Darkest Dungeon: Building Character.

Character In Games

The Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds featured a very important study titled; In control or in their shoes? How character attachment differentially influences video game enjoyment and appreciation. 

In it, the ‘Create-a-Character’ (Avatar ) was compared with ‘Role Play'(Perspective) in regards to play experience and the below conclusion was made:

Avatar as Object:

‘the gamer approaches their on-screen character less as a social agent or person and more as a game-piece or tool for gameplay. In other words, such an orientation usually engenders a focus on the ludic’[1]

Perspective Taking:

‘Conversely, appreciation experiences were found to be a function of player perspective-taking both in terms of increased identification with and a sense of responsibility over the on-screen character, and might represent a ‘pleasure of cognition’ (or more accurately, role-taking), as appreciation experiences were associated with increased feelings of responsibility’[1]

Your ‘create-a-character’ is attributed to spontaneous fun, whereas a perspective taken character such as Geralt of Rivia is attributed to increased emotional identification, a sense of responsibility, and the pleasure of taking a role that is predefined, but not yourself.

Neither is better or worse than the other, they simply scratch different itches. Interestingly, however, as far as perspective taking is concerned, the ‘pleasure of role-taking’ must rely on the role being one that is interesting.

So how do video games, an inherently interactive medium, make us believe and engage with these characters to the point where we take responsibility for them? I believe one recent game has tackled character building in a way that is both natural, but also ludic in the way that those character traits impact gameplay.

Darkest Dungeon

Lets get this out of the way first; I love Red Hooks’ Darkest Dungeon. This wasn’t love in the traditional sense. No this was more ‘love to hate’ love.

To paraphrase a pop star: I wanted it’s ugly, I wanted it’s disease.

Unlike the abhorrent ‘Firm but fair’ label that the Souls series has, Darkest Dungeon makes no bones about it’s ‘ugliness’. Before you load up the game you are reminded:

…Darkest Dungeon! Credit: Geekdad

In fact, Darkest Dungeon reminded me a lot of that girl at high school who wasn’t at all into you. They beat you down, hurt you and, at the end of the day, probably wasn’t worth the stress. Regardless, you kept going back because a part of you enjoyed being hurt.

Stress is the key word here. Stress is what Darkest Dungeon is built on. The Gameplay presents itself in two large chunks. Firstly you have the dungeon crawling, where you must first build a team of 4 with a good balance of buff, debuff, damage, heal etc. in a line. Thats right, you crawl through these dungeons in single file and management of positions (1-4) is key for some abilities can only be used in certain positions.  Secondly, you have a pseudo town management where you must chose which of your heroes to rest, which buildings to improve in a Hamlet ripped straight out of ‘Call of Cthulu’. Both aspects of the game rely on each other and hinge around stress.

Going into the dungeons, tiered in difficulty, will cause your heroes to gain stress. Wandering around in the dark without a high level of ‘light’ will cause stress. Taking critical his will cause stress. Failing to hit may cause stress. Having an abusive party member will cause stress. Just about anything will cause stress and it will manifest in a way that, as a writer with a massive interest in character building, intrigued me.

Reaching a certain amount of stress will test a heroes resolve. More often than not this will result in them gaining an affliction. They might become abusive, selfish, paranoid, hopeless and these have the potential to cause the hero to skip turns, or move around the party, or, worst of all, inflict stress on other members of the party. More interestingly, however, is the chance for your hero to gain a virtue when they reach maximum stress. Instead of becoming abusive, they instead become courageous, or stalwart. These virtues will massively buff the individual and the team.

I remember playing through Darkest Dungeon for the first time while I was really hitting some brick walls with a script I was working on. I was struggling with finding motivation for a specific character and Darkest Dungeon reminded me that character is so often built in conflict, in adversity. When tested, these characters will always come out a changed person, wether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends entirely on them.

Darkest Dungeon constantly tests the heroes in your company. I feel certain games, especially Darkest Dungeon, acutely understand the lesson that many Screenwriters constantly have to remind themselves of; when a character does not change, they become obsolete.

Moreover, some of the most notable characters from stage, screen and print will have a background. These ‘traits’ will inform their interaction with the narrative. For a good example look no further than Magneto. A Jewish victim of the Holocaust, who’s actions in the future, where he finds himself in another minority, are directly linked to the fear he developed in his childhood.

The heroes who end up at the Hamlet are almost exclusively motivated by greed, the riches. This is stated in the games text. What they come with, however, is ‘Quirks’. These quirks come with the character, some positive, some negative. They are random, but regardless, they say a lot about the character. For example, if Magneto was a character in Darkest Dungeon he might have;

Fear of Mankind When fighting humanoids, -15% Stress Resist and -10 Accuracy

They may be presented as rather arbitrary, uninteresting, statistical buffs and de-buffs but, where this system shines is in the combat. One character may have the ‘quirk’:

Guilty Conscience Bears the crushing guilt of deeds real and imagined. Prone to investigate Worship curios (35% chance).

This will lead them to push to the front of the group to investigate a religious themed item found in the dungeon. Returning to Magneto, his ‘Fear of Mankind’ may push him to the back of the group when facing human enemies. What we have here is motivation, weakness, the building blocks of any interesting character. Darkest Dungeon’s difficulty comes not only from the enemies you face, but also the complex needs, goals and traits of the characters.

I think this is why I was so compelled to keep playing. Why I was so distraught when my nervous, god fearing Gravedigger finally bit the dust.

In fact, Darkest Dungeon seems to channel the advice given to me by one of my mentors;

‘Simple plot, complex characters’. 

Who knew that’d be the basis for a brilliant game?

Image credit: Shacknews


[1] Bowman, N. D., Oliver, M. B., Rogers, R., Sherrick, B., Woolley, J. and Chung, M. (2016). ‘In control or in their shoes? How character attachment differentially influences video game enjoyment and appreciation’, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, 8(1), pp. 83-99.


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