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


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

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