I’m no stranger to mechanically deep games. Games like Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, or The Binding of Isaac have mechanics that run deeper than they seem at first and all take time to master. But if those games are as deep as oceans, then Darkest Dungeon is the Mariana Trench. There is so much to manage in Darkest Dungeon from party positions to their attacks and trinkets, provisions for quests and the effects of curios, character quirks and equipment. It often feels overwhelming and stressful and stress, funnily enough, is another thing you have to manage in the game.
The stress mechanic in Darkest Dungeon ties into the games Lovecraftian themes and portrays the deteriorating mental state of warriors as they encounter unknown horrors. All characters have a stress gauge that goes from 0 to 200 and stress is inflicted by a multiple of sources: enemy attacks, curios, low torch light, and even walking backwards through a dungeon. When a character’s stress reaches 100, their resolve is tested. This either gives them a flaw, like paranoid or hopeless, which will make them act on their own during battle to the detriment of the party, or make them virtuous, which gives them a positive characteristic, like heroic, that they can use to destress or buff their party members. If stress continues to build for a character whose resolve has been tested and it reaches 200, they have a heart attack. A heart attack instantly reduces a character HP to 0 and puts them on Death’s Door or kills them outright if they already have no HP. Stress builds and builds on a character until they finally snap, like they were a rubber band being pulled too far.
A character’s stress meter basically works as a second health bar, but while wounds and HP are healed instantly after a mission is complete, the psychological scars and stress carry over. HP is the immediate concern in a battle because that will most affect if the character makes it out of a dungeon alive, but stress is, to quote the game, a slow and insidious killer. There are things that can be done during a mission to reduce stress on your team. Some characters have skills that will heal a small amount of stress, there are camping abilities for longer missions that relieve stress, and it’s always a smart idea to focus on enemies that deal in stress damage at the beginning of an encounter.
The easiest way to relieve stress is in the hamlet, the main hub of the game. There, characters can take part in activities like drinking, praying, or gambling to forget their problems for a while and reduce their stress. It is in the town that stress becomes a resource management mechanic. All the activities that help characters require money and will take that character out of the action for a while, unable to go on missions. This works as a drain on your resources. You could buy equipment upgrades for your team or you could spend that gold relieving your main healer’s stress to get them out in the dungeons again.
Having characters be excluded from missions to relieve stress guides the player to constantly rotate their parties for dungeons. Not only does rotating them help keep stress at a minimum, it will lead to a barracks of soldiers of consistent levels. It can be a real issue in the later game if you have a gap in levels between your main team of characters and your backups. The dungeons don’t get easier as the game progresses. The dungeon missions only get harder with each passing in-game week and sometimes sending out a lower level team is dangerous, but it’s your only option. If you have been diligent about rotating characters, the gulf in levels will be more narrow, meaning a losing a handful of high value characters will be slightly less catastrophic.
The truly interesting aspect of the stress mechanic in Darkest Dungeon isn’t how it affects the characters on the screen, but the player. You will become attached to certain characters through emergent gameplay moments, like a character struggling through their stress to become virtuous and single-handedly save the rest of the party. Small moments like that make your party feel like they are really fighting for their lives and makes you appreciate the ones who rise to the occasion. But what happens to characters who never do that? Who seem to miss every important attack or whose building stress always becomes a flaw? Well, you might start thinking less of them. And when that happens, Darkest Dungeon adds just the slightest friction of morality in to keep things interesting.
Moral choices are nothing new to video games, but while most AAA games rely on a dichotomy of good and bad choices, indie games fare better. Darkest Dungeon presents the player with a nuanced, grey-area take on morality and, much like Papers, Please, it is solely based on the player’s beliefs and emotions. You can dismiss any character at any time for no penalty. This means you are basically a boss in a right-to-work state, but your employees’ only way of leaving is through death. So what you do with these people is completely your choice. You can take care of everybody, make sure that they are mentally stable at the cost of constant stress upkeep, or you can discard them, just toss them aside when they are at their breaking point mentally and of no use to you. There’s no drawback to this in-game; it solely relies on you to make the choice. When I first played the game years ago, I had no problem throwing away characters that were too much of a hassle or too expensive to keep, but in my most recent playthrough I found that much harder to do. I started dismissing less and less of my team until I was keeping everyone until they died. And even that isn’t necessarily a “good” thing to do. But I couldn’t let them go just because of high stress and bad traits. Those are caused either by my own poor decisions in fight or in the dungeons, or due to the nature of a chaotic, uncaring universe (e.i. the random number generator) which only heightens the Lovecraftian themes.
Darkest Dungeon is a game of staggering depth and the stress mechanic, how it affects the gameplay and the player, is just one aspect of it. There is so much to the game that I could easily make many more posts about it and probably will revisit it again in the future. What I just thought of at first as a neat idea to have two different types of health made me reevaluate the entire game. Stress in Darkest Dungeon is like a glass bottom boat tour: you can see what’s on the surface easily, but so much more lays in the blackness of the unknowable ocean’s depths.