A Talk with Darkest Dungeon’s Chris Bourassa

Light the fire and prepare to hear of fell dungeons and creeping madness.

If you haven’t watched that trailer, get back up there and do that.

I’d never really thought of it before. What happens in the minds of all those adventurers I’d sent into the darkness looking for hidden coin and weapons in the twisting tombs of long-dead kings? How do they feel when abominations come creeping up to them, claws still glistening with the blood of the last group they’d killed? Why do they never hesitate when I order them to attack, even against impossible odds? Very few games try to deal with the reality of the situations we place RPG heroes inn every day, but Darkest Dungeon is looking to change all that with an amazing sanity system and some vicious, challenging gameplay. Naturally, I had to talk to Chris Bourassa, Creative Director and Artist for Red Hook Studios about this awesome game.

JC – What is Darkest Dungeon, for the readers who don’t know yet?

CB – Darkest Dungeon is a Lovecraftian dungeon crawler that focuses on the psychological toll of the adventuring lifestyle.  Players will recruit and manage a stable of heroes, each with their own proclivities, quirks and predispositions.  Grouping them into parties and taking on a variety of quests will leave heroes permanently affected by their experiences – think Dark Souls meets X-Com.  We’re also bringing an innovative take on 2d turn-based combat to the table, as well as some other interesting twists like tactical camping, permadeath, and a town metagame.  It’s a challenging, but rewarding take on on the genre, and one we that we hope players will really enjoy.

JC – Why have Sanity as such an important factor? What does it add to the experience?

CB – We wanted to create a dungeon experience that focused on how a group of (flawed) adventurers might act and interact when put deep below the earth and surrounded by monsters.  At the core of Darkest Dungeon is what we call the Affliction System – and it encompasses much more than just sanity – it’s really about a broader exploration of stress itself. The reality is, everyone reacts to stress differently.  Some people shut down; some people get irrational; and others rise to the occasion.  Stress, and its impact on your party adds a whole new dimension to the experience of rifling through catacombs looking for loot!


JC – How will the Affliction system affect gameplay? What sorts of effects are we looking at?

CB – We mentioned earlier about people responding to stress in different ways.  The Affliction System captures this and turns it into meaningful game mechanics.  A fearful character may try to move out of harm’s way in the heat of combat; an abusive character may take out his frustrations on a companion; and a selfish hero may claim a piece of loot for his own, regardless of what you want him to do.  We’ve had a lot of fun brainstorming and designing out many different mechanical ways for stress to manifest.

We aren’t ready to reveal all aspects of the Affliction System yet, but hopefully this sheds light on its purpose!

JC – Afflicted characters can feed off each other. Can you give an example of how that would work?

CB – We want to create chains of inter-party interaction.  For example, an abusive barbarian may lash out verbally at his companions, increasing the stress on the party.  In response, a more rationally-minded rogue may attempt to calm him.  Her efforts may pay off, relaxing the group, or result in spectacular failure!  This unpredictable, organic back-and-forth serves as a foundation for the game’s mechanics.

JC – I saw some interesting classes mentioned on your site. What kinds of classes are available in the game for characters to play? How large will my party be?

CB – Your party is made up of four heroes at at time.  However, you’ll manage a larger roster of heroes back in town. You’ll arrange your party based upon which heroes work well together, what dungeon you are heading into, which heroes are in need of R&R, and so on.  Class-wise, we’ve announced the Plague Doctor, Crusader, Highwayman, and Vestal, but you can expect many more –  we’ll be rolling out art and information steadily in the coming months…


JC – You mentioned some sort of ‘rest’ system. How does that work, and what does it do?

CB – Just like real life, an important ingredient in handling stress is rest.  In Darkest Dungeon, rest can take two forms:

Camping provides an in-dungeon opportunity to mitigate the physical and psychological damage sustained during the expedition. Heroes will learn camping-specific skills that can be used to help the party out when they gather around the campfire.  Inspiring speeches, lively songs, bandaging, and staring-stoically-into-the-dark can all play their role in keeping your crew together.

Meanwhile, Town allows players to treat their characters’ post traumatic stress and long-term conditions. If you’ve sent your best plague doctor on too many missions in a row, she may begin to unwind a little, becoming increasingly ineffective and unpredictable.  Rest is important for healing, recuperation, and also mental maintenance.  Drink your fears away? Find God and gain courage against the horrors?  Just get some time off and bounce back to fighting shape?  Heroes’ experiences will dictate their needs when (and if!) they emerge from the depths.

JC – What sort of RPG are we looking at? Will it be grid based, turn based, etc…?

CB – Combat is turn-based, and exploration in the dungeon is a real-time hybrid.  You’ll pick your way through the dungeon by selecting your destination on an old-school roguelike map, and interact with the party in the main (sidescrolling) game view.

JC – Why mix horror into an RPG?

CB – We’re Lovecraft fans, and just think the idea of dressing a fantasy game with the trappings of pulp horror is good fun.  Of course, our core mechanic of persistent stress is fed by the horror angle in the game as well, so from both a creative and design perspective, it was a win!


JC – I noticed a map in the trailer. Will the dungeon be a large, sprawling maze? Will the game be mapping it, or its helpless players?

CB – Dungeons are big, no question.  They are generated procedurally for each quest, rather than a single continuous sprawling maze. As you move through the dungeon, your map will update, but only with information your party could plausibly know. Parties with a good scout might find more information available to them on their maps than groups without.

JC – What sorts of monsters are we going to run into?

CB – Players can expect a few of the fantasy favorites – spiders, maggots, skeletons, but we’re really working to give our game world it’s own identity.  Hopefully that comes through in some of our class choices like the Plague Doctor, Highwayman, and Vestal. We’re giving our monstrous legions the same slightly ‘off-center’ vibe – old hags, hideous alchemical failures, cultists, beastmen and other horror-influenced baddies will abound. Toward endgame, look for us to really ratchet up the Lovecraftian influence – that gives us a lot of cool creative options when it comes to enemy ideas.

JC – You’ve drawn some comparisons to X-Com on Ironman difficulty and Dark Souls. Why choose such a high difficulty?

CB – We aren’t setting out to make a punishing game just for punishment’s sake. We are more interested in meaningful choices. In this case, to pay off the dangers to the heroes, these dangers have to be real to the player.  We want you to become attached to the heroes; we want you to think twice before taking unnecessary risks; we want you to have to make choices that aren’t always win/win. Dark Souls and X-Com both do that well.  In a nutshell, we’re aiming to create a game that is challenging, but fair, strategic, and rewarding.


JC – Does it all take place in the one dungeon?

CB – There are several different dungeon environments that you will send heroes into.  Each of these is completely different in terms of look, contents (monsters!), theme, hazards, and so on.  Expect to have to think carefully about your party makeup and gear loadouts before each quest, or as we’re calling them – expeditions.  In between expeditions, you’ll recruit, manage,upgrade, and attend to your heroes’ various needs in town. We also plan to support the game by releasing additional dungeons after launch.

JC – Are there any other tricks and systems we haven’t heard about yet?

CB – Yes! :)

JC – The writing in the trailer was incredible. Will there be more great writing in the game? Will there be some story, and how will it be conveyed?

CB – Thanks! All we can say is the same people who wrote the trailer are the ones working on the game!  There’s definitely a story that sets up and supports the gameplay – we’ve been having a lot of fun working it out, and will release more about it soon. Rest assured it is a tale of greed, destruction, decay, and maybe–only maybe–some really bad stuff.

 JC – How hard was it to get the writing in that trailer just right? Who worked on it?

CB – As creative director, I directed the trailer and also did most of the writing.  The biggest thing we had to experiment with was how much or how little gameplay to show up front.  We decided that despite the temptation of a more conventional approach, we felt strongly that conveying the theme and feel of the game was the most important thing.  After storyboarding, and creating an animatic with a temporary script, we hacked away and streamlined it until we had something we thought was interesting & suggestive, but stopped short of being overtly descriptive.


JC – Will there be more narration in the game?

CB – Absolutely!

JC – How important is sound design to the overall experience of Darkest Dungeon? What sort of feelings will you be trying to evoke with it?

CB – We are beyond thrilled with the combination of composer (Stuart Chatwood), narrator, and sound designers (PowerUp Audio) working on the game. These guys are pros, and really get what we’re going for. Our music and sound really delivers that sombre gothic tone and pervasive sense of foreboding as players slog though the forgotten crypts and burrows of our gameworld. As panic and stress mount, so does the tempo and intensity of the soundtrack.

JC – The art style adds a certain brutality and hopelessness to the game. How did the art style get decided on?

CB – There were a couple key considerations that went into deciding the art direction for the game. Firstly, we knew that darkness and fear were going to be big thematic pillars for us, so we needed an art style that spoke to that. Stark shadows reinforce the pervasive encroachment of the darkness.and hard edges play to the uncompromising nature of the gameplay. Secondly, we wanted something that felt rooted in its own time period.  In this case, we’re using the art to almost suggest the player is reading about the adventures on an illuminated manuscript.  It feels a bit rough and irregular. Another consideration was production time.  With only one artist, we needed something that was efficient to produce and wouldn’t limit our ability to create a large amount of content. Finally, we wanted to find a way of adding just a little bit of ‘social game cuteness’ as a subtle and ironic way of setting off the heavy themes of the game.

Mixing up these elements in different ways (read: a whole mess of concept art) led to our our first mockups. Reviewing them, we felt that we had to revise the proportions slightly to keep the characters from becoming bobble-headed.  A second pass mockup was produced, and became our target look.  As we create more and more content for the game, we continually update the mockup so that it remains relevant as we refine our direction…practice makes good!


JC – You mention Lovecraft as an inspiration, but what other games and works inspired Darkest Dungeon?

CB – Darkest Dungeon is really our love letter to dungeon genre, and an ode to our favourite influences.  Creatively and artistically, we’re referencing Mike Mignola’s Baltimore, Guy Davis’ Marquis, Thief 2 and 3, Eye of the Beholder 2, and those super weird medieval woodcuts – they give me the creeps every time.

Design-wise there’s a big pen & paper rpg influence, along with some boardgame influences (Dungeon, anyone?  anyone?), not to mention the pantheon of rogue-likes and dungeon runners which we love so dearly.  There’s even a healthy dose of movies like Aliens and The Thing, where stress has massive effects on a small group of people in a life-or-death situation.

JC – What are some other games your team has worked on?

CB – Chris (artist) has worked on Sonic Rivals, Monster Lab, Armada of the Damned (sadly canceled), and a bunch of other NDA’d projects for clients who may or may not exist.

Tyler (designer) created and designed the award-winning strategy-arcade dragon game HOARD and designed the BAFTA-nominated turn-based conversion Age of Empires: the Age of Kings DS.

Kelvin McDowell (programmer) worked at Relic for a number of years, contributing to Homeworld 2.  He also teamed up with Tyler on HOARD.

JC – How long have you been at work on Darkest Dungeonso far?

CB – All the key pieces came together in May 2013 – that’s when we threw ourselves into it full-time.  We’ve been exploring the concept and doing prelim design on and off for a couple of years.


JC – What got all of you together to make this project? How did you meet up?

CB – Tyler and I, the founders of Red Hook, met years ago while working at Backbone Entertainment in Vancouver.  We became friends and also creative confidants, bouncing ideas off of each other for years.  When I pitched Darkest Dungeon, it really stuck, and we enjoyed brainstorming about it each time we’d get together.  In spring of 2013, we both decided that if we were ever going to do the game, it was now. We maneuvered to make openings in our careers and lives and take the plunge. To some degree, everything we had done in our careers up to that point both prepared us for the jump and also gave us enough runway to take a run at it and see if we could line up funding or perhaps take the game to the finish line ourselves.

Once we committed to doing the game, we brought on Kelvin.  Tyler and Kelvin had worked together at Big Sandwich Games, and had a lot of similar views and ambitions in terms of game development.  Kelvin was working on some of his own projects, but saw enough value in the Darkest Dungeon idea and the team to detour and focus on this game instead.

JC – Any plans for Kickstarter campaigns or other ways we can help you get funding or help this game happen?

CB – Yes, and thank you! Crowdsourcing opportunities (Kickstarter plus a Founders Program) are planned to launch early in the New Year (Jan or Feb).  We could use all the support we can get.

The best way for people to help right now is to sign up for our mailing list on our website.  We’d also love to hear from people on our Facebook page and Twitter.


Thanks to Chris Bourassa and the entire Red Hook Studios team, and I really can’t wait to see more of this game as it begins to take playable shape.


Joel Couture
Joel Couture
Joel Couture

MASH Veteran

A horror-obsessed gamer, Joel is still spending his days looking for something to scare himself as much as Fatal Frame. Even so, he has ridiculous action games and obscure gems to keep him happy in the meantime. A self-proclaimed aficionado of terrible retro games, he's always looking for a rotten game he hasn't played yet, and may be willing to exchange information for candy.

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