How killing permadeath in Darkwood led deeper into the forest

This is The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the difficult journeys they underwent to make the best bits of their games. This time, Darkwood [official site].

“All roads lead deeper into the woods,” says one of the twisted characters in Darkwood, an excellent and haunting game of survival in a nightmarish forest. There are horrors in its tangles of subsuming wood, things you won’t quite understand, characters who aren’t quite human, aren’t quite friendly. A game in the tradition of Pathologic and STALKER, Darkwood was developed by a Polish team of three called Acid Wizard Studio, and in many ways, it sounds as if that mordant quote is a comment on their experience of making it.

Their desire to marry a strong non-linear story, meaningful choice, a threatening atmosphere, and a procedurally generated world that changes shape during play, led to serious challenges. As team working on their first-ever game, they’d blundered into tackling some of the biggest design questions in games today. “It was an extremely stressful experience,” artist and writer Artur Kordas tells me, as Darkwood’s development pushed into five long years. And part of their solution? Killing permadeath – a decision that led them deeper into the woods.

The best way to understand what Acid Wizard were trying to achieve with Darkwood is to know that they’re not fans of horror films. “We do not like jump-scares, we do not like the clichés repeated in this genre, we do not like to implement brutality for mere brutality’s sake,” Kordas says. “What’s more, we do not like to be scared. Horror can only interest us when it rewards us with the effort put into overcoming this fear; when there is some purpose to terror and it is not an end in itself.”

“We wanted players to identify themselves with the protagonist and not make any decisions with no thought behind them, to respect the game and the threats lurking in the forest,” says programmer Gustaw Stachaszewski. “This was meant to be one of the main elements building the atmosphere of dread and uncertainty.”

The key to achieving this atmosphere seemed obvious: permanence. After any interaction with important characters the game would automatically save, and it wouldn’t allow players to go back to previous saves. So far, so Dark Souls, which of course was an inspiration. “[In Dark Souls] you approach each character with caution because it might be deadly threat or it might be a helpful NPC whose unintentional killing can have disastrous consequences. We wanted a similar effect in our game,” Kordas says.

Death, though, would be more permanent than it is in Dark Souls. Darkwood’s version of permadeath wouldn’t completely reset the game – some strands of previous attempts would persist between runs – but the woods would change, procedural generation opening new locations to visit, new characters to meet and stories to follow. “The game was very unpredictable, and the player would not know what they would encounter, which was very good for the atmosphere,” says Stachaszewski.

“The procedurally generated world was not an end in itself, it always went along with the Rogue-like nature of our game,” says Kordas. “It seemed to us an indispensable element, without which the permadeath would not make sense. It was a kind of necessary evil.” That’s because procedural generation proved extremely hard to implement. First there was the problem of creating an interestingly structured world rather than a collection of random objects. Second was getting interesting, atmosphere-building events into this world.

“When you create events and places manually to create effects like anxiety, you take into account many factors,” Kordas says. Tension can be built by using many tricks, such as changing light intensity and colour gradients, narrowing the space, intensifying sound, using repeating motifs, placing strange and disturbing combinations of objects. But as Kordas explains, “All this requires many elements of the puzzle to work together in harmony, like graphics, sound, level design, triggers, along with some intentionality. It’s a bit like creating a short story. It is extremely difficult to create a system that would be able to generate such successful mini stories every time.”

And then there was the matter of the larger story. Acid Wizard had crowdfunded Darkwood on Indiegogo with the promise of scripted events which would form an extensive non-linear storyline with Fallout-inspired choice and consequence. “After the campaign it turned out that this concept was not going well with the highly randomised nature of the game,” says Stachaszewski. Still, the team sank a lot of time into trying to join it all together. They attempted to create a procedurally generated main world which would place hand-designed locations, but they knew they’d have to make a huge number of them, far more than the three of them could produce. They tried a system which knitted together modular locations which contained randomised elements, but that proved too difficult.

Disagreements started. Stachaszewski stood by the original Rogue-like horror vision for the game, arguing that it’d help Darkwood stand out and cash in on a genre which was burgeoning at the time. It would also limit the game’s scope. Since no one had scriptwriting experience, should they really try to create a complex non-linear storyline? A Rogue-like structure would circumvent it.

Kordas, nervous of procedural generation, preferred the idea of making a more traditional RPG-like game. He liked the creative potential of scripted events and a strong storyline. Besides, he knew how much the Indiegogo funders liked it and feared their reaction if the game shipped without it. The third member of the team, animator Kuba, sat somewhere in the middle. “The discussion was quite turbulent,” Kordas says. “But I don’t remember any danger of it tearing the team apart; I guess we knew that we were in the same boat and we just had to find a solution and make a game. It was ours to be or not to be in game dev.”

Kordas’ case won. “We did not want to resign from the story, characters and dialogue,” Stachaszewski says. “It became something more than just another proc-gen horror set in a forest.” And so, to focus on telling a coherent story and ease the pressure on procedural generation they dropped mandatory permadeath, and a new battle began: somehow they had to re-engineer a sense of consequence to player death.

One solution was stripping players of skills and perks, thinking that it would also help encourage players to experiment with different builds after rebirth. “However, we decided that the loss of skills emphasises the least interesting fragments of the game, which is exploring the procedural forest in search of mushrooms,” says Kordas. Mushrooms provide Darkwood’s equivalent of experience points, designed to push players to explore the world and not place emphasis on defeating enemies. It also presented issues with game balance, since Acid Wizard would never know how strong a character would be in a given situation, and it led players who died often to gradually run out of experience to build their characters up, since resources in the game world aren’t replenished.

They explored more ideas: perhaps items could be reduced in strength somehow if the player died? Maybe they’d lose them entirely? Yet all of these variants caused similar problems, mostly because of Darkwood’s finite world of resources. There was the ‘saturation’ concept, where a bar would fill as the player performed significant actions, such as opening chests and discovering new locations. The bar would award the player with relative gains in reputation with traders, and it’d be reset or reduced on death. But the system was rejected for being too opaque.


Then they started exploring an idea inspired by Don’t Starve in which the player would drop half their inventory where they died and respawn back in their hideout. It meant that items wouldn’t be removed from the world, but what happened if they were killed in their hideout at night? They’d simply wake up with all their gear helpfully left beside them. “So we invented, or rather I did, a terrible idea that the player would respawn in a random camp in the forest,” says Kordas. Every death came with the same consequence, but the day and night cycle became a problem: if they died late in the day, they might not have time to return home. So what if they automatically respawned in the morning? That led to more problems. ”What’s more, such a system was extremely confusing,” says Kordas. In a game made from complex interwoven systems like Darkwood, a good idea in one system can be a very bad one in another.

Finally, in spring 2014, they settled on a variant of the Don’t Starve solution. The player would wake in their hideout, since it offered players a chance to breathe after failure and re-kit themselves. If they’d died at night they wouldn’t enjoy trader reputation gains. And half their gear would be left where they died. What survived would be random, though items in their quick access bar were always kept, allowing a little control. That’s how the game shipped when it launched in Early Access in the summer of 2014, and how it remains today.

”We’re not happy with how this turned out, as it seriously hurts the atmosphere when the player realises that death is merely an inconvenience and not something to be truly dreaded,” says Stachaszewski.

Kordas agrees, adding that forcing players to spend in-game time on going back for their gear interferes with the day-night cycle and messes up the story’s pacing. “It’s also associated with traversing the same fragment of the procedurally generated forest, which unfortunately is not that interesting and rich with secrets, alleys and unique places.

“The consequences, even those theoretically unpleasant for the player, should always be interesting. If the result does not block further progress but, for example, opens another interesting storyline, frustration should not be a problem. In the case of death, it is good to come up with a mechanism that always relies on the most powerful aspects of the game. It seems to me that we have made the biggest mistake there. Death does not intensify the atmosphere of terror, it does not cause interesting consequences, it is usually associated with the investment of time, of which there is never enough in the game. This sometimes leads to frustration or, even worse, boredom.”

To shore these concerns up, Darkwood features an optional permadeath mode and another with a limited number of lives. “Implementation was not exactly well thought out and it felt that they are a little bit artificial,” says Kordas. But though they knew they were shipping with something they weren’t confident in, after five gruelling years in development (for the last 18 months, the three worked seven days a week), on its release they felt only relief. “The relief was so big that it almost completely overshadowed our fears about whether the game would sell, whether it would have good reviews, or if we could have done it much better,” says Kordas. “This feeling still lasts.”

It helped that Darkwood was received so well; its thick, strange, foreboding atmosphere betrays little of all the struggles that went into forging it. As such, while Kordas and Stachaszewski are somewhat self-flagellating about Darkwood’s deficiencies, they remain philosophical about whether they’d attempt to design them out, not least because they’d risk ruining what Darkwood is. “Perhaps there will be an opportunity to return to Darkwood and tinker in it,” says Kordas. “The question is whether we can find a solution that satisfies us all.”


  1. wackazoa says:

    That just goes to show how sometimes we are our own worse enemy. Ive not played the game, am interested and its on my wishlist, but everything Ive heard about it is good. And yet to the devs it seems certain aspects of it might as well be garbage.

    I respect these people and their sometimes perfectionist tendencies. When I was younger I went through a bout of perfectionism myself. But sometimes devs need to realize that we, as gamers, will overlook a bit of rubbish here and there if they nail the other things. Story, gameplay, sound, environment all come together to make a good game. And from what I hear these guys have hit most of those correctly.

  2. Alien says:

    I am starting with “Darkwood” right now – what mode should I choose for the best experience?

    p.s. I did not read the article because, you know: Spoilers!

    • Fleko81 says:

      Definitely start with “normal.” It’s a brutal game and if you start on hard or nightmare you will end up having to restart before you have got the hang of the mechanics.
      This is a really interesting article and incredibly well timed from a personal perspective. I started playing darkwood over Christmas and hit the point a week ago were I had the same feeling – death did not create a fundamental fear, more just an inconvenience. I then started another save slot on ‘hard’ where the increased threat of limited lives served it’s purpose… except I’m simply not good enough not to get mullered after a couple of in game days!
      I am now happily (happily in the sense of ‘with a constant sense of dread’) progressing back on normal and enjoying the story and the world.
      Definitely worth investing some time in!

  3. Doug Exeter says:

    Dark wood is fantastic. I really need to play it again and finish it. I got to the 2nd main area and put it down for some reason. Need to rectify that tonight. It’s outstanding.

  4. Edgewise says:

    Aiming for perfection is the only way to achieve mere greatness. So while they are a bit hard on themselves, that’s probably why the game has been so well-received.

  5. and its man says:

    Glad to see another article about this jewel!

    • poliovaccine says:

      Ditto – I always enjoy these Mechanic articles, but in particular I feel like Darkwood deserves more fanfare than it got, and I was a little disappointed it didn’t make it into the RPS best-of-advent-calendar this Xmas – the fact it didn’t speaks to what a strong year gaming got, but still.

      The article is great, as ever, but mostly I’m just glad to see this game get more attention. I really want to see a new title from Acid Wizard – I mean, I knew as soon as I heard their dev name that I was probably gonna like what they made haha. It’s just two of my favorite things mooshed together!

      • Zaraf says:

        Same here. This is my favorite game of last year, but I feel like it slipped under the radar. I was surprised to see no Wot I think from RPS, but maybe it’s because it’s an EA game.

      • and its man says:

        I -sort of- took part in this year’s edition of the RPS Advent Calendar guessing game. “sort of”, because I just threw in my personal list, curious as to whether or not it would match the picks of the team. I ended up last, unsurprisingly.
        Of course, Darkwood was one of my choices. And it didn’t make it into the staff list. One of the reasons (with the absence of Everything and Rain World) I cursed our good people at RPS at the same time I wished them a Merry Christmas.

  6. Shazbut says:

    I must admit I only read these articles for games I’m already interested in since I don’t have a particular interest in game development, but it’s inspiring to read how these guys addressed this particular problem and I’m really happy that Darkwood turned out as good as it apparently did.

    Now I just have to buy it. After Hollow Knight is done…

  7. Doug Exeter says:

    Upon reading most of the article, I will agree with their stance on having to ship inventory from one hide out to another. Kinda tedious, though at least the bell mechanic did help (I think, it’s been a while and I don’t remember exactly how it worked.)

  8. caff says:

    I can only urge people who haven’t played this to give it a go. You’ll experience some weird, maybe even frustrating mechanics, in the first hour – but keep going and you’ll find it’s a very rewarding game.

  9. Blackcompany says:

    It just goes to show that Player Character death as a source of tension of video games DOES NOT WORK. As a rule, it doesnt work.

    Now sure, there are exceptions. Dark Souls, because death has consequences. Roguelikes. But in the main, trying to use player death as a source of tension in a genre where players can simply reload a save or start a new run…is fruitless.

    which is not to say games should lack failure states. They absolutely should have failure states. But just as these devs have stated, failure states need to introduce interesting game play, unique moments that open new doors and create new opportunities.

    Take Dishonored: Since I nearly never died, fail states meant I was seen, and I had to adapt my approach. This was interesting, opening new doors and leading to new approaches.

    Now consider the otherwise great Assassins Creed: Origins. Might as well set is on Easy mode, since death involves literally nothing more than watching a brief loading screen. I mean literally nothing more. You dont lose anything, nothing of consequence occurs…so why bother? Because its always been done that way.

    Which is every bit as ridiculous a reason as it sounds.

    Its time for player death in gaming to go away. It needs to stop. Let me prove my point:

    One of the greatest mods ever created for a video is Essential Mode for Players, for Skyrim. With that mode, on you CANNOT die. What you can do, instead, is enter a bleedout, then shake it off, with some to most of your health restored, and continue fighting. Except…any potions, buffs, etc that you used trying to stay alive…they’re gone, and you’re still in the fight, with what tools you have left.

    A system like that, with some small modifications, would go a long way toward replacing death. And its something that NEEDS to happen. Soon. This outdated “pop in another quarter to keep playing” holdover needs to go. Its long out lived its usefulness.

    • Shazbut says:

      That’s a ballsy stance you’re taking. It seems to shunt games more into the realm of interactive movies or simulations where you have to invent your own definition of “failing”, like in your Dishonored example. If there’s no real consequence then there’s no real challenge, and most games are too boring without the challenge. I gave up on Bioshock 2 because the lack of consequence to dying rendered the experience pointless. What you’re suggesting sounds like playing a game for the first time with the cheats on.

    • Troubletcat says:

      Strongly disagree. The point of player death in a game like Origins (haven’t played it specifically but obviously I’ve played lots of games over the years where death = reload last save) isn’t that the death is a consequence or penalty for the player.

      The point is that you cannot advance in the game until you successfully complete the challenges set in the game. An example I’ll use is the classic Max Payne games – I quick saved every 2-3 minutes playing these. The idea of dying was never a particular source of tension and it never felt like a punishment because I’d never lose a meaningful chunk of progress. BUT if I wanted to advance in the game, I had to get good enough at the gameplay to beat this combat encounter. And the next one. And so on. This is a big, big part of what makes a lot of games fun – overcoming a series of challenges of increasing complexity and difficulty. The idea that you can never REALLY fail removes most of the satisfaction that comes from succeeding. It also creates a load of problems for devs. E.g if you had a system like you described in that Skyrim mod in Max Payne, the game would completely cease to function because the player could easily end up in situations where progressing further is impossible due to wasting resources on fights they “bled out” in 5 or 6 times.

      If you don’t personally LIKE that kind of game that’s fine and all, but saying that the mechanic needs to die is ridiculous – it’s been used in many of the greatest games of all time, many of which still hold up today, and it still gets used in new games all the time. This isn’t because devs haven’t thought of any other ideas. It’s because for a lot of games it’s a system that works.

  10. sege says:

    Are we overthinking this “a sense of consequence to player death” thing? I bounced off this game as it was too hard, no doubt very early in the game. Something like day 3 or 5 or something. Which is a real shame as the game world seemed really interesting. I might have to watch someone else’s play through on youtube or something….
    I’ve matured into a rubbish gamer in my mid life. I die in games over and over and end up setting things on easy level and then hoping that with most of the challenge removed i can still enjoy the game.
    This thing that Dark Souls seemed to create, the idea of further punishing the player after they’ve died in the game seems illogical to me, and very frustrating. It meant i never bothered becoming ‘human’ in that game ever, as i would die, then die again trying to find my way back to recover my stuff over and over. Failure makes the game even harder…yikes. Hence i bounced off that game too, and Nier Automata.
    Surely if you die, having to retry the same thing over and over is punishment enough? I don’t play rougelikes normally, so i don’t know what would would there, for but my preferred narrative driven games, just feeling like you’ve ‘failed’ and are not doing this great character justice in your playing ability is sufficient as a deterrent to constantly dying for me.
    Dying in games is stressful enough, we don’t need to make it even worse! lol. When you die in a game and are then faced with the thought that the game is going to be EVEN HARDER because you died, it’s just so demoralizing.

    • TheBetterStory says:

      “What’s more, we do not like to be scared. Horror can only interest us when it rewards us with the effort put into overcoming this fear; when there is some purpose to terror and it is not an end in itself.”

      This, this exactly is the attitude I’d like to see from more horror creators across the board. I’d read, watch, and play far more horror if the focus was on triumphing over fear rather than just provoking it.

    • gabrielonuris says:

      EXACTLY!! Dying is already a punishment in and on itself, because you’ll have to repeat whatever you were trying to do, until you beat it. Even if you quick saved 1 minute before, if you don’t get better, you’ll be stuck on that minute forever. I don’t need to get “devolved” somehow so that minute gets harder; just because I couldn’t kill the boss with a rocket launcher I don’t think it will be more fun to try it with a Makarov, half my life points and with one leg.

      That’s the main point why I bounced off this game too, and the lack of a simple quick save mechanic. And for the ones that think it makes any game too easy, the solution is simple: policy yourself alone, and don’t quick save all the time, thus any game can turn into a roguelike, just for you.

  11. gigan says:

    I really loved this game, was so tense I stopped playing for awhile. Beat it my second time through on normal and so glad I did. Going to go through frictional games, games again then come back to this one on hard.

    If you guys make another game I’m probably gonna buy it, not enough “good” survival horror games.

  12. CelticPixel says:

    I bought this because Jim told me I should buy it, and he was right.

  13. spacejunkk says:

    I loved Darkwood but I agree with the devs, player death doesn’t work all that well.

    Normal mode made death inconsequential. Hard mode had the same problem as Sunless Sea – get caught out and you’d need to replay 15+ hours of game.

    How about this backseat gamedev idea: Player death changes the ending. Not necessarily to the “bad” ending, and not necessarily straight away. Perhaps it’s progressive, so small details change on the first death, getting bigger and more dramatic as the player dies more. I don’t think you have to look at it as a punishment, just a recognition that yep, you died.

    Maybe player death also changes the world. Enemies get less aggressive, as a bit of balancing. Trees open up/close off portions of the map. Perhaps the villagers get more withdrawn/messed-up.

    • KastaRules says:

      That’s NOT a bad idea actually.

      There could be many ways to deal with death: you could lose for good all (or most of) the crap that you managed to gather, including stored items in the hideouts.

      Also, the world could be re-randomized with each death.

      That would still set you back considerably without forcing you to restart the game and follow the same quests over and over again.

    • rmsgrey says:

      That’s an interesting idea. First concern is when/how does the player discover the consequences? At one extreme, if you just finish the game and get a lackluster ending, the player might never realise what happened. Less extreme, if you only discover at the end that the ending depended on your deaths, then that means there’s no sense of consequence during your first playthrough.

      It’s not necessarily a bad idea, just one that needs to be thought through more fully. The problem with ending-driven mechanics is that they tend not to impact gameplay the rest of the time, so you still need something to make the player care during the game.

      Oh well, if it were easy, the problem would already have been solved…

  14. KastaRules says:

    I got this game with the 2017 Halloween sale and I wasn’t really expecting to put more than a few hours in it. But this game sucked me in BIG time. It took me 50 hours to beat it on normal and absolutely adored every minute of it.

    This is how you make a scary game! Albeit on normal mode you can get almost untouchable by the end, I don’t really know how it would be possible to beat it with perma-death activated…

  15. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    Talking big game for people responsible for something with such horrendous usability, playability, feedback, etc I was actually glad when my dude died (of something I couldn’t avoid or see coming btw) so I could finally stop and uninstall.
    Great atmosphere, but plays like something from the last century, when pc games hadn’t figured much of this stuff out yet.