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Human Capital in Darkest Dungeon

Video games have long provided players opportunities to experiment with ways of exploiting people. There are classic examples, like building a pool in The Sims only to remove the ladder when your Sims get in, causing them to eventually drown. Players have discovered ways to execute prisoners and make it look like an accident in Prison Architect. In Far Cry 3, a privileged white male 20-something essentially colonizes a minority world country while on vacation. Then, of course, there is the typical first-person shooter, in which human bodies are digitally rendered solely for the purpose of being shot by the player.

These games don’t explicitly say much about exploitation; it’s just there for us to observe in the case of Far Cry 3, discover in the case of The Sims, and play with in the case of countless shooters. These games might make us recoil at the thought of exploitation. They may even ask us to consider whether we are complicit in it. What they tend to lack is any real reflection on the roots of exploitation. My experience in Darkest Dungeon, however, perhaps more than any other game I’ve played, has me thinking about exploitation and what drives us to use other people for our own ends.

The loss of this party represented the loss of thousands of gold. If I had any hope of restoring my family’s honor, I would have to be much more precise with my investments in those I sent adventuring on my account.

The first time I lost a party in Darkest Dungeon was devastating. Darkest Dungeon has many roguelike elements, one of which is that your loss of heroes is permanent. These soldiers were dear to me; I had named each after real world friends. I had invested thousands of gold on each, upgrading their weapons, armor, and abilities so as to ensure that they were well equipped for their foray into the Warrens. What I did not know, however, was how to defeat the Swine Prince. When I made the mistake of killing his henchman, he went mad and slaughtered my entire party.

At the time, it felt brutally unfair. However, when I returned to my hamlet, I was forced to realize the mistake I had made: I had sent my best troops into a battle I had no idea how to fight. At that point, I vowed to change course. There was much to do. The loss of this party represented the loss of thousands of gold. If I had any hope of restoring my family’s honor, I would have to be much more precise with my investments in those I sent adventuring on my account.

Darkest Dungeon has a brilliant PTSD mechanic. As you venture further into its dungeons, your heroes will experience more and more stress. If they get stressed enough, they will fall ill or fearful, adopting psychological ailments that greatly hinder their performance and even the psychological state of your other heroes. An over-stressed hero can be costly, not only in terms of wrecking a quest, but also in restoring her or him to health. You must fund their psychological treatment when your quest is over if you ever hope to send them questing for you again. Healing sickness, quirks, and stress; gaining abilities, weapons, and armor—everything you need to be successful in Darkest Dungeon costs money. Everything except people.

There is one commodity in Darkest Dungeon that is free—as long as you have room for them, hiring new soldiers for your cause costs nothing. This realization changed everything for me. I stopped renaming my heroes, and dismissed anyone who came back with injuries, illnesses, or quirks I deemed too expensive to heal. I stopped investing money in heroes until they reached level three. I refused to give names to any but my most accomplished heroes—those who proved their worth and showed long-term potential to make a run at the game’s final dungeon. I even sent a party full of low level, ill-equipped heroes to a battle with the Swine Prince solely for the purpose of trying to scout out his weakness. Two of these heroes died; the other two returned so fearful and sick that I immediately stripped them of their trinkets and released them from my employ.

To some, my tactics may sound harsh; others will say I was simply gaming the system, maximizing my use of the game’s resources in order to be successful. That’s the point—Darkest Dungeon demonstrates how wide the road is that leads to exploitation. Darkest Dungeon lifts the veil on what drives exploitation and the systemic economic forces that bolster it. The apostle Paul once said, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10). Combine this with the fact that human beings are often the cheapest means of acquiring more capital, and the results are devastating.

Executive Editor at Penguin Random House. Author of Know Thy Gamer: A Parent's Guide to Video Games and founder of Love Thy Nerd.

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