“Darkest Dungeon”: The weight of legacy
Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based RPG with rogue-like elements released in 2016. Players are tasked with a clear mission to explore the titular “Darkest Dungeon” and seal whatever calamity is within it. The game takes heavy influence from H.P Lovecraft, the developer is even named “Red Hook” which is a reference to one of his works.
The one character who the player will hear the voice of is “The Ancestor” who not only calls the player to the Hamlet in the game’s opening cinematic but narrates every battle, adding commentary on the player’s choices, the loss of units in battle or during a run, successful hits on enemies, his voice is one of the most prominent elements of the game and it ties to a theme within the greater game, the burden of legacy.
Who was “The Ancestor”
“Ruin has come to our family”The Ancestor
Only known by the title, “The Ancestor” is a character whose evil is interwoven within the narrative. In the beginning, they appear to be some sort of aristocrat who stubbled onto a cursed evil, but by the end of the base game, they’re revealed to have been just as much of a monster as any of the horrors the player has faced.
From what the Ancestor admitted, they murdered numerous people, engaged in necromancy, and hired bandits as a personal militia. They’re personally responsible for almost every Boss Monster the player encounters and the corruption of the playable area is almost solely his responsibility. Some notable examples of his depravity are seen in his dealings in necromancy, killing his trainers and resurrecting them before seemingly getting bored of the project and leaving it to fester turning his ancestral home into the Ruins.
His dabbling in blood magic led to the creation of the Swine Prince and The Flesh along with the collapse of the Warrens into a festering pit of blood-seeking half-pig humanoids.
He personally contributed to the downfalls of “The Hag” in the Weald and “The Siren” in the Cove respectively. One was an associate whom he came to find distasteful and the other an admirer who he saw as a sacrifice for more gold for his coffers.
Not to mention the Drowned Crew whom he killed for charging him more as his ambition drove them into more and more hazardous missions, or as he frames it “crude extortion” or the Miller whose life he ruined seemingly for no reason. The Ancestor was a monster far before the madness he unleashed drove him to completely forsake his humanity. And his legacy is your burden to undo.
The burdens of legacy
At no point, during the game of Darkest Dungeon are you condemned for what you do to your units. You may feel guilt when one of your adventurers dies, but the game treats death more as an inevitability than as attributable to bad planning.
Within the game’s world, the consequences of your Ancestor’s cruelty and vile acts stain the game’s world but you’re never accosted. As the player, you’re rarely even addressed as an entity.
The problems he left behind are not his concern. He leaves them to you to solve, an individualized example of a systemic issue between the past and present.
In the game, there’s little acknowledgment of the player character’s mental state or emotional well-being after failed runs in maps. The loss of the hired unit characters doesn’t actually affect the world. A unit that has died, just disappears, but another will come.
The Ludo-Narrative of Darkest Dungeon has been commented on by many essayists and one consistent element in the critique is how Darkest Dungeon for all its grim dark stylings forces you to play less like each member matters and more like a manager trying to keep their staff in line.
But consider it from another perspective, to “win” unless you’re extremely lucky you have to be a monster. You have to take people who are directionless, hopeless, and unwell in any number of ways, all of whom would be ill-suited for the world outside of the Hamlet, and use them for your personal satisfaction. Many serve as proverbial meat for the grinder. Not out of malice, but out of necessity. You, as the player and main character, will have units with time and effort sunk into them that become expensive to replace. So when your quest requires more money or trinkets, what are a few random newcomers, unequipped for their journey on a mission to scrounge up some treasure for you? Their survival becomes less of a miracle and more of another chore because replacing them is cheaper than fixing them and you can’t save everyone, even if you wanted to.
What does that say?
What does it mean that the player becomes a monster to fight the monsters and villains their ancestors unleashed onto the world?
The world of Darkest Dungeon is a cynical one and even the most optimistic take could be soured by the ending.
The Ancestor corrupted the world and even in death his corruption lingers. You, the descendant, are crushed and corrupted, morally, ethically, and emotionally by the weight of his legacy. Forced to confront the problems of the past whilst in many ways repeating them.
If we were to compare this to the real world there’s a lot that rhymes with an ancestor destroying the world for personal gain and leading to their own destruction. There are many analogs to the story of the Ancestor and the Heir and not many have a happy ending.
What do you think? Leave a comment.