Something about the apocalyptic state of the world has recently sent me once more into the arms of cosmic horror. It can be appealing to watch society fall apart in a way the viewer can plan for, with trigger warnings that can be verified and an ending that can be quantified and reduced to a wiki entry. Cosmic horror is, at its most basic, about fear of the unknown other, a subject that was drenched with racist overtones as originated by HP Lovecraft; it nonetheless managed to endure because those unknowable cephalopodic evils also imagined a universe indifferent to humans, where death isn’t coming for you but crushing you incidentally as it walks by. These days, the genre offers the relatable experience of a 2 AM panic attack fueled by existential dread and awareness of one’s own mortality boiled down to a squishy eyeball aesthetic.
This is how I came to sink 30-something hours into Darkest Dungeon, the notoriously unforgiving roguelike about excavating the cursed ruins beneath a recently-inherited mansion. Unlike the most well-known cosmic horror games — Eternal Darkness, Call of Cthulhu, Alone in the Dark — which were largely about the player character facing the horrors alone and with minimal resources, Darkest Dungeon takes a step back and puts the player in the role of puppeteer. Every in-game week the player selects adventurers, buys their gear, and coaches them through various mission objectives that usually involve recovering ancestral documents and artifacts. Players are also advised to upgrade buildings in the village, as they provide various effects to the adventurers you’ll be sending out on missions. In short, you play as a landlord.
The player character in Darkest Dungeon is the heir to a mansion which sits atop winding tunnels; the treasures are variably marked as family heirlooms or objects of unknown origin, but they all wind up falling under the noble explorers’ rule of “finders keepers.” Which is just fine, in game logic, because the funds from those trinkets go toward upgrading various services in town, trickling right back down to the adventurers for whom the player nobly creates jobs. The game also has permadeath for party members, which I managed to run afoul of exactly once during the first in-game year by failing to account for a hero’s stress level.
“Hang on,” I asked myself halfway through the second month of checking to see whether I could afford to repair the local gambling hall or the hospital (it was the gambling hall, incidentally), “am I just the landlord?” It was an unsettling revelation. But hey, I thought to myself. At least I’ve only managed to lose one hero! I’m taking care of things. I’m one of the good ones!
Then “Wolves at the Door” happened. While most of the game’s missions can be taken on in any order, “Wolves” is one of a handful of timed events. You can take on a different mission, but skipping the quest when it appears will destroy several upgrades to your buildings. It’s also a high-level quest, requiring a party of at least level five (of six) to beat. And I, when it arrived, had just come back from a quest using almost all of my most experienced adventurers. They were stressed and sick, and sending them back out again was likely to kill most, if not all, of them.
“But I did spend a lot of money on those building upgrades,” I reasoned.
This is when I discovered that there was indeed a way to protect both my property and my best party: I didn’t have to clear “Wolves at the Door.” I just had to attempt it. So I gathered up four adventurers I’d just recruited, gave them minimal equipment, and waited for them to die off so I could get on with things. Darkest Dungeon has always been upfront about being a game with “hard choices,” where leaving no adventurer behind is a task achieved only by the most experienced and lucky players. The final boss fight includes a move that forces the player to pick which party member is insta-killed. And the statistic management genre the game shares qualities with is entirely about viewing characters as numbers. So why did I feel so ill-at-ease?
Part of it was down to my personal gameplay style — I’m the guy who puts every point into charisma in talky RPGs and made sure to open that shortcut to Lost Izalith in Dark Souls so that Solaire would be safe. Generally speaking, my version of a video game power fantasy is the singlehanded ability to fix everything. But that’s not the kind of game Darkest Dungeon is, and it never claimed to be. The cosmic horror trappings necessitate an element of existential despair as humanity is swallowed by a universe that is indifferent (if not outright malicious) toward it. And maybe it’s just something in the rotting, apocalyptic air of 2020, but the more I sat with it the more this particular malignant, all-consuming evil started to look a lot like capitalism.
Darkest Dungeon is a game where your faceless protagonist, in pursuit of inherited wealth that is itself largely made up of stolen artifacts, recruits a team of workers who receive no steady reward for their backbreaking labor except at the player’s largesse. They’re commodities that it makes sense to keep in good condition in order to ensure further profit, not humans with inherent rights — the player can even rename them after recruitment.
Beyond the basic mechanics, Darkest Dungeon‘s lore also reveals that most of the game’s enemies are varying degrees of sympathetic, from failed experiments to victims of betrayal seeking revenge. Though the game initially posits the situation as the heir fighting off the ravening hordes in order to reclaim their birthright, in truth they’re mostly mowing down an underclass whose festering circumstances are inextricably linked with the previous heir’s search for eldritch knowledge and dedication to the supposed reverence of their noble title. Early pieces of the Ancestor’s backstory claim horror and disgust during his interactions with dark powers, not that it stopped his complicity in their actions.
Little by little, that complicity turned into active perpetuation and the cultivation of the fresh horrors the heir inherits. Indeed, it is the perceived sanctity of that title that begins the whole cycle anew, per the words of the opening cinematic. “I beg you, return home, claim your birthright, and deliver our family from the ravenous clutching shadows of the Darkest Dungeon.” That cycle eventually consumes the heir, reducing them to a voiceless phantom in the machinery of an endless loop that points fresh meat toward the dungeon and the horrors within it.
“We are born of this thing, made from it, and we will be returned to it in time,” the Ancestor claims in the game’s final encounter, positing his fate as both universal and inevitable. But the game’s own mechanics undermine this, as it boasts a special achievement for making sure the first two recruited adventurers survive until the end of the game. And they are allowed to leave, temporary victims of the system’s mechanics but not perpetrators of it. The workers walk away, to part unknown and inconceivable in a world so gripped by the encompassing horror of its central system.
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If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It
The roots of cosmic horror are often anti-intellectual, painting the search for knowledge as inherently dangerous and interactions with other cultures as poisonous (look no further than “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” a 27,000 word screed on the alleged evils of miscegenation). Darkest Dungeon is one of many titles, alongside Lovecraft Country, The Ballad of Black Tom, and Welcome to Night Vale, that have worked to push the genre away from its tainted origins.
The indifferent horror of Dungeon’s narrative is a system that feeds the greed and excesses of a select few while destroying countless more, each generation luring in the next with the dream of wealth and success even as the foundational rot becomes more and more apparent. The evil was no longer the indifference of a faceless elder god swatting humanity as it shambles past, but an intangible system similarly capable of grinding the powerless beneath its heel; and like the cultists that gather around elder gods, capitalism has no shortage of devotees convinced that if they defend it ardently enough, they will be blessed with ascendant wealth. And while we might lack the cursed magics that Darkest Dungeon has to offer, I hear guillotines are lovely this time of year.