Trigger Warning! Darkest Dungeon – Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

[“Trigger Warning” – is a piece dedicated to showcasing video games which focus on mental disorders as well as emotional and psychological trauma. It is my hope as a lifelong gamer and sufferer of various psychological disorders to combine my greatest passion with my greatest weakness to benefit the gaming community at large. These pieces are meant to applaud games that I have found to appropriately exemplify such issues in the human condition. Some of them are visceral and violent games that take a liberal approach and are not for the faint of heart. Others take a lighter approach to the whole affair and can apply to a much wider audience. Hopefully, those who do not suffer from such afflictions can look at these games as a chance to grasp at something otherwise intangible. While those who do suffer from psychological afflictions can look to these pieces of fiction for hope and catharsis. Without further ado, enjoy. 🙂 ]

[By the way, this is the trigger warning for the article: death, self-harm, abuse, trauma, and a really lengthy article ]

Darkest Dungeon, In Summation

Darkest Dungeon is a fairly impressive independently developed title by Red Hook Studios. It’s a turn based strategy game that involves you pulling together a team of four adventurers from a larger pool of up to twenty-four that you constantly add to or downsize. The game has a central hub called The Hamlet. Here you can treat your adventurers’ diseases and afflictions while allowing them to rest and recover between excursions. There are also places to upgrade your heroes’ abilities and equipment as well as a place to purchase trinkets, which give various status effects.

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The game unfolds in an endless series of weeks. One week consists of two phases. The first is your time at the Hamlet. Here you spend gold to upgrade your heroes and heirlooms, another collectable, to upgrade your buildings. You decide which heroes are going to rest and recuperate for the week instead of embarking on a dungeon delve. You improve your heroes’ various abilities and equipment. And so on until you’re ready for phase two, which is going into an actual dungeon. Beforehand you have to buy supplies, a la Oregon Trail, such as food to fight hunger, torches for light, and various balms and salves to combat debuffs. It’s a careful balancing system splitting your money between funding expeditions and treating your adventurers.

Stress and the Fight for Sanity

Probably the most interesting mechanic, and the focus of this article, is the stress meter. In addition to the good ol’ fashioned blood red health bar, every hero has another meter to take care of that represents their sanity. There are numerous ways for a hero to take damage to their sanity: receiving critical hits, certain enemy attacks, falling victim to traps, witnessing horrific events, and so on can cause stress to a hero’s sanity levels. There are also ways to reduce a hero’s stress. Landing critical hits or heals and disarming a trap can help reduce stress levels. Certain interactables, defeating enemies, and hero abilities can also reduce stress as well.

Every hero can take two-hundred damage to their sanity before they suffer a heart attack and instant death. The initial breaking point in each character’s sanity is at one-hundred points on their stress meter. If they take enough stress damage to reach a hundred, their resolve is tested. The hero then has a chance to either become “afflicted” or become “virtuous.” If the hero becomes afflicted, their stress level does not drop but instead starts to fill up again towards the two-hundred mark and instant death.

There are various different afflictions and each one has their own behaviors and associated debuffs. Afflicted party members often become self-abusive, either physically or mentally. They may either see every miss as a tragic event or become too terrified to help. In turn, they become more stressed out because of their own actions. Others turn masochistic and will physically harm themselves or place a mark on themselves so enemies will be more likely to target them. Regardless of what the affliction is, a single afflicted party member can be the death knell for an expedition, as insanity and stress are terribly infectious.

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However, if the hero becomes virtuous, they receive a massive reduction in their stress levels and gain buffs based on the virtue that manifests. They can reduce the stress of other party members, grant random buffs, or deal more damage overall. They become a boon in the face of adversity and the counter to an afflicted party member.

But it’s that stress, that creeping dread that gnaws at the back of one’s mind that can become so deadly to an afflicted person and those around them…

 

The Madness Spreads

As previously noted, afflicted heroes can be problematic to themselves and their party as a whole. First off, an afflicted party member suffers from debuffs which places them at a disadvantage. They can’t do as much damage, hit as often, or even take as much stress damage. So they become a strategic disadvantage. Furthermore, they can randomly pass on their turn or use a random ability without you choosing it. This can be problematic seeing as you might be relying on a crucial heal from an afflicted healer to keep another party member alive. Or, you might be hoping to get the last hit in on a particular enemy when your damage dealer decides to move and hide in the backline. They take on a selfish nature rather than a team based one. Lastly, afflicted party members can become outright abusive towards their fellow party members. They may berate others who don’t land attacks or in their madness shout horrific things to terrify the other party members. In turn, these actions will stress out the other party members as well. So all it takes to bring everyone down is a single person to spread doubt and dissent.

These notions of self-destruction and aggressiveness in an afflicted party member in Darkest Dungeon have striking similarities to those who suffer from psychological illness and trauma. It’s a model of self-destruction that is all too familiar to those with psychological disorders like depression, PTSD, or anxiety, which bears going into both the negative and positive aspects of such interpretations.

 

Well-deserved R & R

Let’s talk about the downward spiral that comes from stress and internal conflict. Everyone suffers from fatigue and exhaustion given enough time under stressful internal and external conflict.  We as humans simply cannot stand up to great amounts of stress for long periods of time. Some have thicker skin than others, but given enough time, a person’s psyche can easily be worn down. This is why we seek ways to combat stress and fatigue. We look to rest and relaxation after long endeavors. We turn to our religions for guidance or strength in our resolve. We turn to our hobbies and activities as ways to refocus our mind. We turn to our friends and loved ones for support in times of need. All of these different instances help us to recharge ourselves after we’ve cleared our own real life “dungeons.”

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After we’ve gone out and had hard work days, calmed down relationship troubles, suffered a loss, cleared up some bills, or gotten berated at work, it’s those aforementioned positive activities that help rebuild our sense of self. All of this correlates to the stress mechanics in Darkest Dungeon fairly well. Your adventurers turn to their own inner-strength, and to each other, to reduce their stress and keep the madness at bay. And when you get back into the Hamlet some of your more stressed heroes will need to take the week off to seek respite from their struggles, because even though they may have been successful, there were still troubles along the way.

We all need a break sometimes. Even the hardiest of adventurers needs some time off. But what happens when a person’s afflictions are inborn? What if the madness is there to stay?  In Darkest Dungeon the heroes are a bit lucky in that their afflictions can simply go away with some time away from the dungeons. But for those in real life who cannot escape their own internal conflicts it’s a different story.

 

Madness Infinitum

For those who suffer from mental illnesses, PTSD, Panic Disorder, Anxiety, Depression, phobias, and the like, this notion of recovering from stress is more complex issue. Metaphorical images such as “circling the drain,” “drowning,” and “downward spirals” come to mind because these are sorts of situations afflicted people are placed in. They’re constantly being pulled down into a deeper and deeper state of dysfunction despite all their attempts, and the help of those around them, to get better.

Think about everything you might go through on a daily basis. You’ve got work, family and relationship obligations, financial responsibilities, errands and chores, hygienic care, and so on. And then you throw in the randomness that is life. On any given day you could receive a phone call about a loss in the family or a friend. You could suffer a terrible accident that keeps you from working and suddenly you have to start dipping into savings while hoping to cover medical bills. A friend could be in dire straits and you have no way to really help them. All of these random factors can be thrown into your day when all you’re trying to do is live a healthy life.

Now imagine if all that was tertiary. Imagine if you didn’t even have the internal strength to deal with all that because you have an entirely separate animal to deal with, your own mind. I’m usually at a loss to describe the intrusive thoughts and self-doubt of mental illness. It’s like sharing your body and mind with another being, some ethereal horror that doesn’t want you to live your life. When you want to go see your friends your social anxiety starts up and sends you into a nightmarish panic attack that wracks your body and exhausts you to the point of being bed-ridden. Your depression keeps you in bed by sapping all your energy to the point where you can’t even take a shower to start your day. You’re having a great time at the mall when a loud noise or a couple arguing sets off your PTSD. Suddenly your fun outing turns into a fevered dash to your car so you can have a nervous breakdown. And you have no control over this. There’s just this switch that activates in your psychology but you don’t have access to it.

And the sad part of all this is that sometimes these kinds of people are “circling the drain,” so to speak, and there’s nothing that can be done. They can see the promise of a good life above them. The idea of being able to smile once again and greet the day with confidence is within their grasp. People with depression or anxiety understand what they need to do. They know that if they just make healthy choices and take care of their responsibilities that they can get better in time. However, they’re still in that downward spiral. They still have this unassailable force fighting against them. So while they can see the obtainable, their illnesses are keeping them from actually progressing.

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And what’s more tragic is the fact that the people who try to help these ailing individuals can be pulled into the torrent themselves. They see the struggling person and want to help. But sometimes it’s just not enough. Either the drowning person will still fall into deep levels of dysfunction, or sadly succumb to their illnesses altogether. They may even pull the helping party into their own downward spiral. Suddenly a virtuous person could become depressed and stressed at the fact that they can do nothing but watch a loved one suffer. In some cases a depressed person can simply be using the help of others to their own end. Take the alcoholic that takes advantage of people’s kindness or the depressed person who dumps all their problems on their friends but has no plans on utilizing their friends’ help. It’s a vicious cycle and one that is all too common.

It’s a terrible existence to not even be able to function at the most basic level. When you can’t even do daily tasks and normal activities the thought of trying to tackle larger goals somehow seems too distant to grasp. However, nothing is set in stone until you decide it is.

 

What Can One Gain from Darkest Dungeon?

Darkest Dungeon is a game that is constantly punishing you for simply playing the game. It’s like a D&D session narrated by H.P Lovecraft with a dice set forged in the world of Dark Souls. Every time you try to move forward the game kicks you down. Time and time again you’ll travel into a dungeon with your best adventurers who are equipped with all the best gear. You’ll have taken plenty of provisions. You’re ready to make it to the boss room and take down the horror that awaits you. But by the time you get halfway into the dungeon your party is on the verge of death and two of your party members are insane. Despite your best efforts, all is lost, but it’s not over. You can take a tactical retreat and go back to the Hamlet to rest and try again later.

This is a lot like dealing with internal, psychological conflicts. When dealing with traumatic experiences or mental illnesses you will constantly be making progress to try to get better only to have a single event destroy all the progress you’ve made. It’s that “circling the drain” effect I’ve spoken about earlier. No matter how much progress you’ve made there’s still this underlying current trying to tear you down. However, you’re never completely lost. Look at Darkest Dungeon’s ways of getting rid of stress. The characters can take time off between dungeons or they can look to others for help, and that’s what someone suffering from things like PTSD or depression should keep in mind.

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Sometimes you need to back down from things that could be doing you more harm than good. It’s important to know how much you can realistically handle while still trying to not simply give in to one’s inequities. Sometimes pushing yourself to go out and be social when your anxiety is riding high or attempting to have a good day despite the onset of depression can be a good thing. It’ll be exhausting but ultimately worth it to improve one’s overall mood. But you’re only human. It’s okay to recoup sometimes. On the other hand, reaching out for help can also be the literal difference between life and death. Make sure to have people you can rely on when you’re at your worst. The influence of a good friend can make all the difference in the world.

What’s most important to remember is that you have all the time in the world. Don’t rush your attempts at getting better when it’s only going to make things worse. Be realistic about what you can do and the most important thing, keep trying. No matter what.

 

Your dear writer’s thoughts on Darkest Dungeon…

A year ago I was given an official diagnosis on my psychological issues. I knew that I had depression and insomnia since a very young age. They’ve become part of my life at this point. Initially, my doctors told me that they thought I’d be on the track to recovery within six months. With some proper medication, regular psycho-therapy, and a healthy lifestyle I could start seeing improvements in no time. Fast forward eight months and I’ve lost two jobs, a five year relationship, any hope of finishing my graduate program, numerous friendships, and nearly my own life to my illnesses. I had lost everything I had worked for all up to that point in life.

So where was I to go with my life? And why should I have even bothered? What was the point when every time I had tried to get ahead I ended up depressed and bedridden? Or at least, that’s what my depression told me. After a suicide attempt in October of 2015 it took a month until I was physically able to stand again, another month before I could be on my feet for long periods of time, and almost three full months before I was confident enough to go back outside. I was physically drained and exhausted to the point where I couldn’t be on my feet for more than an hour. And the shame, this overwhelming feeling that every person I walked by knew what I had tried do and that they were judging me for it. It was quite some time before I made some progress.

But now, almost eight full months after my fall I’ve reinvented myself for the better. I have a new job that I love. I’m writing more frequently and trying to get my work out into the world. I’ve tossed aside previous ambitions of a career I never really wanted and decided to go into independent game design. I want to be part of the gaming industry and use my ambition and talent to help those who suffer from mental illnesses. All the while helping those without them to understand these afflictions that are overlooked and stigmatized. I’ve become a whole new person in the last year and a half, but it’s where I want to be. It’s where I should be.

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It took an inhuman level of willpower to get where I am today. I lived day to day and took some very small steps. I reached out to friends for help. Some got caught up in my own madness, and I’m sorry to those who did. While others I wouldn’t be here without and are still by my side if I need them. I’m not out of the woods yet either. I’m still anxious and depressed, but I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been before.

All it took was some patience and a few helping hands to get myself back up onto my feet.

 

Trigger Warnings for Darkest Dungeon: Darkest Dungeon is a game about Lovecraftian horrors and utter madness. There’s some really intense imagery and a good deal of violence within the game. Not to mention some of the afflictions are symptoms of actual psychological disorders. It’s an absolutely amazing game though. Despite everything coming out in 2016 nothing sets to dethrone it from my personal GOTY. Give it a shot if you’re up for a delve into madness incarnate.


Dylan Robert , dubbed 0ptimysticGamer for his boundless love of video games as a form of art and entertainment. You can follow him on twitter at @0ptimisticgamer!