Darkest Dungeon and Permanent Death in Video Games

We examine Darkest Dungeon's use of permadeath and how you can survive its punishing corridors.

There’s nothing a true dungeon crawler enjoys more than an evening navigating a randomly-generated map full of traps ready to be sprung, hordes of enemies to slay, dangerous piles of shinies tainted by disease, and the risk of mental, well, insecurities, shall we say? The piles of shinies are always worth it, right? That’s the allure for fans of the genre. How far will you dive into the twisted caverns for shinies? What will you risk?

Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon is an indie-flavored tactical RPG that definitely can be described as a dungeon crawler. The game adds a few interesting twists on the genre, however. It revolves around RNG (random number generation—another term for “randomly-generated” essentially), a gothic setting with plenty of Lovecraftian-inspired elements, a strategic base of operations which you, the player, use to send out poor, unsuspecting characters to do your bidding, a rather innovative take on the psychological impact of dungeoning, and, yes, permadeath.

For many fans of the dungeon crawler genre, the ultimate risk is permadeath. And it’s just what it sounds like. If you die in a game with permadeath, your character is toast. Gone. Permanently. Most save files generally can’t be fudged to revert that death, so playing again requires starting over. It’s always a serious risk, but when a risk pays off, the rewards and the accompanying rush are like no other.

Darkest Dungeon is partially inspired by a subgenre of RPGs sometimes known as the “roguelike.” Games like Rogue Legacy, Binding of Isaac, X-COM, FTL, and Arkham Horror all loosely fit under the definition of a roguelike RPG. These games are all extremely challenging dungeon crawlers, offer permadeath, and are procedurally generated to the core yet offer players a variety of ways to strategize in order to reduce the chances of crappy, random deaths (there’s still always that chance, however). The name comes from a 1980 classic dungeon crawler called Rogue.

Permadeath has been around since Rogue and the popularity of text-based PC RPGs, but roguelikes have become increasingly popular with the advent of the indie game market and the need for a serious challenge. Most roguelikes refuse to do any handholding whatsoever, which can be refreshingly old school in today’s age of AAA handholding and tutorial-style RPGs.

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Darkest Dungeon’s take on permadeath is unique. Since you are in charge of sending various adventuring classes into the dungeons, when a full team meets their demise in the deep, dark forest, it’s not you who dies. All you have to do to recover from that loss is visit the nearby stagecoach and pick out four new, healthy recruits and resume your dungeon diving. In a way, the player is sort of a like a ruthless corporation manager. It’s up to you to manage losses and recruit new employees for low wages when need be.

The game also handles stress and mental mechanics in an interesting manner. Around every turn of a dungeon, your characters can become increasingly scared, maniacal, or overstressed. They may end up harming other characters or hurting the team’s success. Mental quirks can give characters combat bonuses or impairments. Other quirks merely make them an annoyance. Quirks can be fixed by using the sanitarian located back at the base, but that takes time and money, of course. If the quirks add up crappily and a character’s doing poorly, it may be better to cut that character from your team and grab a new adventurer instead.

This strategy is especially useful for the early part of the game when RNG can be a cruel mistress. In one particular early playthrough, I lost most of my first team, including my healer. The stagecoach didn’t have a new healer for that week, so I put together a team of tanks and CC-capable classes instead. The team made it through—although heavily stressed—and I ended up cutting a couple of the extras to make room for more healers later on.

During one of the first interviews about Darkest Dungeon, in fact, designer Tyler Sigman gave readers a tip: “Realize that ‘loss’ is not the same thing as ‘failure.’” The loss of a single character doesn’t mean you’ve failed the game. Rather, it’s best to think of your character roster as temporary and likely to change at any moment.

It’s not natural for us to think of adventurers in an RPG as disposable, but in a roguelikeRPG, that strategy starts to make a lot of sense. Just as you would weigh the pros and cons of adventuring forward in a roguelike, in DD you weigh the pros and cons of keeping team members around and paying extra for their recovery or cutting them loose and starting anew. In this fashion, DD is similar to X-COM in that proper roster management is essential. Permadeath adds yet another dimension to this strategy.

With permadeath, you can’t rely on having only one “A” team of adventurers. As you expand your base of operations and expand the size of your complete roster, it’s imperative to work on several of your favorite classes to ensure you have backup teams to send away when characters die off or when stress/impairments requires time away from combat.

Most of the rewards you earn from dungeoning help you upgrade your home base. Character levels and equipment are in place, but thanks to permadeath and viable character-pruning strategies, your real assets lie in your buildings, your town upgrades, and in the teams you create. In this sense, Darkest Dungeon resembles a strategy game more than it resembles a pure adventuring RPG.

Darkest Dungeon is also a little more grind-centric than most roguelikes. Since you can build up numerous teams, it makes sense to level them up equally and/or leave certain teams at various breakpoints to take down bosses or help powerlevel new recruits. With the necessity of town upgrades, grinding becomes essential and easier as you make upgrades. In the current state of the Early Access game, it’s actually easier to power through levels 3 and 4 than it is the early levels (this may change for the game’s full release as the difficulties are hammered into their final places).

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This grind-centric nature makes the permadeath pill a little easier to swallow. It’s not so bad to lose two of your favorite characters when it’s more beneficial to level up a new team from scratch anyways. In this sense, Darkest Dungeon helps make permadeath a little less scary than in other roguelikes. All deaths aren’t 100% awful. The setback of a single mission doesn’t mean your game is doomed to fail. In this type of setting, permadeath can become redeemable even to someone who’s adamantly against it.

The multiple genres Darkest Dungeon flounces around in also make the game—and the roguelike genre—a little more accessible. The Diablo franchise made permadeath more accessible in the same fashion, but less explicitly due to the optional nature of the Hardcore difficulty. In DD, permadeath isn’t an option. The only options lie in how well each player deals with the effects of said deaths.

Darkest Dungeon makes us think about permadeath differently, and because of that fact, its concept becomes more friendly to more casual gamers. As indie games become more and more relevant, it’s important that developers take the time to re-approach subgenres and interesting facets of gaming and come up with new ways to make their games approachable yet innovative at the same time.

When a game manages that, we’ve reached groundbreaking territory. Darkest Dungeon is a game with a ton of potential. If the developers take what already is an extremely solid RPG and add in new content, the right balance adjustments, and continue to be as passionate and open-minded as they have been, we might just have a groundbreaking game on our hands. Even if it’s filled with traps, diseases, and ugly swine enemies around the next bend.

Darkest Dungeon is available now in Steam’s Early Access.

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