Pirates Of The Caribbean: Armada Of The Damned.
“We wanted to provide a bit of that edge, where you can set expectations for people, you can set really medieval performance targets,” Bourassa reflects. “They may not always approach them in the way that you would like them to, but that distance from people is what makes a good leader. Your ability to roll with punches, work around people’s intricacies and foibles and still arrive where you need to go. We thought that was an interesting way of approaching a party-based game.”
Neither the game’s afflictions nor its associated character quirks – which range from a gambling addiction that may leech away your gold reserves in town, to a fascination with torture that may see your healer placing her hand inside an iron maiden – are the result of clinical research. Rather, they’re playful exaggerations of meltdowns at work, informed by portrayals of battlefield trauma in shows such as Band Of Brothers. “I’ve been fortunate – I haven’t been in a life-or-death situation with these sorts of things, but you can see how people respond to stress,” Sigman says. “You’re heading for a deadline, and some people really rise to the occasion, and others sort of panic. The same person may undergo both of those things at different times – they might lose it at one point, and be the rock of the team at another.”
The game’s unspoken moral, of course, is that in putting these poor souls through the wringer you are as much a monster as the nests of teeth and tentacles that befoul the manor’s recesses. “You realise that you have to be heartless towards your heroes, and by the end of the game you’re really as destructive and selfinterested as the Ancestor,” Bourassa says. “So really you become the villain, but we don’t label that with a big red Renegade dialogue choice.”
Bourassa and Sigman met informally to discuss ideas for what would become Darkest
Dungeon in 2012, and soon gravitated to the concept of an otherwise traditional RPG in which heroes have frailties that can’t be ironed out by levelling up or upgrading your gear. “I was just kind of struck by this ironic notion of power in videogames always being represented by your equipment, whereas I would be useless if I was given a glowing sword and asked to fell a walking skeleton,” Bourassa says.
A prolific boardgame designer in his spare time, Sigman also drew on his tabletop RPG experiences. “A really good tabletop roleplayer isn’t afraid to be cowardly in the game, because that fits their character, or it fits the situation,” he notes. “But RPGs on computer always throw you into this situation where it doesn’t matter if your character has one hitpoint left and he’s fighting a dragon – you’re still sitting there clicking the attack button. And we thought, what if that guy’s like, ‘Fuck this – I’d rather live another day’?”
Bourassa and Sigman founded Red Hook in 2013 using their own savings, having failed to obtain a grant from the Canada Media Fund, and formally began development of Darkest
Dungeon that April. With the conceptual pillars in place – including semi-randomised dungeons, and the ability to rid heroes of the dire effects of stress by spending money at rest facilities in town – the game took shape quickly.
“Once we knew the theme, it was just trying to find a way to present the game the right way,” Bourassa says. “For example, the assumption with a CRPG is that you’re dealing with an isometric perspective, or a top-down god’s-eye view. We looked at that and it didn’t feel claustrophobic enough.” The developers settled on a dingy side-scrolling perspective, with assets drawn in Photoshop and animated using Esoteric Software’s Spine middleware, running on an engine created by Red Hook’s first programmer, Kelvin McDowell.
One of the more intriguing challenges was to deliver recognisable fantasy-RPG classes while subverting them to both entice and disarm fans of the genre. Darkest Dungeon’s original four hero types – Vestal, Crusader, Highwayman and Plague Doctor – are, broadly speaking, a tank, a rogue, an offensive support and a healer, but they’re also a corrosion of those concepts. The Crusader and the Vestal are zealots who won’t form parties with classes they consider sacrilegious, for example, and that’s before you factor in potential quirks and afflictions. “A kleptomaniac, alcoholic crusader knight is an interesting prospect straight out of the gate,” Bourassa says. “When you hear ‘knight’, there’s a nobility that seems intrinsic to that idea, and when it’s stripped away, you’re off balance.”
Having proved its turn-based combat system with the game’s first classes, Red Hook could be more experimental with subsequent designs. “I think the Leper is where things really came together, in terms of the left-of-centre concept
and how we played that out mechanically,” Bourassa explains. “He’s tanky because he can’t feel pain, but he’s less accurate because leprosy affects your eyesight. He’s got this mask on, and his breastplate is the idealised male torso, but underneath it he’s falling apart. It’s a bit of symbolism, a bit of off-kilter creative improvisation. For me, he’s one of the most successful examples of us finding our sea legs.”
Another breakthrough for Bourassa was the decidedly atypical bard equivalent, the malevolent Jester – a character that can rattle opponents with a rockstar kneeslide at the cost of exposing himself and jostling allies out of formation. “I don’t like bards in games. I don’t feel like they have a place. So it was a great opportunity to have some fun. How do we make a badass bard? Well, we make him like Slash from Guns N’ Roses, right?” Red Hook launched a Kickstarter for Darkest
Dungeon in February 2014 with a target of $75,000, a goal it exceeded in two days. The game went on to attract over $300,000 in funding. One of the studio’s more inspired calls was to enlist voice actor Wayne June to record the first trailer (released in October 2013) having listened to his sepulchral renditions of Lovecraft stories. After finishing the video, Bourassa and Tyler elected to bring June on board as the game’s Ancestor character and narrator, an ethereal presence who cackles over your missteps like an especially malevolent dungeon master.
The Kickstarter success bought Red Hook another year to tinker with Darkest Dungeon’s fundamentals before launching on Steam Early Access in January 2015. Exploration, in particular, saw plenty of revision throughout the project’s life – the studio toyed with an autowalk feature and struggled to balance the game’s hunger system, whereby heroes accrue significant amounts of stress if they go without food.
Sigman was keen to avoid frustrating players too much in light of what he styles the “climate of negativity” around Steam Early Access at the time. “There had been a few high-profile games – I guess you’d say failures – that were ultimately disappointing, or they decided to stop development. We wanted your first experience to be very polished, and if it got a little rougher after that, well, that’s OK because we’ve shown that we can do it right, if you just give us time.”
In the end, Darkest Dungeon’s spell in Early Access would prove relatively smooth, with Red Hook adding new areas, classes, enemies and mechanics at regular intervals. How the game improved during its pre-release beta period is perhaps encapsulated by the gap between one of the game’s earlier areas, the Weald, and one of the last to be added, the Cove.
Sigman is still a little unhappy about the former – he feels its population of barbaric outlaws and rapacious toadstool creatures offers too uneven a challenge. “On the one hand you’ve got the Unclean Giant, who can just annihilate a person with one blow, and then you’ve got the Crone who can be a really interesting foe, but if she’s not grouped up the right way, she’s just weak. And then you’ve got the Fungal Scratchers and Fungal Artillery, who are made to work together but if you get them independently they’re a lot weaker.
“We both agree that the Cove is probably better, the strongest and most cohesive, but then it was the last one we did except for Darkest Dungeon. By that point we were in fighting shape, we had more mechanics to work with, because for pretty much every character we made we would introduce something new, so by the time we made the Cove we had a lot of colours to pick from.” The Darkest Dungeon itself – a fleshy netherworld that calls to mind Silent Hill at its least hospitable – was Bourassa’s biggest test. “I was at the bottom quarter of my gas tank at that point, but I knew it had to be good: extremely abstract, cosmic, big-scale stuff. That was an area that went through a number of different iterations.”
While the game’s reception was largely positive, some Early Access players were annoyed by its penchant for grinding, and its often merciless RNG. But the greatest trial by fire proved to be an update whereby slain enemies became corpses instead of vanishing, screening others from assault – a handicap that rendered a number of existing party strategies ineffective. Following a backlash, Red Hook made the feature optional, but Sigman feels that the problem was one of communication. “We were over-taxed and not engaging with the community as effectively as we could be, because Tyler and I were splitting the social media and community responsibilities, in addition to managing the company and making the game.” Officially released in January last year, Darkest
Dungeon still has a long road ahead of it. At the time of writing Red Hook is finishing off the Radiant update, which allows players to shortcut 40-plus hours without lowering the difficulty in other respects. There’s also the Crimson Court DLC, slated for this year, which allows heroes to become vampires and adds a roaming boss, the Fanatic, who may hunt the afflicted down in the field. Official mod support is planned, while other platforms remain “areas of interest”.
These projects will bring their share of hardships, but if Darkest Dungeon teaches anything it’s that a journey without hardship isn’t a journey at all. “You don’t have to be perfect,” Bourassa concludes. “The road to success is windy and mucky. It’s hard work and you’ll have to make hard choices. There’s no such thing as an ideal run, and flaws, as much as strengths, are what makes people who they are.”
The game features thousands of lines of dialogue, tied to specific situations, monsters, diseases, afflictions and quirks