Why Darkest Dungeon’s Stress system falls flat

Even if you haven’t played Darkest Dungeon, you’re probably familiar with its infamous stress mechanic, in which your team of dungeon explorers can succumb to mental encumbrances from fatigue and psychological trauma. Watching this unfold can be harrowing. Especially at those pivotal moments when you knew – you knew – that you were pushing these characters past their limits. At its finest, the guilt trip the game sends you on becomes an ouroboros of anguish and disturbance. But as Darkest Dungeon wears on, its finest moments become fewer and farther between, and what started out as a feeling of kinship for your luckless adventurers simply becomes another complicated way of saying ‘You Died.’

Credit where credit’s due, Darkest Dungeon is probably one of the more innovative attempts at modelling mental health within a videogame. While it’s hardly an entirely novel idea – games have been fiddling with fail states outside of a depleted health bar for years — Darkest Dungeon is a sincere attempt to map a labyrinthine concept like mental health onto something a bit more sophisticated than a binary ‘sanity meter.’ The basic balance is simple and frugal: as Heroes, the hired help that you enlist get overworked and eventually need rest, you, as their leader weigh their needs against your own goals.

Each ‘Hero’ comes with a randomly chosen set of traits as well, called Quirks. These are personality markers, which can be positive (ones that help during adventuring) and negative (ones that don’t). Some are simple and are easily worked around, like ‘Deviant Behavior,’ which means your Hero can’t use the brothel when they’re in town. Others present more challenging mechanics to the player, like ‘Bloodthirsty,’ which increases a hero’s fascination with injury and torture — a curiosity that will likely get them killed. What’s more, Heroes can also attain Quirks through questing. So even if you do everything correctly and nail an expedition, one or all of your Heroes might end up traumatized. Quirks are the game’s way of reminding you that each character is distinct and that you’re going to watch them evolve under your lead, good or bad.

This system works as intended for a large portion of the early game. In fact, it’s surprisingly effective in ways beyond which the developers may have planned. While the game, like any dungeon crawler, there are a lot of menus to get lost in eventually you start to care about the mental wellbeing of your Heroes. I didn’t want someone succumbing to these working conditions because I got greedy or because I hadn’t planned far enough ahead. The first time I failed, I was on my third team and witnessed a member of my crew — a Crusader whose name I wish I could remember — break down as I pushed him toward one last piece of treasure. It continues to irk me that I can’t even memorialize him properly. I wanted to be a good leader, a hero in brand like my team, but the game’s systems had other intentions for me.

I felt invested, and that’s a feeling that shouldn’t be underestimated because, as a formula, it’s something digital games have been struggling with since they evolved from the Atari. How do we make players care about these stories more than just a means to an end? For Darkest Dungeon, the answer to that is to try and create an economy of investment through compassion. The Quirks and the Stress Meter work in tandem to supply rogue elements that feel just manageable enough to the player that they aren’t unfair. Or at least, they do so for a period of time. They may feel almost random at first, but really they’re just acutely tuned systems. When that becomes obvious, these facets start to seem cheap. Eventually, the game’s attempts to guilt the player become just another hindrance in the way of finer treasure and yet more capable heroes. In Darkest Dungeon‘s corporate real-estate of industrial adventuring, Stress becomes the deficit currency to the stock market, a system which can be exploited like any other.

The game does hide this very well by burying these systems under layers of Lovecraftian horror and menace. The empathy between player and team isn’t just from the clocking of various meters and status ailments; it also comes from a mutual, gradual bravery. The skeletons and walking terrors of these caves and dungeons slowly become less scary as you make your way through the game and grow to rely on your heroes. Their victories aren’t just victories — your Heroes are conquering a fear the the game tells you is real, and which you are helping them overcome. But all fear dies when confronted enough. And though Darkest Dungeon does a commendable job of merging fear with mental health and navigating those complex principles, it still falls at the hurdle of ultimately being a system with two possible outcomes: success or failure.

Not that I didn’t see this coming. Of course I did; this is a videogame. No matter how far a game goes to give you control, you’re always outrunning being reminded it’s a game. Even without a proper ending (though one has been added since the game has left Steam’s Early Access), Darkest Dungeon hadsto fall back into relative simplicity eventually. I would inevitably play enough so as to have seen everything the game has to offer and be left with a set of intrepid systems that, when activated, could only go down one of two ways.

Expansive games have hit this roadblock before — the controversy surrounding the Mass Effect trilogy’s heavily funnelled ending for example — but what makes Darkest Dungeon so egregious is that the game feels like it is literally hiding behind its mental health systems for depth. In the early game, one could be forgiven for thinking the game was about mental health management, manifested in twisted hyperbole. It’s not, but the residual effect of the core management concepts being rooted in mental health is that failure can weigh very heavy on the player. Heavier than what failure really means in Darkest Dungeon, which is, to be frank, very little. When your Heroes die, you find new ones and continue. They don’t matter all that much. But the game tricks you into thinking they do by correlating their collapse with your callous disregard for their emotions. To succeed is to acknowledge the complex needs of the Heroes on offer and to keep rotating and breaking them until you’ve had your fill. And I despised myself for not seeing that sooner.

For all its bells and whistles, for all the intricacies and nuance of how Darkest Dungeon is delivered, I couldn’t help but feel like its engine just doesn’t work the way it should. Not by any one individual’s fault — the game is brilliant — but by the simple nature of summarizing mental health into a finite space. Mental health is such a complex concept that for the game to try and encapsulate that in adventuring the way it does is both brave and foolhardy. But in Darkest Dungeon‘s case, it feels like it becomes just a tool to make you feel bad.

As attached as I grew to some of my Heroes who stayed the course with me over my campaign, what first seemed like a creative and effective system turned into something I could only see as shallow and cheap. I could only hate myself for so long before I developed a distaste for how the game uses mental degradation as a cudgel to force the player into reflecting on their actions. Yes, I’m the leader who has to throw Cecil the Plague Druid onto the street after he’s become catatonic, but Darkest Dungeon is the game that uses mental health as an excuse to guilt me about it, and that might be the greatest failure of all.

Anthony is a freelance writer and critic. He enjoys watching attack ships on fire off the shoulders of Orion and seeing C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. Check out his favorite retweets at @AntoMcG.