Progress isn't permanent. Darkest Dungeon is a tremendously popular Steam game that just emerged from Early Access. It's a Lovecraft-inspired dungeon-crawling RPG with a few twists: 1) you have an entire persistent town to upgrade, 2) if any of your characters die, they're gone for good and 3) as a result of adventuring-related trauma, your characters slowly develop psychoses that can devour them utterly.
That last part is key. At any given moment, your character roster will contain enough people — each representing any of 14 classes — to fill out multiple four-character adventuring parties. No matter how successful a dungeon run, your intrepid do-gooders will come back with maladies that turn their iron resolve to piss, pus and puke.
There is an enormous list of diseases and mental "quirks" that characters can contract while searching for secrets beneath the estate of a once-proud family. Maybe they will come to fear a certain enemy type or location. Maybe they will develop an eating disorder and start gulping down your precious food reserves. Maybe they will catch syphilis. These sorts of things can happen during turn-based battles and outside them as you manoeuvre through dungeons — for instance when you're rooting around for treasure, only to encounter a trap or noxious disease cloud. It's brutal. Even the breeziest run can take a turn for the very bottom of the toilet after only one or two false steps. Overconfidence is the quietest killer — and also the most gleeful.
That's to say nothing of your characters' overall stress levels, which slowly creep upward as a result of enemy encounters or environmental hazards, like an icy hand raising individual hairs on the back of your neck. If you take characters on too many adventures in a row, they can lose their minds or even die of heart attacks. As you earn gold and spend it on new equipment and skills, your characters become stronger, but they never stop being human.
Never mind carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. Try holding up your own head first.
"This isn't so bad," I said to myself as I completed a preliminary run through an apprentice (that is to say, low-level) location in Darkest Dungeon. There'd been a few close calls, but it'd been a smooth dip into the shallow end of the dungeon pool. I had been intimidated coming in. I'd heard how mercilessly difficult the game was, and I'm the sort of player who hates losing anybody in games with permadeath like XCOM and Fire Emblem. To me, each character is a precious snowflake ice swan baby, and I'm charged with keeping them alive at all costs — while also using them as my primary weapons in an ongoing war against aliens/dragons/Lovecraftian hell denizens. I should never be a parent.
I did a few more runs in other parts of the Darkest Dungeon's objective-filled map, mostly to explore and push toward the eventual goal of fighting one of the game's many bosses. Things continued to be straightforward. Sure, my people were developing minor psychoses. They had a little masochism here, a little sex addiction there. I coped by swapping out team members each run. While I was piloting one team of four through a grasping pit of their worst nightmares, I made sure others were chilling out back in town — praying, drinking, gambling and, uh, whipping themselves to get their stress back down to manageable levels.
No, I wasn't treating everything, but come on: it costs a lot of in-game money to treat everyone's maladies. The occasional mental affliction or physical disease slipped through, provided it wasn't severe enough to require immediate treatment. For a while, my roster moved like a well-oiled — albeit slowly rusting — machine. It wasn't a perfect system, but it worked. Or so I thought.
I'm someone who grew up fortunate enough to become a firm believer in the idea of linear progress. I came to think that, once I started working on something, any progress I made was precious and mine to keep. Progress and productivity became my sword and shield in a world where uncertainty is constantly encroaching. I applied that mentality to school work, martial arts training, hobbies, writing and, of course, video games. I played a ton of RPGs, and the lesson was always the same: embrace the grind, and you will eventually become unstoppable. What's more valuable than moving up in the world? It's a question we're asked in school, work and numerous other places. The answer is usually the same: nothing.
For years, I worked my arse off to be a better writer, a better thinker, a better brain in this gangly flesh tube called a body. I worked through university. I worked instead of going to parties. I worked instead of learning music or following other pursuits I'm passionate about. It's not like I had it bad or anything, but still: I worked. I worked because I thought I was paying it all forward, that I could amass this tremulous mountain of work in my work bank, and then everything else would just fall into place.
I remember the first time that particular bedrock of my life got bulldozed. It was the first day of January 2013. I woke up and realised that my vision was unusually foggy. As the day progressed, I found that my thoughts were a little harder than usual to hold onto, that my speech was slightly more prone to slurring. It was like being drunk, except without the fun parts. Also my neck hurt a bunch. Days later, the issue still hadn't subsided. I panicked. For months. Then I fell into a depressive slump.
To this day, I haven't found a doctor that can pin down exactly what happened, but the short version is, my brain doesn't work quite as well as it used to, probably as a side-effect of an overly curved portion of my spine. I was 23 when it first happened. I didn't expect to deal with problems born of my neck and spine until I was Old, like at least 29. And even then, I hadn't considered — realistically considered — the possibility of it affecting my ability to think and write and do things I actually care about. It felt like so much of the progress I'd made was wrenched out of my hands in this unfair, unprecedented way. Why was my reward for hard, hunched-over work this detrimental physical malady? Why was it the precise opposite of what I'd sought for so long?
Worse, I had no idea what would happen next. Would my mind and body slip further? As silly of a fear as it was for a 20-something to have, I was afraid that my peak was behind me, that it was all downhill from there. I decided that I couldn't let that happen. I had to push harder than ever to stop myself from losing ground. If I wasn't directly making up for what I felt like I'd lost, what was I even doing?
After a few hours of Darkest Dungeon, I noticed something: I was beginning to retreat from dungeons more often than I managed to complete them. I'd get close to clearing out every enemy, exploring every room, or tangoing with a dreaded boss monster, only for something to go catastrophically awry. A character would get too stressed and start freaking out the rest of the party or acting against orders, or I'd run out of torches. I'd back out, because it was better than letting characters permanently die.
I was in a spiral. Retreating means you don't make much money. Instead of glittering loot, your characters return with a heaping pile of fresh stress. I couldn't afford to both upgrade my characters and mentally rehabilitate everyone returning from failed exhibitions. I started letting certain characters go, usually ones so impossibly afflicted with depression and disease that they were, sad to say, more trouble than they were worth. I made room for fresh recruits. I had to keep pushing forward, no matter the cost.
I'd bonded with some of my old characters. I remember when I told the Plague Doctor from my very first adventuring party to take a hike. He was also my first character to hit a stress level of 100 and — instead of breaking and becoming uncontrollable, which is what usually happens — achieve a state of virtuosity, growing more powerful for the rest of the run. The other characters in my party drew inspiration (and more importantly, buffs) from his example, snatching a doomed run from the jaws of defeat. It was crazy cool, one of those moments that creates a video game character you'll never forget.
Flash forward a few hours and he was a masochistic mess with afflictions that left his stats in a rubble. I'd pushed him too hard, and I'd put off treating his less severe problems until he reached a breaking point. I let them pile up in the name of attending to more pressing matters (loot, bosses and so on) in the present. But I kept falling short, resulting in a hyper-limited budget. In a desperate bid to make ends meet, I let my Plague Doctor go.
In games like XCOM, it's heartbreaking to watch one of your characters die. In Darkest Dungeon, it's casting off an "old" (read: worn down and unstable) warhorse because you're incompetent and there's no room in your budget. This after they have had their mind and body repeatedly torn apart in your service. The XCOM situation at least places a little blame on somebody or something else. In Darkest Dungeon it's all you, right down to pressing the button that permanently forces them off your roster.
Even after all that sacrifice, the new characters I recruited were weak and inexperienced. They needed a ton of help from veteran characters to tackle all but the lowest-level dungeons. The net effect? I wasn't just failing to make progress in the game; I was losing it. I kept coming up short in dungeons that only used to give me a little trouble. I was slipping and sliding. The part of me that houses a small modicum of pride in my gaming abilities was angry, embarrassed. For a little while, I considered giving up and starting the whole game over.
There was just one problem: I didn't understand what I was doing wrong.
Darkest Dungeon's depictions of individual mental illnesses are simplistic. You can drop characters into the Sanitarium to receive a convenient one-size-fits-all treatment for a "quirk", (almost) no matter what ails them. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, bulimia, alcoholism, ablutomania or what have you each have a different mid-dungeon effect. OCD, for instance, makes characters annoyingly prone to investigating objects despite inherent dangers. There's little nuance.
The game excels, however, in modelling trauma as an overall system. Everybody has experienced trauma to a degree — some of us worse than others. In the grand scheme of all this, I still consider myself extremely fortunate. Some of my best friends have had large portions of their lives defined by trauma. A person I dated once was a survivor of rape and abuse. On bad days, every few minutes was a new battle against the ghosts in her head. She was tough, but it sucked. Watching and not being able to do much was painful; I can't even imagine what living it must've been like.
Trauma always leaves wounds. If left untreated for too long, those wounds fester, grow and multiply. And yet, modern living subtly encourages people to ignore them. You gotta stay busy, the career world tells us. Taking care of yourself — whether that means taking some time off, seeing a therapist or what have you — isn't directly productive, and you've already got So Much To Do. If it's not work, it's social or family obligations. What will friends, significant others or co-workers think if you disappear now? That you're lazy? That you're crazy? And anyway, where will you find the money?
As I played Darkest Dungeon, I tried so hard to follow the golden rule of progress, to play like I'd play any other video game. Sure, I'd retreat from battles or dungeons occasionally, but everything had to be in the name of slow advancement. I prioritised short-term gains over long-term decision-making, and I did it almost unconsciously. Other games taught me that it'd work; they told me that heroes are defined by the progress they're making, the XP and items they're earning, the stories they're exerting agency over. So I picked my hill to die on, and god damn it I was gonna climb all the way to the top, no matter what got in my way.
I kept falling down, further and further.
Sometimes, it feels like the game is rigged, like the deck is stacked against you. And sometimes, it actually is. Darkest Dungeon is a mean game. Everything can and will hurt you. Some chests yield treasure; others spring traps. Attacks miss at crucial moments. Disease seeps from every corner. Sometimes I'd sit there playing it with my fists balled and my teeth clenched, just waiting for something to go horribly wrong yet again at exactly the worst moment, like some kind of spring trap ready to fling me into oblivion.
Two features added while the game was in Early Access compound that. The corpse system often annoyed the crap out of me. I'd finally hack a big monster to pieces, only for its corpse to gum up my range and prevent me from attacking enemies behind it. I couldn't even get satisfaction from a hard-fought win! Sometimes, the aforementioned back row enemies would then land a blow that would slay one of my people or drive them mad. "FUCK THIS FUCKING GAME" is not something I imagine my neighbours loved hearing at 2am. Heart attacks, meanwhile, were more of a deterrent. If someone was so stressed that they were on the verge of one, it was probably time to give up on that particular dungeon — let a run end with a whimper rather than a bang.
Darkest Dungeon is terrifying. You never know quite how a new monster or boss or area will manage to screw you. It just will. You have to measure every step, and even then, that's no guarantee of survival. Sometimes things just don't work out, and you lose ungodly amounts of what you worked so hard to build.
In real life, trauma often emerges from rigged systems. Schools and workplaces that prioritise certain types of people over others; establishments that discriminate on bases like sex, sexual orientation or religion; or even little moments where people take advantage of us. All of those things coalesce to form the most unfair system of all: luck. Sometimes it works in our favour. Other times it really doesn't. It works out better for some people than others, too, and it's easy to look at that and decide, regardless of your own needs, that you're doing something wrong.
Once trauma is in place, other systems work to reinforce it, to establish its looming presence as acceptable. The aforementioned career and social obligations, the very idea of "normalcy" itself. It can be so frustrating. It can feel like something you've got to push against in order to defiantly take back what's rightfully yours. You've got to work harder.
But you're also so tired from all the shit you've already faced. For me, the breaking point of everything I dealt with over the course of the past couple years — my neck/spine, bad relationships, exhaustion pertaining to Gamergate and so on — came last year. At the start of 2015, I felt like I had to be OK; I had to be ready to drop all my baggage in a ditch and move forward. I had so much lost ground to make up for, between a sobering 2013 and a 2014 that snuck up on me. I convinced myself that I was good to go — that it was time to take on all the challenges I'd put off for a couple tumultuous years.
Turns out, willing yourself into being alright isn't the same thing as being alright. Sometimes, digging your heels in and making one last push just gets you dirty feet.
My Darkest Dungeon eureka moment walked through the door around the time my pride stepped out for a moment. Tired of feeling like an idiot for not "getting" this game, I finally went hunting for a guide. The ones I found didn't prescribe a solution for my specific problem, but they cooled me down and got me thinking about possibilities, about the teams I could build if my characters weren't so ragged all the time.
I went to bed a few minutes later with my mind racing. I'd finally taken a step back from my dogged pursuit of this weird revenge-success, and I realised that I no longer had any foundation. It was like that old cartoon gag where somebody's building a thing, only to have the scaffolding break away. In desperation, they just keep nailing pieces of wood to other pieces of wood in mid-air, creating a bridge that briefly defies gravity before harsh reality pulls them down.
I did that. I became the Wile E. Coyote of my own life.
The next day, I returned to the game with a new focus. For a time, I decided to put every ounce of virtual money I was making into healing my characters back into top form. Then, using the knowledge I'd acquired from my failed runs, I started assembling teams not based simply on who was available, but on which classes and skills complemented each other best. I noticed which characters matched up best against the specific vulnerabilities of enemy types in each location and assembled my teams with surgical precision.
Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to find a way to stand still. On some occasions, you've gotta take a step back to create something sustainable. You have to take care of yourself.
I started out this year feeling pretty bad about how last year panned out. I felt like I'd wasted another year, like I hadn't accomplished anything significantly new or out-of-the-ordinary. I did some work I was proud of, but I also did a lot that I ended up feeling pretty meh about. I'd seen plenty of opportunities to do big things and write big, ambitious stories, but I didn't always capitalise. On too many occasions, I just couldn't muster the energy or motivation. I felt bad for feeling bad, and then I felt worse for not being able to do anything to get myself over feeling bad.
Recently, I briefly visited my grandma on my dad's side. She has severe dementia. When I last got the chance to visit her early in 2015, it was so bad that she had to be reminded who I was every couple minutes, even while I was in her house standing next to the TV where we used to watch Land Before Time movies together many years ago. I was in this place of profound personal memory, and hers were almost all gone.
Back to my most recent visit. My dad and I approached my grandma. She was sitting at a quaint little kitchen table having breakfast. My dad introduced me. "Hey Mum, it's George. This is my son, Nathan. Remember him from watching cartoons when he was little?" At first, she confused me for another relative, someone who'd be much older by now. Eventually, though, she remembered. "Ohhhh right… Nathan!" she exclaimed. "You're so tall now. And you have so much hair."
To my surprise, she didn't forget who I was for the rest of the time we were there. And she held onto some pretty key details about what I'm up to now. She grasped that I moved to San Francisco and that I'm a writer now. She even cracked some jokes about my grandad's writing as opposed to my dad's probably-not-as-good writing. After what had happened the previous year, it was astounding. She couldn't remember what year it was, but brilliant, wonderful parts of her were still there.
That moment made it pretty hard for me to continue moping about my year. Simply by not giving any ground, my grandma had done this incredible goddamn thing. It was tempting, albeit briefly, to look at her deteriorated mental state and fear that something similar will ultimately come of my neck/spine issue — of the weird brain stuff associated with it — but right then and there, it felt like a shitty use of everybody's time.
I spent the rest of that day focusing on what I had done in 2015: I'd given myself a little room to breathe, and I'd started taking steps toward making my own lifestyle sustainable. I'd eased off the gas on going everywhere and doing everything in favour of giving myself occasional time off to account for health and sanity. I take vitamins now! They're the gummy kind, and I don't care what you think, they're delicious.
Now I'm finding time to pick up new skills, to begin new projects and pursuits both at work and outside of it. I'm not where I want to be yet, but I feel like I am finally, authentically on my way. I don't feel as urgent about it any more, either. Instead of pushing myself out of obligation, I'm trying to, shock of all shocks, enjoy myself a little bit.
Once I got over my big hump in Darkest Dungeon, I made 10 times the progress I did before. I took out every apprentice-level boss (some with more near-wipes than others; it was never easy, per se), and pushed up into the veteran tier of areas and bosses. There, I encountered something of a letdown. A lot of veteran content is recycled apprentice stuff, except harder and a little bit smarter. Worse, I realised that I was gonna have to grind my troops up for a while to account for the sudden difficulty spike.
That difficulty spike was a test of my sustainable machine, and it passed. After some grinding, I eventually managed to take out some veteran bosses. There were losses, of course. There always are. But I was able to keep progressing in a way that I enjoyed.
Now, after so many hours with the game, Darkest Dungeon no longer fills me with the sort of dread and terror it did when I was lost in its depths. I still keep coming back, though, because I like the place I've found in its strange, fatal world. I like the rhythmic hum of forward motion, even if I hit a frustrating setback every once in a while. I like that progress in the game isn't permanent, because it helps me appreciate that nothing really is. I can find satisfaction in spite of that.