How Darkest Dungeon Helped Its Creators Reflect on Stress

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Stress is a major mechanic in Darkest Dungeon. It’s a dark, violent game, and it puts its heroes through horrible situations: fighting monstrosities, encountering punishing traps, watching their fellows succumb to horror or death. Every one of those things can increase their stress levels.

Stress is also a major part of game development. In a recent conversation with Gamasutra’s Bryant Francis, leads Chris Bourassa and Tyler Sigman explained how the stress system both reflected and affected their development cycle at Red Hook Studios.

Part of that was because they wanted to look at heroism as it applies in reality rather than power fantasies — how real people might handle the game’s nightmarish scenarios.

“We even looked at development through this lens. You can push people on a deadline and they’ll get afflicted, and break down, and stop coming into work,and get nasty to everybody. Or they’ll really knuckle down, pull an all-nighter, get it done, save the day.”

Darkest Dungeon treats stress similarly. Heroes who get too stressed can snap and develop afflictions like fearfulness, paranoia or hopelessness. Or they can grow more resolved, developing virtues like focus, vigor or courage. The latter is rare, but it transforms the situation for both the resolute hero and everyone around them.

But in the game — as in real life — stress feeds on stress. Heroes can share their struggles around the campfire to lighten their load, which is great. But sometimes they vocalize their horror in the midst of an already tense situation, and the people around them suffer for it.

In Bourassa and Sigman’s experience, that can be true in game development as well. Team members might talk over their challenges while having a drink after work, and that can be healing — but unchecked negativity can harm the whole team’s morale.

Research bears this observation out. Overindulging in negativity can have a pronounced impact on our physical and mental health. It can also encourage the people around us to feel more negative, feeding back into things like mob mentality.

For Red Hook Studio, this meant finding alternate ways to deal with stress. As they approached the release date for Darkest Dungeon’s new DLC, The Crimson Court, Bourassa and Signam gave themselves a moratorium on talking about stress. It was a shared part of their experience, but vocalizing it wasn’t doing them any good.

They’re also using some inspiration from the game to help their team. Red Hook’s Slack includes a red stress halo pulled from the game as a custom emoticon. Everyone at the studio is encouraged to use it as their status when they’re feeling particularly stressed as a simple way to let others know to be patient with them, or offer support, or just understand.

Darkest Dungeon doesn’t handle mental health issues perfectly across the board, but it does do some things right. One of its messages that’s more profound than it probably should be is this: Stress reactions aren’t a sign of weakness — they’re natural responses to difficult situations. That’s a lesson that we’d all do well to learn if we’re going to foster a healthier industry.

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