Darkest Dungeon II Early Access Interview
When it hit, Darkest Dungeon proved that there was still so much more to plumb from the typical role-playing game. Its dire setting was matched by a nihilistic view of the world and its heroes. Most importantly, though, it examined the deep, psychological impact adventuring has on adventurers. Soon, players were finding themselves managing the sometimes deadly quirks of their crew as much as focusing on their abilities to kill and explore.
In a word, Darkest Dungeon was an unerringly dark game. A masterpiece of role-playing, but also overwhelmingly pinned to suffering.
Darkest Dungeon II, which hits the Epic Game Store today in Early Access, appears, in some ways, to be a tonic to that brooding original title.
The world is still spinning dizzily to its end, but the journey has players moving toward the light rather than away from it.
In this wide-ranging interview, we chatted with Red Hook Studios creative director Chris Bourassa and design director Tyler Sigman about the original game’s inception, how early access will shape this sequel, and why the duo say this game is more like a family road trip than the original game’s brutal hockey game.
Going back to the original Darkest Dungeon, what made you decide to create a game that focused on not just combat, but the psychological impact of combat?
Chris Bourassa, Creative Director: The concept originated from an observation that role-playing games are typically power fantasies that take killing for granted, and celebrate advancement with more and more elaborate and oversized gear. I felt that giving a normal person a giant weapon and matching armor wouldn’t do anything if that person was a coward. Tyler and I challenged each other to imagine a game about the sword arm, not the sword. Something that would embrace and gamify the life of an adventurer, which, upon even a cursory glance, would be abysmal! Killing things in the dark in pursuit of profit would be an incredibly stressful lifestyle, and Darkest Dungeon was born from a series of late-night whiskey-infused rants along these lines.
Tyler Sigman, Design Director: Every game needs a “hook”, and this felt like it. When Chris first proposed it, I immediately thought about all the tabletop RPG sessions I’ve played where the psychological elements entered the game thanks to great role-playing. It really didn’t feel like that ground had been adequately explored in computer role-playing games. We needed to feel like we were at least trying to do something new or interesting with the game if we were going to risk a couple of years of not getting paid while making it! More important than the business lens, though, is that the idea was fertile ground for inspiring possible mechanics and features. It felt like a strong enough concept to start the company.
When and how did you decide that it made sense for Darkest Dungeon to have a full-blown sequel?
Tyler: DD1 really went off to the races success-wise, and our first focus when that happened was to make downloadable content because at its heart it’s an RPG and RPGs are modular. It was exciting to have the means to expand the game and add more mechanics beyond what we could cram in the core game. But after a few DLCs—which took a couple of years—we felt the clock ticking and were keenly aware that we needed to look towards the future. Chris and I were both adamant that we wouldn’t make a sequel unless we were excited to do so. It made perfect business sense, but we are driven by a “creative first” mindset. Once we had an idea for what the sequel could be, then we got excited about breaking ground on it. It was a smart strategic move, but also allowed us to explore more of the world that we built. Peanut butter and chocolate!
The original game is a nihilistic adventure into an overwhelmingly dark and dangerous dungeon with an ending that seems to underscore the hopelessness of battling the corruption at the heart of the story. This sequel, though, seems more aspirational; a road trip that delivers hope with each step forward. What made you decide to so drastically shift the tone of the game and its journey?
Chris: The bottom line is we didn’t want to retread the same ground. Darkest Dungeon is tonally very consistent with itself, and celebrates its themes right to the end—even the nihilistic ending felt appropriate given the cosmic horror influences! I think the beauty of working in the indie space is that you can pursue an uncompromising vision, and don’t have to sand down the rough edges.
However, once you’ve taken an idea or theme as far as it will go, there’s not much left to say about it! I think we would have been remiss to set about trying to explore the same conceptual space in the sequel—we would have run out of ideas, or the game would have felt like a 1.5. For that reason, Darkest Dungeon II is about finding a new confidence within yourself on the heels of a failure. If DD1 was about descending ever-deeper into the dark, DDII is about swimming up out of the shadows and reaching for the light. It’s not about nihilism this time, it’s about aspiration and the long, hard road to atonement. This allows DDII to stand on its own, and grow in ways that wouldn't have been appropriate for its predecessor.
What books, movies or music inspired you in working on this sequel, its narrative, and look?
Chris: One of the big touchstones for us this time was the movie Fury. It follows a tank crew in the waning days of the Second World War, and both Tyler and I were excited by the dynamics of a small band stuck in a small space together, journeying over hazardous country. They argue, hash things out, fight, laugh, and cry together as they deal with mortal threats and dwindling supplies. It felt very in line with our desire to create a game based around the challenges of an arduous journey. Truth be told, we almost made DDII about a sci-fi tank crew!
Musically, I drew a fair bit from Blood Brothers by Springsteen! It has a subtle galloping cadence and explores the changes that happen to a person as they journey through their lives. It’s a subdued and reflective song, but not morbid. I liked the balance and tried to inject that tone into the Academic’s (narrator’s) personality. Unlike the Ancestor from DD1, The Academic is a little more wistful and melancholy. I felt it was important to shift away from the sardonic commentary of DD1, and treat the narrator as someone who genuinely does want what's best for the player, and the world.
Matching the tone of the original game, the characters in Darkest Dungeon were disposable, but in this sequel, it seems you’re trying to build more of a connection between the player and their band. What are you doing to try and strike that balance?
Chris: In Darkest Dungeon, the disposability of human resources in the first game definitely reinforces a nihilistic worldview, and the large roster further depersonalizes the characters. In Darkest Dungeon II, the heroes are each on their own path to redemption, so there is only one of each class. As you journey with them, you will have the opportunity to learn about their pasts—the mistakes they’ve made, and the (often tragic) course of their lives. The relationships between these characters shift and change throughout the course of a run, and can be managed by an attentive player. All this creates a sense of intimacy and investment that just wasn’t a goal for us in Darkest Dungeon.
Tyler: We already did the “you’re an evil boss” thing with DD1, so it didn’t feel necessary to tread that ground again. And regardless of whether players acted exploitatively or compassionately towards their roster in the first game, the shared experience was that everyone was interested in the classes themselves. The “road trip to hell” concept of the sequel lent itself well to the idea of becoming closer to those heroes, pinning a lot of hope on them, and not being able to treat them in the disposable fashion you could get by with in DD1.
What made you decide to shift from 2D models for the characters to 3D models and how has that impacted the look and feel of the game?
Chris: After consuming something, a person becomes a little desensitized to it. I felt that shifting some elements of our presentation would help inject freshness into Darkest Dungeon II—I wanted it to have its own visual identity. With DDII, we’ve preserved the heavy blacks, and gritty/painterly textures, but we’ve adopted the more grown-up proportions I used on the DD1 marketing art. The goal was to present returning players with a fresh interpretation of the familiar, and help add weight to the relationship and backstory content.
Rigged 3D characters mean we can explore a more sophisticated animation/visual effects/lighting pipeline, and bring a little more personality into the characters’ skills. It also allows us to experiment with alternate hero and weapon skins, which we’re looking at adding during early access.
Why are you releasing the game in early access instead of once it’s complete, and how will that impact the game’s evolution?
Tyler: Early Access was such an important and positive part of Darkest Dungeon’s development story. It was useful to get the game into players’ hands while it was still being created, so we could validate many of the mechanics and make adjustments and improvements based upon those players’ feedback. During that game’s development, there was also a massive benefit in that it helped with cash flow and literally enabled us to continue making the game without running out of money. We are fortunate for this sequel that the company is in a position where cash flow is not a driver, but the other benefits of early access are still just as important as ever. Not every game is suitable for early access, but games with some degree of procedural content and a lot of interlocking systems really fit the model. We take an enormous amount of pride and relief that DD1 often gets cited as an example of early access done right. We sincerely hope that people feel the same way about the sequel.
Where the original game had you journeying deep in the recesses of an ancestral hope, this sequel is a journey to a distant and mysterious mountain. How has that shift in setting shaped the enemies you will encounter during your journey?
Chris: I think it’s important that a monster is more than just scary to look at—they have to embody a larger, more insidious conceptual horror. Darkest Dungeon II is about the end of the world. Everywhere you journey, reality itself is coming undone, and the denizens of the different regions each embody a different response to this existential collapse.
In the cities, half-melted Fanatics set fires, burning books and buildings—tearing down humanity’s achievements in an anarchic acceleration of the end. The farmland enemies have opted to gorge themselves on their larders, and have grown extra mouths and teeth in order to eat as much as possible before everything is swept away. In the rain-soaked forests, listless corpses of soldiers wander, resigned to whatever may come.
Each of these factions is an exploration of a possible reaction to disaster—anarchy and riot, gluttony and hedonism, or catatonic lethargy. Grounding the factions with an underlying concept helps us give these villains a distinct look and feel, which further enhances the sense of regional identity.
The game’s rogue-like approach to its journey sounds like it is designed to give players a different taste of the overarching story with each journey. How was that achieved, and how many play-throughs will be required to get a full sense of what’s happening in this wider world?
Tyler: In Darkest Dungeon, it could take you 50, 60, 80 hours or more to fully complete a campaign and see the endgame and story. That’s something we wanted to correct in the sequel. We built it more as a true rogue-like in order to facilitate shorter, more focused experiences. These in totality can fill as much time for you as the first game does, but the experience is different. We have several systems that help you not only feel rewarded for successive expeditions, but also open up new content to you. First, we have the concept of five big bosses in the game (Early Access launches with one), and this immediately gives a different goal to the run. You’ll eventually learn that you might want to construct your party differently based upon what nasty creature is waiting for you at the end. Second, we have playable backstories for each hero in the game. You complete chapters by encountering them along the road in your expeditions. Succeeding at them unlocks more skills for the hero. These unlocks are profile-wide, meaning that the next expedition you play, those skills will remain unlocked. That provides a strong hook for replayability: trying to unlock all heroes and all skills. Third, we have a Profile Level concept: you earn profile XP (“Hope”) each expedition you play, and this levels up your profile. Leveling up unlocks heroes, trinkets, stagecoach upgrades, consumable items, and even quirks! The game’s mechanical possibilities get larger as you level up your profile. Attempting an expedition at Profile level 20 will give you significantly more tactical and strategic space than you had fresh out of the box at level 1.
You made some crucial changes to combat, like removing accuracy, what was the thinking behind these changes, and how will they change the gameplay of Darkest Dungeon II from its predecessor?Tyler: When building the DLCs for Darkest Dungeon, I became conscious of the precariousness of stacking upon a foundation that was poured a long time ago and was starting to show some cracks. From a game systems perspective, you become chained to decisions that were made very early on—in some cases even before our Kickstarter! When breaking ground on the sequel, we knew for sure that combat would return because it is an integral part of Darkest Dungeon plus we felt it was still very solid and interesting, and more tactical possibilities could be explored with it. However, this was a rare chance to take a step back, rip out the innards, and look at any and all ways that it could be improved.
Philosophically, I wanted to see if we could bring in some of the tight and crunchy gameplay that you see in collectible card games and other card battlers while still keeping signature Darkest Dungeon elements. In particular, I was eager to see if we could reduce some confusing and clumsy stats and replace them with more iconified mechanics that could be communicated more eloquently but didn’t reduce the tactical space in the game. I wanted to move it a step more towards a complex puzzle. The key element in this change was in tokenizing mechanics: tokens are gameplay artifacts that can be present on a hero or monster and clearly communicate a stat or mechanic. For example: STRENGTH (+50% damage on next hit) or BLOCK (-50% incoming damage on next hit). Tokens are consumable, visible, and predictable.
Over time, I had tuned Accuracy in DD1 to be higher and higher because missing is one of the least fun things in the game. A low-accuracy hero became someone with 80+% accuracy, vs high accuracy being 90%+. Accuracy is important mechanically, but it can be frustrating (cue all the X-COM 95% accuracy anecdotes). I like how in card battlers, you know what the attack will do most of the time. The challenge is in choosing the best attack to use, and also accounting for how it will interact with enemy qualities and other active conditions. For example, the common Taunt CCG mechanic is an example of that—it forces your hand but is completely predictable. Getting rid of Accuracy as a stat cleaned things up and shifted combat a notch towards that predictability, while also freeing us from the trap of having a key mechanic that is at odds with player expectations and enjoyability. Of course, it wouldn’t be interesting if every attack always hit no matter what, so we still have mechanics like dodge and block. Dodge, for example, is a token that grants the combatant a 50% chance to evade the next damaging attack. This shifts the decision onto the player: attack the monster which might dodge you, or go for the 100% sure hit on a monster that won’t? The right choice depends on the combat situation and your risk tolerance.
Of course, Darkest Dungeon wouldn’t be what it is without a significant amount of randomness and variance. The Affinity System (relationships and heroes acting out on their own) layers on top of combat, and this means you are never 100% in control.
With a smaller cast of characters, how did you go about deciding who should be in this sequel from the original and what new characters were needed for the game?
Chris: It wasn’t easy! I’m very proud of our roster from Darkest Dungeon, both visually and mechanically, so choosing which ones would make the cut was definitely a challenge. I polled the team to get a sense of where the general preferences lay, but ultimately, it came down to a judgment call based on a couple of factors. First, we needed a cast that would cover all combat roles and ranks. Second, there are several heroes that are simply intrinsic to the IP, and would be sorely missed by fans (and us devs, too!). Third, given we are exploring the heroes’ backstories, I wanted to give preference to the stories I felt would make for a good and diverse narrative collection. And finally, we tried to avoid the more expensive two-in-ones (Abomination and Houndmaster) for our early access launch.
I’ve always loved how the Street Fighter franchise would maintain a core of recognizable characters, but add and subtract around that core with each release. This is what we’re hoping to do with DDII! Through early access and (hopefully) beyond, we’ll be adding new and returning heroes alike.
The game launches with one act in early access, with the promise of four more—each with their own boss fight—over time. How long will it take for all five acts to roll out and once they do will that wrap up the story of Darkest Dungeon II?
Chris: Our fantastic voice actor, Wayne June, is back, but he’s playing a different character this time around: the Academic. As players defeat each of the final bosses, they will be exposed to a new story chapter cutscene, and the pool of narration that plays during a run will grow. The connection between the player, the world, and the Academic will become more clear over time, and the story will wrap up with our 1.0 release.
Tyler: Darkest Dungeon was in early access for 11.5 months. We think the target of one year is a good working goal: it’s time to add to the game and refine, but we don’t see early access as a perpetual cycle of development and if you have it too open-ended, I think it can be a will ‘o the wisp that can lead you down major pivot paths that don’t serve the game. Whether it ends up being in early access for exactly 12 months or 13 or 16, we’re not sure yet. Our rule of thumb is that early access launch should have somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 70% of the total expected full release content. Exact numbers may vary.
If there is a demand for more content, we would love to make DLCs for this game, too. DLCs were such a fun way to build upon the core game and get to play with the toys we built. We’ll feel very fortunate if there is demand for the same for DDII.
For me, the most engaging thing about Darkest Dungeon was its reminder of the fallibility of all people, even the protagonists of our video games. But that first game was so bleak that it left little room for the heroes to feel heroic. Do you feel like the original game was too desolate and have you addressed that in this sequel?
Chris: Our central thesis with Darkest Dungeon was to explore heroism by contrast. We wanted to make those bright moments rare, so that they felt special, as opposed to a more traditional power fantasy. From that standpoint, I think DD1’s desolation was a great canvas on which to splash some heroic highlights.
DDII isn’t a course correction, rather, it explores a fundamentally different space: the evolving relationships between fallible people over the course of a journey. We’re asking how jealousy, friendship, lust, and resentment would play out, exacerbated by the constant stress of survival. There are some great moments where characters in a relationship can behave unpredictably - a lover may throw themselves in harm’s way to save their partner, despite already being critically wounded! This is wildly suboptimal for the player and can create an immediate crisis, but situations like this are exactly what we want to see in DDII.
How is Darkest Dungeon II not Darkest Dungeon?
Chris: Darkest Dungeon is a medieval hockey coach simulator. You have a large roster, you rotate your lines, bench problematic units, and invest in your star performers.
Darkest Dungeon II is a medieval road trip simulator. You have four kids in the back of the van - they bicker, they banter, they want ice cream when you need gas, and you have to try and hold it all together until you get to where you’re going.
Tyler: In some ways, it’s a bigger game, and in others, it’s smaller. It inherits and depends on what we built before, but stands on its own as an experience. I’m anxious to see what people think of it.
Chris: Me too.
You can join Darkest Dungeon II’s early access journey today on the Epic Game Store.