Darkest Dungeon and Ethics: Making the Most of a Bad Situation

Darkest Dungeon and Ethics

Making the Most of a Bad Situation

James Cartlidge

Darkest Dungeon is a critically acclaimed, award-winning video game developed by Red Hook Studios which, since its release in 2016, has maintained a strong cult following. It tells a story of grim, medieval Lovecraftian horror and raises deep, difficult ethical questions in an ingenious way.

Your task in Darkest Dungeon is to assemble teams of adventurers and lead them on various quests for gold and glory, piece by piece purging the surrounding lands of the hideous undead skeletons, cultists, pigmen, sea monsters, and God knows what else that now populate them thanks to the twisted magical experiments of the narrator, known only as The Ancestor. The game can be a difficult, even cruel experience with turn-based combat that punishes every mistake you make, murdering characters you’ve spent time and money investing in, training up, and getting to know.

To top it off, you must even look after the mental health of your adventurers: their life of constant violence and exploring dark caves leads them to get stressed and otherwise psychologically afflicted, which pushes them to the brink of insanity and effects their personality and behavior.

This sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Despite all this, Darkest Dungeon is a compelling experience: easy to learn, difficult to master, a proper challenge where you slowly but surely become better at handling the unyielding brutality the game throws at you.

The game pulls no punches about it either – every time you boot it up, you get this message:

Darkest Dungeon is about making the most of a bad situation. Quests will fail or must be abandoned. Heroes will die. And when they die, they stay dead. […] The game expects a lot out of you. How far will you push your adventurers? How much are you willing to risk in your quest to restore the Hamlet? What will you sacrifice to save the life of your favorite hero?

This message (which initially is easy to pass by without a second thought) reveals the dark but deeply philosophical headspace the game puts you in as a player. You are in a bad situation, up against terrible adversity with limited resources and money but a constant supply of soldiers each with their own quirks, personality traits, strengths, and flaws. You are fighting for a good cause, but many of these heroes will die for the greater good. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide who lives, who dies, who gets traumatized, and what for.

The game puts you in a situation not unlike generals face in wartime, asking you to balance your soldiers’ lives and psychological wellbeing against achieving a goal. You can win some small tactical victories where no one dies, but eventually situations will arise where the worst is unavoidable, and lives must be sacrificed for the war effort. But whose? And how many? What are these people worth to you?

This is Darkest Dungeon at its philosophically deepest: it puts you in a bad situation and asks you to decide how many people you are willing to sacrifice to improve it, forcing you to consider the value of human life in the face of fighting a great evil. It’s an exercise in ethical philosophy: it presents the player with questions of right and wrong, good and evil, and sacrifice for the greater good – then pushes the player to a point where they question their previous assumptions about what the right thing to do is.

You might start out an idealist, trying to preserve the lives of your people as the utmost priority, but the game has other ideas and will brutalize you into abandoning your moral compass. You can try and play Darkest Dungeon conservatively, carefully, reducing the amount of death and suffering as much as possible, but the game will always make things worse until you push yourself beyond your ethical comfort zone and start throwing people to the meat grinder.

When I first played Darkest Dungeon, I didn’t take its opening message seriously: I thought it was just a menacing way to introduce you to the game. I thought if I managed things well enough, retreated when necessary, minimized the number of poor decisions I made, I could keep my heroes alive. You start off with two heroes, play an opening tutorial, send the two of them on a mission, and bring them back when things get too dangerous. Then more people arrive on the town’s stagecoach and become available to join your squad. On my first quest with a full team of four, two of them died in a fight I probably should have won – I made what were evidently some poor decisions. But it’s all part of the learning curve. My heroes’ somewhat needless deaths need not be in vain.

So, I continued and tried to keep all my heroes alive and healthy. Whenever it looked like one of them was going to die, I abandoned the mission. When back in town, I relieved their stress and cured their diseases. All seemed to be well, until one day I realized that all my heroes were fine, but I had no money – I’d spent it all keeping them healthy. What’s more, I had hardly done anything to help the town! Because my heroes were continually failing quests, they weren’t bringing much back with them that could be used to help the town – and it turns out that failing quests makes your heroes even more stressed, so you have to spend more money on stress relief, meaning you have less money to spend on supplies for future quests, so your heroes will be underprepared and more likely to fail…and so on.

By trying to be somewhat moral and failing to commit to completing the tasks at hand, at the expense of a few lives, I had made a bad situation worse. Now, with no money to buy quest supplies like food and torches, four of my heroes would now be walking into a dire situation. I looked at my growing roster of adventurers, pondered who was worth the least to me, who I wouldn’t necessarily mind dying on a quest gone wrong, and sent four hopeless cases out with no supplies to almost certain death.

This was when I learned a curious thing about how light works in the game. Light is important: for a well-prepared mission, you want to buy torches because the more lit the dungeon is, the easier time you will generally have. With no light at all, however, things become much more unpredictable, much more stressful for your heroes, the combat more unforgiving, the whole experience generally more difficult. But the rewards are also higher. You get more gold, more treasures, more of everything you would normally find on a quest. Against all odds, my hopeless cases managed to complete the quest – and only two of them died. I returned victorious for once, with a sizeable amount of gold and things I could use to help the town.

Wow, I thought, that actually worked – let’s try that again. I helped the town as best I could with what I had. Then, rather than spending money on relieving the physical and psychological afflictions my heroes had suffered on the last quest, I simply fired them. I plucked four new ones from the stagecoach, assembled another suicide squad, and sent them on their way. Again, they returned with a decent amount of gold and treasure. Now I had enough to finally begin getting somewhere.

What had I become? Sending people to near-certain doom without a second thought, just for the money, tossing away the psychologically traumatized survivors like a used tissue, after I’d got what I needed out of them? Consciously deciding that some of my heroes were of more value than others and making sure to prioritize saving them over certain others? This game had taken me into some dark territory.

It then hit me that this must be, at least partly, how you’re supposed to play Darkest Dungeon: you can’t seem to get very far without doing it. What had been holding me back was my naïve belief that I could win and help the town without treating some of my heroes’ lives as expendable. It was a crushing realization that trying to do what I thought was the right thing was going to get me nowhere. Despite my team all having their own unique personalities, quirks, and so on, these people are not supposed to stick around forever – you are supposed to train them up and send them off to fight, perhaps die, for the cause. They’re not your friends, they’re your soldiers, and soldiers die.

I was shocked by how quickly my initial idealism disintegrated: within a few in-game weeks I had become the very thing I wanted to avoid, and at the time I barely noticed because, for once, I’d actually made some progress in this war against evil. I still took care of some of my heroes, sent them out on well-prepared quests, made them stronger, bought them upgraded equipment, etc. But I sent plenty of others out with nothing, to their death, just for the promise of the extra reward. In pursuit of the greater good, I had ceased to care for the individual lives of my adventurers – except the good ones, obviously. The rest were just meat for the grinder.

Darkest Dungeon’s opening message now mocked me as it began to make more and more sense: it’s not about winning every fight or saving every life – it’s about making the most of a bad situation. Some people die, and that’s that. Some lives are just expendable, but it’s all for the cause, right?

There is a lot going on in this game, and I wouldn’t want to try and narrow it down to a single message or identify it with a particular philosophical position. But the role it puts you in and the challenges it throws at you actively force you to think about ethical questions and consider the value of life. It seems bent on convincing you of its way of doing things and making you realize a terrible, uncomfortable truth: some wars are worth fighting, and wars cannot be won without sacrifice. Sometimes you can’t be good and must make the most out of a bad situation.

I’m still playing Darkest Dungeon, not only because it’s an exceptional game but also because I want to see how it all turns out and whether all the sacrifice was worth it, whether we end up achieving what we set out to achieve. 

The fact that Darkest Dungeon can make you feel and think in this way is ingenious. It’s one of the most delightfully gruesome and engaging experiences I’ve had in a video game for some time. A sequel is in the works, so now would be a good time to play the first one and let yourself get drawn into its brilliantly twisted world.

James Cartlidge, Ph.D. is a recent graduate in philosophy from the Central European University, Vienna. His background is in continental philosophy, especially Heidegger, phenomenology, existentialism, and post-structuralism. He is currently working on several projects focused on the philosophy of music, sport, and video games.

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