Wednesday 5 June 2019

Learning Patience in the Darkest Dungeon

As soon as I saw Darkest Dungeon for the first time, it was a game that I desperately wanted to love. Its art style, evoking the sharp angles, thick outlines and rich, earthy pallet of the Hellboy comics, was immediately arresting. The melodious voice of The Ancestor, a continuous commentary throughout the players' delvings into the game's dungeons, delivered dialogue that teeters on the brink of absurdity with a plummy lexicon and dramatic tone. It creates an atmosphere that manages to be dread-filled without being oppressive; dark but inviting. As a long-time fan of this flavour of eldritch horror, as well as cool art and writing that uses words like 'antediluvian', I wanted to dive in straight away.

Aesthetics aside, Darkest Dungeon appealed to me because it caters to my idealised vision of what my video game playing looks like. As someone with a wonderfully full life, I simply don't have the time to spend hours every day playing games any more. Honestly, nor do I have the attention span for that. But there's a part of me deep down that is in love with the idea of having that kind of time or stamina. Disgaea, a game so sprawling in its scope that every weapon can become its own dungeon crawl, obsesses this part of my psyche and I've almost bought it on Steam more times than I can count. When I actually bought it on the PS2 years ago I didn't make it past the third mission, and yet it still pulls at me. Darkest Dungeon fits this archetype perfectly: a turn-based dungeon crawler in which heroes can permanently die, or be driven mad by the stresses you place them under, which can only be beaten by slowly building up your resources to tackle the brutally difficult final challenge: the Darkest Dungeon itself.

Unfortunately, with my time being in such limited supply, all I had managed to do was bounce off Darkest Dungeon a few times. I would sit down in front of my PC and begin a new campaign full of optimism and excitement: this time would be different. This time I would not let myself get overwhelmed and stick with it. This time I would fall in love. And every time, the game repelled me. Sometimes it was the setbacks and disappointment that are part and parcel of playing the game, but mostly it was because I could feel the weight of time pressing down on me. I would spend huge amounts of time between expeditions poking around the hamlet (the hub that allows the player to tend to their over-stressed heroes, upgrade facilities, and buy provisions for the next outing) trying to fully understand everything in order to optimise every single decision. What does it mean if a hero has weak knees? Is that worth treating over someone with kleptomania? How much food should I bring on a 'Medium' length mission? How many bandages? Who is most deserving of time in the tavern to relieve their stress? Is it worth upgrading my strongest crusader's skills to give me an edge in the next big push, knowing that if they die the money will have been wasted? Above anything else, crippling analysis paralysis is why I would always stop playing.

Clearly in order to get further into this game, I needed to take a more casual approach to playing it. An opportunity to do so presented itself when I was given the Switch version of the game for Christmas. Now I could play the game anywhere for as little or long as I wanted, able to suspend and resume the game at will (my favourite innovation for this generation of consoles). The mental hurdle of having to go to my desk, sit down, start up my computer, wait for Windows to start, then Steam, then wait for the game to load up....was gone! Along with this new beginning I made a conscious choice: I was going to allow myself to not understand everything. I was going to live in ambiguity and be bold enough to make choices to the best of my ability without spending hours poring over every button click. In short, I would be unafraid of failure.

This past weekend, I faced my greatest test. I pushed hard to defeat the Necromancer Apprentice, an early boss in the game. I came within a couple of turns of victory, when the stresses of their long crawl through the dungeon began to get the better of my heroes. One started to refuse the continuous healing spells that were keeping him alive under a merciless onslaught from the Necromancer's undead minions. Another started to hurl verbal abuse at his companions, resulting in both him and one more dying of heart attacks in consecutive rounds as the boss conjured visions of their grisly demises. Down to the last party member I tried to flee, tried to at least recover the thousands of gold pieces, precious stones and upgrade materials gathered on the long expedition, but she too fell. I was left with nothing to show for the previous 30 minutes except my four strongest heroes buried in the shallow graveyard of the hamlet. This was my first true taste of what Darkest Dungeon is supposed to be.

I will admit, after that happened I put down the Switch and sat staring into space for a while. I had just invested significant time in something and had managed to actually end up in a worse state than when I started. For my entire gaming career, I have always hated losing progress and done anything to avoid it. This was one of the points in the past where I would have just quit.

After a bit of soul searching, I hit upon the thing that would carry me forward: it was my new knowledge, the cruel intangible experience, that was my reward. I should have turned back earlier. I should have recognised that the battle was shifting away from my favour when the first hero died and cut my losses. Up until that point I had been cautious and it had paid off: on a previous run I encountered The Collector (a randomly spawning mini-boss who summons copies of your party members) two rooms ahead of where I had expected to find the Necromancer. I managed to defeat him, but the toll he had extracted meant it was obvious that I wouldn't stand a chance if I carried on. Yet when I saw the Necromancer's life bar at 20% I got greedy. I didn't want to spend another 30 minutes repeating the same dungeon for a third time. I wanted to beat him now, dammit! And for that greed and impatience, the game slapped me in the face and handed me not just another run through the same dungeon, but all the extra work necessary to get a new band of heroes up to the task of attempting it.

It isn't often that I learn a real life lesson from video games, but this is a very valuable one. To find the silver lining in failure: the growth opportunity in defeat. It's taking a lot of willpower, but I'm determined to follow through. I forced myself to push on on a new mission; to begin rebuilding what my lack of experience had cost me. Next time, I won't make the same mistake.

I'll definitely make other ones, but that's okay too...

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