I’ve started playing Darkest Dungeon again. I’ve tried a few times now, but despite always finding it gripping, strategic, and campily horrific I’ve always fallen off after a few play sessions. This particularly effort will be on in a series: I’ve almost completed my Master’s (my defense is in a week and a half) and thus have a sudden surplus of time to dig into my game backlog.
I’ve only ventured into the estate grounds twice, yet something interesting happened on my second expedition. An expedition which would prove to be Dismas’ last. He was a highwayman, half slick, half grizzled. He’d only fallen into banditry late in his life, after a series of unlikely misfortunes stripped him of his mistress, his comfortable job, even his home. On that day, with a sickly sun low overhead, Dismas would learn that fate was not yet done with him.
It seemed that the cultists—and the shambling corpses the’d reanimated—had a keen interest in the erstwhile highwayman. He fought back grimly with black powder and blade, but soon succumbed to their focused attacks. His new companions struggled to heal him, but these efforts were soon shown to be fruitless. Dismas bled out on the cold flagstones of my ruined ancestral home.
I flitted through the stages of videogame grief, eventually consoling myself with the fact that it wasn’t a great loss, mechanically. He was level one, and could be easily replaced. The game was designed to be difficult; some deaths are to be expected. It’s possible that I’d misplayed somehow—I don’t have much of an understanding of how threat works in Darkest Dungeon—but, again, it was a manageable loss.
Then I wondered why I was having to console myself at all, soon realizing it was because his death didn’t seem fair. I’d had my crusader mark himself (to attempt to draw attacks away from my slight highwayman). I’d had my vestal and plague doctor heal poor Dismas, but the attacks were unrelenting. I’ll bracket my potential misplays for now, and instead discuss my history with unfairness in games.
I could never play Bejeweled (or its many progeny) because it so often seemed as though the computer was out to get me, feeding me just the wrong pieces to break up combos. I won’t dwell on the perceived injustice of Puzzle Quest’s match-3 combat, but rest assured that it hated it. Heck, streaks of bad dice rolls in D&D have almost gotten me to pack up my player’s handbook.
This has been largely because for me, games have been about control or to develop a sense of mastery; at least to some arbitrary degree. (I enjoy feeling competent, but have never wanted to speedrun anything) Thus when a game includes a system over which I have no control—that dreaded RNG, immune to mastery—I usually figure it would be better off without it. Or at least without me noticing it.
My father was depressed and anxious, and he sought to manage these conditions with alcohol. I expect that he wanted to care for his son, but both his disorders and their treatment made it very difficult for him to do reliably. As such, when I was growing up, I often found myself in situations which seemed to make no sense and were, often profoundly unfair. I expect this also explains why I enjoy playing games in which I can feel like things are under my control. This feels safe to me, even when I’m disemboweling Locust or dancing over spikes in an ancient Aztec-ish tomb.
Dismas is gone and he isn’t coming back. In the macabre world of Darkest Dungeon, arbitrary, sudden, brutal death is to be expected. You can do your best to rail against it, train your heroes and hone your skills, but—I expect—that this will not always be enough. I’m looking forward to continuing my forays into these perilous depths, and see what other eldritch relics I may yet unveil.