There’s Beautiful Art Even In The Darkest Dungeon

Developer Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon [official site] — a brooding, and sadistic take on roguelike RPGs — wouldn’t work without its gorgeous art design. Actually, it would fail miserably at everything it attempts to do otherwise, from the storytelling to the mechanics. I spoke to Darkest Dungeon’s creative director Chris Bourassa to find out how they created an art style that would unify the entire game.

Art design has always been a valuable aspect of any video game. For example, Rapture in Bioshock 1 and 2 are captivating not because the games are technical powerhouses, but because they sport an aesthetic that is able to draw people in. The same goes for Dishonored; the enemy and world design are distinct and surprising, and add layers of satisfaction to the overall experience. But while great art design complements said games, it’s the focal point in Darkest Dungeon.

“The art style is crucial because at a glance, it conveys the essence of the game,” writes Bourassa when I speak to him. “Dark, somber, uncompromising, difficult, and worn – all of these things come to mind when looking at a screenshot, and are reinforced by the play experience.”

Players take control of four party members at any time, and the whole premise of the game is to challenge you with how far you can delve into a dungeon before your party members start to become both physically and mentally strained. Characters can go insane, turn on one another, and give up entirely. This is communicated through the mechanics, as character’s statistics will start to wane, nullifying their ability to combat enemies.

But where the game really shines, and why it has become so beloved in the first place, is how it is able to convey the emotions the characters will inevitably feel, alongside visually showcasing the prodigious challenges that await them, through its art style. Players feel that same sense of dread and hopelessness.

“The art and design of the game were both born of a single creative vision,” Bourassa writes. “The hard edges in the art style reflect the uncompromising nature of the game, the pooling blacks are a nod to the light mechanic, and the empty eyes help convey the pervasive sense of hopelessness. Consistency is critical for immersion, so when art & design both service the creative direction of the title, players feel swallowed up in the game world.

“For instance, when characters become ‘afflicted’, we decided that since it was a crucial moment, we needed custom poses and new art to really sell the moment. That’s an example of artwork highlighting a key feature in the game to great effect.”

The studio’s fastidious approach towards achieving this particular aesthetic makes the game feel like a living, breathing medieval painting. It’s unlike any other game out there at the moment. Bourassa had to overcome a gargantuan number of obstacles to realize their initial goal with Darkest Dungeon’s art design, especially since he is the sole artist on the team.

“We wanted the game to look and feel as though it was grounded in the time period it was describing,” he writes. “I looked at a lot of medieval woodcuts, Durer illustrations, & illuminated manuscripts. I also wanted to make sure that the game had a modern edge, so I referenced a number of my favorite comic book artists – Mignola, Davis, Bachalo, Canete. I think the biggest challenge was developing a style that would allow me to work quickly, but that would yield solid, consistent results. As the only artist, production efficiency was a big concern.”

Figuring out how the art design will complement, and often dominate gameplay and storytelling was an excruciating process. The latter two aspects have to feel like they belong with Darkest Dungeon’s world, and the studio was able to figure that out. What is more interesting is that the game was funded via Kickstarter. This is Red Hook Studios’ first project, and being an unknown name meant the team had to come out swinging with its initial idea. Often times with Kickstarter, if you aren’t a big name like Keiji Inafune or Double Fine, there has to be an instant, visceral way to entice people to take interest in your project, and hopefully fund it. In this case, judging a book by its cover is an inevitability.

Darkest Dungeon’s distinct look left an everlasting impact on people when it was announced, and that seems to me to be the biggest reason why it was funded. The idea of your characters suffering mentally and giving up was an exciting and novel premise sure, but the presentation has to be equally striking. Simply put, the game wouldn’t exist in the first place without its visual style.

“I agree,” Bourassa writes. “Kickstarter is an interesting animal, because you are really marketing a promise, and as such, art and impression matter a great deal – you want to attract people to the potential that your vision has. I think there may be a temptation to research current art trends and craft your project to capitalize on what’s ‘hot’ – pixel art, for instance, enjoyed a great deal of attention for a few years. For us, we felt it was important to stick with a style that worked well with the type of game we were making, and that was unique enough to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Instead of chasing a trend, we wanted to leapfrog the current climate and strike out on our own.”

Bourassa hails from a triple-A background and having the creative freedom to work on something like Darkest Dungeon felt liberating for him. Most triple-A publishers out there wouldn’t greenlight a project like this — there are simply too many risks involved – and the push in the mainstream still seems to be towards photorealism. As the technology behind games continues to plateau however, delivering diminishing returns for higher polygon counts, the importance of their art styles — and the pressures faced by their artists — will continue to increase. Originality and creativeness could become harder to accomplish in the triple-A scene even as they become more vital.

“I can only speak for myself, but coming from AAA development, where there is indeed a great pressure to produce increasingly ‘realistic’ concept art, it was refreshing and invigorating to get back to something more stylized,” Bourassa writes. “It’s liberating to work more quickly, and I enjoy the results, so it’s a win/win. I do see a widening gulf between AAA development and smaller scale operations like ours.

“There’s a higher level of risk aversion on bigger titles because of the development costs, so they tend to take fewer risks, with design and art alike, and that can feel very restrictive. If anything, the increasing popularity of ‘indies’ has shown that there is room in the market for all kinds of styles and interpretations — I think that’s healthy for developers and for consumers alike.”

Darkest Dungeon isn’t a triple-A game at all. Rather, it’s a mammoth risk taken by a brand new studio that ultimately paid off. Bourassa and the rest of the team’s herculean effort to differentiate itself, and offer players something truly unique to experience resulted in one of the best games to come out of Kickstarter. Its art design is front and center, demanding your attention, and opening your eyes to what videogames are capable of.

36 Comments

  1. Hobbes says:

    An important takeaway from this is that art in games, particularly visual and audio art, is about communication and theme. What are you attempting to communicate to the player? What message are you trying to convey? Does the art style weave into the mechanics or otherwise complement them? Is the window dressing there because it looks pretty or does it have an actual purpose?

    You can make a game which has excellent graphics but if they convey nothing then the game ends up feeling cold and without personality (INTO THE STARS, NO HIDING AT THE BACK), yet on the flip if you focus on the things that matter and weave it all into the elements that are important, and make everything immerse you into the environment, make the graphics as much as part of the game as the game itself (see Guild of Dungeoneering and Race the Sun as well as Darkest Dungeon for a good example of this kind of thing) you don’t need the latest omg shiny fizzbang graphics, you need a message, and you need a way to convey that to the player consistently and clearly.

    • Geebs says:

      I take your point, but I think you’ve chosen rather contentious examples. I think Super Mario 64 is a much better example of very limited graphics which still perfectly fit the gameplay, while Race the Sun’s totally anodyne graphics do I suppose suit its near absence of gameplay; but Proun is more interesting to look at and even Tiny Wings was a much better designed product all round.

    • Hobbes says:

      On the contrary, I’d deem Race the Sun a perfect example of where the graphics perfectly encapsulate what is happening. The sun is literally your means of recharging your flyer, and as it descends it creates pools of shadow that will actively slow your ship.

      In effect, the level of hazard grows as time progresses because quite literally as dusk sets, and the shadows grow longer, the level of sunlight you have to work with is constantly depleting. The graphics -are- the mechanics in that case, which is elegant thinking.

      In the same manner, Guild of Dungeoneering adopts the concept of a sketchbook because you’re quite literally drawing the dungeon out on paper, each tile being filled in with paper scribbles and cross hatch shading of each cell. Your little paper cutout figure then moves around the dungeon and participates in fights in a very traditional dungeon crawler-ey way, but the mechanics and artistry are again, interwoven.

      • cpt_freakout says:

        Nicely said! I’d favorite your post if it was a thing you could do :P

        Yes, I don’t have anything else to add, sorry!

  2. Xzi says:

    I’ll agree that the aesthetic of Darkest Dungeon is absolutely gorgeous, and I’ll even agree that there would be fewer people interested in the game if they had gone in a different direction, but I don’t think everything hinges on it. The game is mechanically brilliant as well, and it stands out as one of the best roguelikes on Steam or anywhere else. Probably THE best party-based roguelike I’ve played. I can’t wait to spend hundreds of hours in-game come release.

    • ChairmanYang says:

      The problem is that brilliant game mechanics aren’t easily communicated via a Kickstarter page. It was the aesthetic that grabbed people’s attention in the first place; the gameplay quality was something that came after that initial funding.

      • Silent_Thunder says:

        I’d go so far as to argue that talking about specific mechanics on a KS page is counterintuitive, as you put yourself in the position where you’ll inevitably discover stuff that just plain doesn’t work the way you envisioned it, and have to choose the Morton’s Fork of either dropping a feature that will alienate backers because it honestly doesn’t make the game good, or sticking with a feature that drags the game down to placate backers and media, and thus winds up alienating new people instead.

        There’s a lot of ideas that seem brilliant on paper, but once you start executing them, they wind up not being nearly as great as you pictured in your head. Case in point whoever the hell invented quicktime events. I’m sure it seemed like a brilliant, exciting idea to the guy who came up with it at the time. And yes, on paper, if you never were exposed to them, it sounds cool, “oh hey, a way to make the cut scenes interactive? Sign me up for that!”. But instead it turned into an awful plague that nobody likes.

        • jrodman says:

          The counterpoint, though, is you have to provide some level of suggestion as to the *style* of the game design you’re shooting for, so that people will have some idea if they will want it.

          I see a lot of coy Kickstarters these days that hold so much close to their chest, that tons of potential backers sit it out.

    • Captain Joyless says:

      I think it’s very easy to make the case that the game is not mechanically brilliant; that in fact it is mechanically quite poor. There are two immediate glaring holes in the design, before you even get into the dungeon:

      1. no overall time clock + free level 1 heroes + trinkets sell for gold = farm trinkets in level 1 dungeons for infinite gold
      2. free level 1 heroes + heroes come with random traits = scum heroes from wagon

      This is bad design because it promotes scummy, repetitive play on a strategic level.

      There are a host of other issues with the game, like the lack of non-trinket gear and the fact that all heroes are basically the same, and that the elimination of negative traits actively promotes the generification of the characters, not their uniqueness. Traits and trinkets tend to have very similar effects, and very bland effects.

      HOWEVER, I do think that the art is beautiful, and this game wouldn’t get half the attention it does if the art weren’t so brilliant.

      • Coming Second says:

        How are the heroes all the same, exactly? Genuinely interested in how you’d qualify that.

        I agree with you that it’s easy to scum the game, although particularly since the last patch that’s almost the point – you will lose battles and personnel, but you always have the chance to rebuild. What the game obviously lacks right now is an end-game, making a fail state a bit unfair at this stage. It will be interesting to see if they do implement one.

        • Captain Joyless says:

          Heroes are all the same in that their weapons and armor are essentially the same within their class. They can vary somewhat at certain times but most variation is eliminated by gold, which is infinite.

          For example: two Paladins arrive on the wagon. One has a negative trait that the other doesn’t. You can just remove it with the Sanitarium. The cost is supposedly gold + time, but both resources are infinite.

          To continue the example, those two Paladins might arrive with different skills. But skills also require mere gold to switch around.

          Next, you might want particular trinkets for those two Paladins. You can just keep resetting the trinket wagon until you find the trinkets you want.

          You are never really prevented from using the heroes you want to use because the “time cost” of putting them into de-stress or the sanitarium is meaningless.

          Thus, yes, it’s fair to say that the game is mechanically “broken” without the addition of major new mechanics. Will those come? Perhaps. Depending on what they are, the game might indeed become mechanically brilliant. But right now, “incomplete” or “broken” are fair descriptors. It’s simply unfinished as a game and I’m excited to see what it becomes.

          • Coming Second says:

            But the time part of the equation is where this thinking comes undone, surely? You’re right, you can run missions and immediately quit them ad infinitum, kick heroes until you get ones with ideal perks, or run L1 missions over and over with disposable bodies so you can farm money, but all of this is tedious and removes all sense of investment from the game. You may as well doctor the files so you start off with an infinite amount of money and relics, if you’re going to take that attitude with it.

            I get that what you’re asking for is a sense that you can fail by trying to exploit the system in this way. As already said, what’s clearly lacking from the game is a win and fail state. But the game has already solidly framed how gold and abilities are supposed to be viewed. You’ve just manipulating it in a way that doesn’t make it interesting at all.

          • jrodman says:

            I think it’s pretty well established that if your game design provides an optimal path that is dull/unfun, many/most players will typically follow that optimal path. You can blame the gamers, but that doesn’t mean that most people playing the game will have a good time. Therefore, a practical designer should find ways to make the optimal path more interesting.

          • jrodman says:

            I suppose there are other strategies, like making the optimal path difficult to discover, or heavily biasing the design towards solo play that doesn’t have any need of online hints. I’m not terribly convinced that these approaches are viewed as popular these days, however.

      • Smith Replica says:

        1. Trinkets cannot be sold… so your “infinite gold” strat needs a serious review
        2. Free level 1 heroes are useful only at the beginning of the game, which is arguably the hardest part of the game. You need to raise two or three good parties of mid-level heroes to push through, and it is NOT an easy task. The game is designed around the Wagon mechanic and “infinite level 1” supply of characters. A time limit would not add anything of value to the game, there is absolutely no need for it.

        Elimination of negative traits? Can you elaborate on that?

        There are different qualities of trinkets, the rarer they are, the more “exciting”. At a basic level, trinkets provide a buff to one or more selected stats, BUT you cannot just mindlessly pick the trinkets with the bigger numbers because – most – of them have negative effects as well. It is a good system, it works in the context of the game and its mechanics.

        How is the lack of non-trinket gear a problem? You upgrade your gear by using the Armory. I see no issues with the mechanic.

        • Serpok says:

          1. Trinkets cannot be sold… so your “infinite gold” strat needs a serious review

          Shift+click the trinket to sell.
          It used to just destroy them, but one of the updates added selling and many new goldsinks.

      • Xzi says:

        That’s pretty much how every roguelike works, progressing through failure. Those mechanics are taken in to consideration with the overall design, they aren’t a flaw in spite of it.

      • Kala says:

        Don’t agree with all that – I get from your later response you meant heroes WITHIN the class are the same, given if you have enough money, you can wipe their debuffs and pick which skills you want but…that’s…working as intended? That’s less a flaw and making each hero fully customizable for what you want to do. Like a Hellion concentrating on bleeding skills, or another one being stun. And that might depend on what role you want for each team or circumstance. (E.g a lot of the bosses want bleeding, or you might already have a Plague dude doing it).

        Same with the getting level 1 newbies off the wagon for free; them being cannon fodder is pretty much the point. I get your point about the gameplay becoming repetitive/grindy, but stressing out and killing your newbies as part of it’s grimdark ethos is, I’m pretty sure, intended. Most of them won’t make it. And that’s ok.

        I…was not aware trinkets were sellable. I will have to revisit this <..>

        Re: the trinkets being bland; you have to pick carefully because there’s debuffs as well as buffs, which relates to the customizable point above. I have a particular issue with forgetting to put on my trinkets before I leave – and the difference between my team untrinked and trinked is quite stark. Obviously the rarest ones make the most difference (again, working as intended) but even a very common one (like a damage stone and an accuracy stone) can be significant. (I also like that there’s sun/moon kits, for how you like to roll with light, or for the sorts of enemies you’ll face depending in what area).

        Though tbh I’m not sure entirely what you meant by the trinkets being bland.

  3. MrFinnishDude says:

    Artistry is important

  4. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    Grabbed it during the Summer Sale because my friend kept raving about it. One of my best purchases in awhile. I haven’t played since the update the other day, but I was surprised how complete it felt; I wouldn’t have felt ripped off if they never updated it again.

    I will say, despite liking the art immensely, it definitely didn’t sway me in purchasing it sooner. I’m more about how a game plays and wanted to make sure it was something I’d enjoy before buying. Thankfully, both the art and the gameplay are fantastic.

    • J. Cosmo Cohen says:

      I also want to add the voiceover is brilliant, too. Simple sentences spoken with convincing emotion really sell what’s being said. It’s easily one of my personal favorite parts of the game.

      • Kala says:

        Yes! Another example of things unifying well, I think. Voice over is excellent and adds loads to the overall mood.

  5. Renevent says:

    I grabbed it months ago and the game is really cool, but the newest patches are going way too far into frustrating territory for my tastes. From what I understand the final game will be steamworks enabled, so that’s good news at least.

    • Kala says:

      I don’t like the corpses staying after you’ve killed mobs. *folds arms*

  6. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    You know, it wasn’t until I read this article until I consciously realized how great – and appropriate – the art of Darkest Dungeon is to the gaming experience.

    I just knew that I loved playing it since all the pieces fit so well together – the style, the voiceover, the black humour.

  7. Expertise says:

    I just want to say that i”m expecting to play this game in the right time i have time to buy it. The art is awosome. I didn’t even read the text… The dark theme pass respect to me and i feel that people have a commom problem and everybody is trying to fight the monster and bandits that are in everyplace, even the ethic system is deturpaded in this dark times, in a time of economy crisis were bandits are keeping a money we don’t even know were come from. We here in Brazil hope we can play this game soon, only a good art can make us feel we play something real. Hugs

    • Premium User Badge

      Harlander says:

      I must admit, Darkest Dungeon as an allegory of the modern financial system is not something I had previously considered.

  8. anonzp says:

    “wouldn’t work without its gorgeous art design. Actually, it would fail miserably at everything it attempts to do otherwise, from the storytelling to the mechanics”

    what in fucks name makes you think you can get away with saying shit like this?

  9. TheKindlyUbermench says:

    I’ll be the first to admit that the art in Darkest Dungeon is absolutely incredible, a real achievement. But, speaking as someone who has been in early access for a number of months now I’m going to have to say that the game-play itself isn’t anything to write home about, and many of the mechanics are half-baked once you finally suss out the various interactions, or lack thereof as the case may be. The presentation is fantastic. What’s actually under the hood is another matter.

    Here’s one example. The game allows players to select from one of three different mission ‘types’: short, medium or long. Intuitively you would think that short missions would be the least lucrative while representing the lowest ‘risk’ to an adventuring party. Your intuition would be wrong. Since adventuring parties are not allowed to ‘make camp’ during short missions, this means that parties on short missions cannot avail themselves of the various buffs and healing/de-stressing skills that are only available in camp, and which in most cases provide very significant bonuses (e.g. 25% stress reduction) that last for the rest of the mission. As it turns out, the utility of these various camping skills is such that they more than make up for the increased number of encounters in a medium-length mission. The result is that medium-length missions are both more lucrative AND less risky than short missions, at least once you have figured out how to camp properly. So that’s one-third of the mission types rendered essentially redundant. For the entire rest of the game.

    Here’s another example. Buffs and debuffs in combat are incredibly weak. Sure, to a new player just learning the ropes, the prospect of increasing the protection rating of a character temporarily (which reduces incoming damage), or of putting a debuff on an enemy type might seem like a good combat option. The reality is that using these skills is almost invariably a non-optimal play, for the very simple reason that killing the enemies quicker via direct DMG functions as a better kind of ‘protection’ than any protection-increasing buff you might apply. Given that most character classes have at least one or two such skills (if not more) out of a potential total of 8, that equates to a significant amount of redundancy in the skill selection. Similar problem for DoTs.

    I could go on (really I could). But the fact of the matter is this: the game is still in early access. Currently, it’s not very well balanced and is replete with mechanistic redundancy. Maybe the devs will sort it all out in time for the full release. In the meantime lots of people have been having fun with it, while some others (myself included) have actually become pretty disgruntled about what we regard as shallow gameplay. Discriminating consumers take note and be prepared to look under the (very shiny and attractive) hood.

    • Kala says:

      Hmm… I think the point more with the smaller missions is that they cost less. You need to buy less resources to take with you (say 6 torches and food, maybe less torches if you have your vestal and crusader using light skills) so if you’re a bit short on cash after town upgrading/de-stressing/sanitoriamizing, it’s a good pick.

      Also with things like 100% of room bosses – you could get lucky and knock that out of the park in a few rooms (less so the 90% of rooms run…) so getting it done quick is fairly helpful re: risk.

      The thing that makes ‘short’ a safer option is the hunger mechanic. I’ve had missions completely undermined by running out of food – despite bringing (what I thought was) more than enough. I’ve left town with about 12 food before, and ran out right before I wanted to camp (before a boss). That was…not ideal.

      (though yes, I’ve had all the mission lengths go relatively smoothly at times, and horribly at others)

    • Coming Second says:

      They did have a go at sorting some of these issues out in the latest patch (whilst introducing some other ones, holy crap those trinket nerfs and enemy protection/crit buffs). Debuff resistance was lowered across the board and many of the debuffs/DoTs were made more lethal. The new corpse mechanic makes move and DoT attacks much more valuable, add to that the way diseases have been reworked and the Plague Doctor was the big winner from this update.

      As for medium length missions always being the best – That’s true, but not to the extent you’re making out. Short length missions don’t require as much investment in gear and therefore aren’t as costly to bail on. They’re good for getting a feel for how a class or a different build does in a new zone, and they don’t offer much less in monetary reward than mediums. Also mediums have a chance of being the inventory-clogging find/fetch quests which you want to avoid, so are not always viable.

  10. Kala says:

    I <3 Darkest Dungeon.

    And the art design is great; I think it's spot on saying it unifies the game and communicates what the game is supposed to be about. And yes, it's kind of basic in that it's 2D and not realistic, but that doesn't mean it's not absolutely perfect for what it is and showcases it superbly.

    Also – I can only agree with Bourassa's commentary on widening gulf between AAA development and smaller scale operations, with risk aversion making design restrictive creatively on larger titles, while smaller scale indies are widening and innovating the market. Obviously he's in the know and I'm not, but it's been something I've been observing for a while now.

    (What irritates me more is how certain people are so knee-jerk regressive toward innovation; it should't count as a game cuz it's doing something different and unexpected, waaah)