GDC: A Look Back on Designing ‘Darkest Dungeon’

Michael Grimm

Darkest Dungeon was one of 2015’s biggest indie games, and for good reason: Its macabre, Lovecraftian world meshed together perfectly with its brutal, unforgiving gameplay. And as Creative Director and Red Hook Studios Co-President Chris Bourassa made clear in his GDC 2016 talk, this was no accident.

His talk focused on the strong, well-developed vision he and Co-Designer/Co-President Tyler Sigma created before they ever started developing the game, and how the vision helped direct the process. While having a strong blurb can make promotion easier, they knew that the “X meets X” formula — in this case X-COM meets Dark Souls — wasn’t enough. They needed something more specific.

Crafting the detailed vision in advance was also a practical move, as he and Tyler both had job offers on the table at the time, and taking on Darkest Dungeon involved no small degree of risk. As Chris said “I have a wife, a mortgage, a kid, …and an iPad now.” They knew they wanted a difficult game, strongly connected to Lovecraftian concepts, but how would they get there?

First was the game’s look. Darkest Dungeon was originally conceived using both a top-down view and pixel art, a far cry from its current look. Chris elaborated that while pixel art was extremely popular at the time, they quickly realized it didn’t communicate what the game was all about. Pixel art “Communicated retro and charming above all,” which clashed heavily with the game’s dark, horror nature. Fortunately, Chris’ comic art style was a perfect match, with its heavy black inks and more sketched look. The “looseness” of the art also reinforced one of the game’s major themes, imperfection. Chris half-joked that the looseness allowed for more efficiency, as he could get more art done in a shorter amount of time.


The top-down view idea also got nixed fairly early along in the process, as the team felt it detracted from the player’s ability to relate to the characters, which was a primary focus. According to Chris, “Wide angles robbed the game of claustrophobia and tension,” and again, half-jokingly, it was “hard to relate to the top of someone’s head.”

It didn’t end there, as the team made additional mechanical decisions to fit their vision. In order to reiterate that they wanted the player’s focus squarely on the characters, each was limited to only two equipment slots, avoiding the usual roguelike futzing over gear and stats. Chris condensed the concept with the axiom of it being “about the sword-arm, not the sword.”

The final look of Darkest Dungeon is a far cry from a top down pixel art game.

As far as the game’s prodigious difficulty, Chris explained its role in Darkest Dungeon’s vision as well, making it clear that players should feel helpless in the face of Lovecraftian “cosmic horror.” That said, the team was adamant about providing fairness while still allowing for the randomness of the RNG, or Random Number Generator. As co-designer Tyler Sigma eloquently put it in a separate talk about the game: “Don’t arbitrarily kick the player in the nuts. Kick them in the nuts with specifically crafted purpose.”

Sigma shared a video during his presentation illustrating the, to put it mildly, intense emotional reaction the game’s combination of difficulty, RNG, and personal investment was capable of generating:

The team embraced what would generally be considered bad game design in some of their choices. During the final boss fight in the game, a moment occurs where the player must select one of their own party members to be instantly killed. It’s a brand new mechanic that’s introduced at the last minute, and it’s designed to throw the player off guard. Chris summarized: “Horror thrives in the absence of certainty.” Lovecraft would be proud.

Check out the Darkest Dungeon Wikia to learn more about the game.

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