“The process of delving into the black abyss is to me the keenest form of fascination.”
– H.P. Lovecraft
My name is Bray, and for what seemed like time unending, I was lost. Adrift. Searching.
My affliction took hold when hers mercifully loosed its withering grasp. Where my darling’s suffering was of bone and body, however, my pain saw fit to burrow deeper — a consumption of the mind. An unwavering, implacable certainty that whatever had taken my love from this world had crawled into it from the eldritch beyond.
Apothecary after apothecary strove in vain to assuage my sorrow, to assure me that her’s was a pestilence of the poor sweeping its way across the lowlands. I did not listen, for I could not hear; too crowded were my thoughts with voices not my own. Neither sleep nor drunken stupor brought surcease of the foul whispers. All at once unfamiliar and primordial, they beckoned me to the crumbling caverns beneath the ancient castle on the moor.
So it was that I set off – my wolfhound Gideon at my heels – to plumb the depths of the cursèd catacombs which lay sprawling below the forgotten ruins of that sinister stronghold. I cared not for the rumours of untold riches circulated by bold adventurers and craven wanderers alike. Instead, I sought a meeting with the antediluvian evil that drew me there.
Tyler Sigman knew something had gone deeply, deeply wrong when he found himself running stress calculations on overhead bins.
It was the summer of 2001, and Sigman – a graduate Cum Laude in aerospace engineering – had just moved from his native state of Colorado to Bellingham, Washington. The allure of travel, transience, and a big paycheque had managed to pull him away from his dream job tinkering on experimental aircrafts at Scaled Composites in order to work for Heath Tecna (now Zodiac Aerospace). No sooner did he start the new position in earnest than it became clear he had made a big mistake.
“The job was terrible. It was soul-crushing” remembers Sigman grimly as we sit together chatting over coffee at Benny’s Cafe — a rustic fixture of Vancouver’s beachfront Kitsilano neighbourhood. “I went from the love of aerospace vehicles…[to] making aerospace interior components…and I was like, ‘this is not what I was put on God’s green earth to do.'” Indeed, a young Sigman had spent his high school years dreaming of flying planes for the Air Force, not doing spot-checks on the closets inside of them. Yet there was, however small, a silver lining.
“[I] fell in love with Bellingham,” he says, pained reminiscence replaced momentarily by romantic nostalgia, as if the smell of brewing lattes around us has been temporarily replaced by the scent of crisp ocean air. “I loved the Pacific Northwest…and I was like, ‘I don’t want to live anywhere else right now…but this job is terrible.’” While toiling away at Tecna, Sigman began to think of ways he could stay where he was without, well, staying where he was. The answer ultimately lay in another one of his teenage passions: game design.
“…this is not what I was put on God’s green earth to do.”
Like many children of the 80s, Sigman’s love of gaming had begun with Dungeons & Dragons. The classic starter set had opened the door to a world where his living room table was a treasure-filled crypt, and his older brother a gallant fellow knight. Soon enough, he had moved from simply consuming fantastical adventures to creating his own, tweaking rules and fabricating stories as he saw fit. By the time junior high rolled around, Sigman had developed a hunger for experimentation, pouring hours of spare time into the likes of Wargame Construction Set on the Commodore — an early example of a digital game with tools for creating content like custom maps and units.
Years and years later, while at Scaled Composites, Sigman had even started up his own side venture – Mythrole Games – through which he had sold his own custom-designed card games with phenomenal names like Night of the Ill-Tempered Squirrel. Despite all of this, he had never given professional game design serious thought. Or rather, professional game design hadn’t given much thought to him.
“I would send my résumé out to video game companies, and couldn’t even get it looked it,” recalls Sigman. “I couldn’t even get noticed. I couldn’t even get a callback from almost anyone. I was getting pretty dejected about breaking into games. And that made me even more interested in just doing my own thing, because I was like, ‘I can go out and print a board game and no one can stop me.’ So I’d gotten pretty down about the idea that I wasn’t going to break into games without doing something drastic.”
Something drastic. That, Sigman would later decide, was just what the doctor ordered.
It was 2004, and by now, Tyler Sigman had been working as a glorified aerospace interior designer for about three years. In an effort to keep sane, and provide himself with an exit strategy from the world of magazine rack measurements, Sigman enrolled in a summer slate of game design courses with the hopes that they would add to his resume the “je ne sais quoi” it had been missing. This was a sound strategy on paper, were it not for one inconvenient fact: the classes were being held at Vancouver Film School, across the Canadian border.
“[Every day] at 4:00 P.M. I’d leave work, [and] drive up to Vancouver to be here for 6:30. 6:30 [to] 9:30: class. And [then I’d] wake up for work the next day.” Sigman recites his schedule for me in that special kind of day-planner-style autopilot where I can tell it has become a firmly ingrained part of him, despite more than a decade having passed. The drudgery of a cross-border commute proved to be well worth it.
“It was great!” enthuses Sigman. “I got exposed to people being creative for a living…[and] man, I was so energized. I was meeting people, and writing, and we’d [just] go talk for three hours about game design.” One of those people was Trent Ward, the Design Director at the time for video game developer Backbone Entertainment, and one of Sigman’s teachers. Unlike the plethora of studios that had passed him over, Ward saw in Sigman’s résumé a font of potential, and over the course of the summer became one of his closest mentors.
With fall drawing nearer, Sigman became filled with a creeping sense of dread — a longing to stay among kindred spirits rather than return to his automatonic work at Heath Tecna. His time immersed in formal game design had filled him with a sense of purpose he had been missing since his move. Hoping his favourite teacher’s appraisal had been more than just lip service, he submitted an application to Backbone Entertainment and held his breath.
Ward hired Sigman on at Backbone as a game designer, beginning in September. Sigman looks back on the moment with same cathartic joy he must have felt at the time.
“Someone finally paid attention.”
Some seven moons after taking in my last glimpse of home, Gideon and I descended upon the bustling hamlet on the hill. In the years immediately following that once-noble house’s decline into madness, the town had been abandoned — forfeit, it would seem, to the malevolent forces which had sewn their untimely end. Now, with wild speculation of hidden familial wealth running rampant, it played host to caravans full of new arrivals day and night. How I pitied each among them. Unscrupulous lost souls looking for new beginnings in old buildings.
One such hovel was the local inn, where I sat myself to imbibe shortly after arrival. Dampening my senses had become an almost involuntary reflex during my trek through the countryside. The searing of my throat with Scotch was much preferable to the burning of my brain with the countless disembodied taunts that dominated my more lucid moments. And yet, it was during one of those fleeting bouts of sobriety – as the barkeep went to procure more medicine – that I heard an altogether different whisper float in my direction.
“Him! He could be our fourth.”
Shifting but slightly, I scanned the dingy darkness, certain at first that the exclamation had no owner. Yet as my eyes reached the far corner of the inn, they locked ever so briefly with those of a jester — an ivory-masked troubadour the likes of which moved aimlessly from village to village, fiddling for a fee. No sooner did we acknowledge one another’s existence than she turned violently away, bathed once more in shadow. Who was this? Was her solicitation real, or just another fiendish figment? I had to know.
Uncharacteristically rebuffing the counterman’s proffered potion, I left my stool to find the mysterious harlequin. Gideon’s towering stature, and low, ever-present growl ensured unfettered passage as I made my way to the back of the room, where three strange table companions awaited. Their peculiar visages were visible only by the flickering light of a low-hung torch. Unbeknownst to me, I had come face to face with the last people I would ever know.
The first video game Chris Bourassa ever made was about a skeleton saving the world from an evil dollar bill. Well, sort of.
It was the year 2000, and Bourassa was enrolled in a Master’s Diploma in animation at the Art Institute in Burnaby, British Columbia. Before that, he had spent time out east at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia earning a degree in sociology. Sufficed to say, he was arguably in the youthful stage of searching for his niche. Unfortunately, it felt very much like swimming upstream.
“I wasn’t really excited about anything beyond concept art and modeling [sic],” Bourassa tells me via e-mail. “The program was geared towards getting a career in [TV] or film, and I always felt a little misaligned with the curriculum goals.” Make no mistake, Bourassa had always loved to draw, having started churning out self-proclaimed “aspirational images” of Spider-Man from an early age. It was video games, however, that had truly lit a fire under him. More specifically, macabre fantasy adventures like Eye of the Beholder, which tasked players with controlling four adventurers as they investigated an ancient evil brewing underneath the city of Waterdeep.
In class, Bourassa found himself gaining a wealth of new experience, but was left with an unsated hunger to create dark, atmospheric worlds of his own. That’s when he decided to make Hateful Chris. Along with friend and classmate Dana Fortier, Bourassa set to work on what he retrospectively calls a “semi-autobiographical anti-consumer 2d platformer.” Set in a world where brand identities had supplanted real ones, the game cast players as the titular Chris — a rebellious skeleton child whose image is co-opted and copied as “Dreadful Dana” after he refuses to become a mascot for mega-corporation International Infotainment. Out for revenge, Chris decides to rampage across the city on his way to taking down evil CEO Dollar Bill, a soulless businessman with a head made of literal money.
In some ways, Hateful Chris was a game about Bourassa’s own pent-up frustrations: a playable rejection of the idea that he could be herded into a pre-chosen industry. Viewed through the lens of today’s game industry climate, it’s also hard not to see it as a presciently scathing indictment of the now-rampant clone culture. Ultimately, though, it was about a skeleton saving the world from an evil dollar bill. Released in June of 2001 as Hateful Chris: Never Say Buy, the game developed a loyal cult following and piqued the interest of Ubisoft, who hired both Bourassa and Fortier right after graduation.
Furnishing them with a full team, the massive publisher gave them the freedom to expand on their original game and take it to epic new heights. Their follow-up – slated for release on Sony’s PlayStation 2 – would feature a total 3D graphical overhaul, and centre around Dollar Bill’s plan to extend his commercial grasp to outer space. Dubbed Hateful Chris: Shoot the Moon, it was set to be Bourassa’s big debut in the industry. Then, in a move his own character could have seen coming from a mile away, Ubisoft canceled the game.
If Bourassa was deflated by the sudden shelving of his passion project, he certainly didn’t show it. Rather than rethink his career path (or go on an anti-capitalist rampage to Ubisoft’s headquarters), he doubled down on his desire to make a name for himself in the video game industry. As it turns out, though, leading a project like Hateful Chris had already done just that. After only a few months of searching for a position, he was hired on as Art Director at Digital Eclipse — a Vancouver studio that would soon be absorbed by none other than Backbone Entertainment.
In the fall of his first year at Backbone, Bourassa got to chatting with a newly hired designer over their mutual love of board games and fantasy role-playing games. It soon became apparent that they shared the same sense of drive and ambition, and a disdain for what Bourassa calls the “empty talk in our industry.” To top it all off, they were both avid poker players. This, he thought, was someone I could be friends with.
That designer’s name was Tyler Sigman.
Their names were Sguier, Ide, and Tournai. The first was once a renowned apothecary who had fallen into disgrace after trading in traditional remedies for his own unproven toxic concoctions. Ide was unlike any sister of the cloth I had ever laid eyes on; clad just as much for battle as for prayer and with shoulders as broad as my own, she appeared ready to rebuke and conquer evil in equal measure. As for the jester? No utterance ever passed her lips beyond that which she first cast in my direction.
Whether it was Sguier’s vigilant attention to my tankard – such that I never seemed able to find its end – or the rarely-witnessed air of drowsy contentment washing over Gideon as Tournai aimlessly scratched his ear, my mind felt immediately stiller. Each singular second without my beloved had contained within it a lifetime of torture, and yet the unassuming camaraderie of this most unlikely trio awoke in me a latent humanity I had left for dead within the final kiss laid upon her cheek. It was then, briefly free of both the demons of my past and the demons in my skull, that I agreed to venture with them into the twisting passageways deep below our feet.
After an interceding day spent gathering provisions and sharpening weaponry, we four convened at the furthest edge town, where the last vestiges of well-trod ground gave way to the endless trees beyond. I knew not why Tournai had marched us resolutely in the opposite direction of the very castle to whose underbelly we sought entrance. Yet before any among us could give voice to either confusion or consternation, she bounded wordlessly into the woods, shattering the silence with the cacophonous bowing of her fiddle.
Thrown into a frenzy, Gideon charged forth with reckless abandon, and I unthinkingly after him. Without time or wherewithal to light a torch, I ran into the blackness with only echoing notes to guide me. I strained to detect the faint crunch of mulch at my back – panicked that I alone may be at the mercy of the fool – and found myself caught suddenly on a wayward root. Hurtling forward, I lost all control over my limbs, and landed on the forest floor at Gideon’s feet. As I attempted to take momentary stock of my multitudinous pains, a fiery glow appeared directly above me.
Pulling me upward with one hand and bearing a torch with another was Ide. Next to her hunched a visibly exhausted Sguier, sputtering breathlessly. We had arrived, it seemed, in a small makeshift clearing, at the centre of which inexplicably stood Tournai. Once more seemingly attuned to our innermost thoughts, she quelled any questions with a lithe, exaggerated bow, drawing attention to a pile of mismatched stones on the ground. There was no doubt as to what they were covering.
Heaving together as Sguier sat limply against Gideon’s back, and Tournai danced frantically to orchestration of her own imagining, Ide and I cleared stone after stone to confirm what lay beneath: a staircase, subsumed in inky nothingness, of which only the first crumbling step could be made out in the moonlight. As the last brick was cleared, so too did our mad jester’s performance finish, as if she was a part of this hellish place — and it of her. Slowly, surely, one torch became four as we steeled ourselves and stared into the imperceptible depths. Slowly, surely, we descended each stair, a new one always seeming to take its place.
Slowly, surely, I was certain I could see the twilit forest fading behind us, as if someone was still up there, sealing us in.
“The bastard left a week before me!”
Tyler Sigman and I are still having coffee, the brief meeting we planned quickly stretching into its second hour. Animatedly, he’s recounting his exit from Backbone Entertainment, and the particularly nasty case of stolen thunder that went along with it.
After three years at the studio, Sigman and Bourassa – by then close friends who played regular games of poker outside of the office – both left in May of 2007. In Bourassa’s case, the next stop was Propaganda Games to work on art for Disney’s mature-themed high seas adventure Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned (“Yeah, Chris went and drew pirates for two years!” ribs Tyler). Meanwhile, Sigman had come a long way from the downtrodden designer whose résumé was never given the time of day. On the strength of the many projects he had led at Backbone, he founded Sigman Creative Services, offering design consultation for-hire. Almost immediately, he was snapped up to work exclusively on Sky Pirates of Neo Terra — a new project being developed in town that was essentially “Mario Kart but in the sky.”
In a testament to the fairweather meat grinder that is the game industry, both Sigman and Bourassa’s titles never saw the light of day. In Bourassa’s case, Disney’s high profile cancellation of Armada of the Damned and subsequent dismantling of the Propaganda team came a week before the birth of his first child. Understandably stung reflecting on a career punctuated by two major cancellations, he decided to hang up his own shingle as a freelance artist, managing to book consistent client work with the likes of Microsoft and EA. Sigman landed somewhat softer after the dust settled on Sky Pirates, transitioning from consultant to business partner at the game’s studio Big Sandwich.
“It was an idea for a game that would be ‘cruel, realistic, and rough.'”
And all the while, those poker nights continued. Often with a group of friends, sometimes just together, and always punctuated by many meet-ups in between (“We drink well together,” banters Bourassa), they quickly became an excuse for the duo to daydream about ways they could make something meaningful with one another.
“At one point we were going to do a webcomic, and we had even done some panels for it,” says Sigman, as if going through a mental checklist of he and Bourassa’s side projects. “And at one point we were going to do a choose-your-own-adventure style digital game book…essentially both of us would [have been] so sad if we never created something…we [were] neurotically driven to create.” However, try as they might, nothing ever seemed to have legs. The intense demands of their increasingly senior positions in the industry invariably seemed to be the hurdle against which all their ideas came up. Most of them were found wanting.
“The ideas we had tossed around were never quite resonant enough, and the the timing never really lined up,” summarizes Bourassa succinctly. Never, that is, until one night in 2011. Looking through my transcript of both interviews, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what night it was. Neither of the guys seem to know, themselves. What’s crystal clear, however, is what the idea was. Concocted by Bourassa, it had shades of all the seminal fantasy works that had inspired he and Sigman growing up. It was an idea for a game that would be “cruel, realistic, and rough. An RPG that wasn’t about the aspirational hero, but rather, the conventional one.”
A game called Darkest Dungeon.
To understand Darkest Dungeon, you need only think of Eye of the Beholder. You remember it, right? It was the game that left an indelible mark on Chris Bourassa — the game where you led four adventurers through tunnels possessed by untold evil. With Darkest Dungeon, however, Bourassa wanted to flip the script entirely. What if you were playing a game about the adventurers, and not the things they were hunting? Here’s how Sigman remembers it:
“You know, you’re playing your typical RPG. Your best fighter is down to one hit point. And you’re fighting a dragon and you’re just like, ‘click click, attack the dragon.’ And then it’s like ‘yes, you got him!’ or ‘oh dammit you missed!’ And [he] started thinking, ‘what’s it like for the fighter!?’ He’s thinking ‘I’m at one hit point. I’m almost dead.’ A lot of people would want to get the fuck out of there. [He] started thinking about, ‘what if he didn’t have complete agency.'”
The script had flipped on their hangouts, too. Sure, work commitments were there in the background, but it was becoming rapidly clear that everything else was now the distraction from Darkest Dungeon.
“The difference with this was, we had that night of brainstorming like many other nights, [but] then the next time we got together it was like ‘let’s talk a bit more about Darkest Dungeon…'” says Sigman. “And the next time it was like ‘you know what else we could do in Darkest Dungeon!?'” Over the course of the next two years, the pair became consumed with the idea of making the game a reality, and were looking more hawkishly than ever for the right moment.
In May of 2013, that moment came.
“We finally basically had a ‘down’ [moment] at the same time…moments where we could extricate ourselves from our current situations…” says Sigman. “And so we had to actually look each other in the eye and be like, ‘is this the time? Let’s do it.’ And you know we had talked about it leading up to that point but we knew that very quickly we’re going to be elsewhere again. Each us were [sic] getting recruited and we needed to make a living and so it was like, ‘this is our shot. Time to do this together.'”
Once they left their jobs and shifted focus to Darkest Dungeon exclusively, things started moving lightning-fast. Building on the strong suite of initial concepts they had come up with, Sigman started to workshop ways to build game mechanics that could rip that control from the players and dive deep into the mental state of each adventurer while still keeping things fun. Meanwhile, Bourassa created ideas for an art style that would be resonant of everything from Dürer illustrations (medieval woodcuttings) to the unapologetically black comic art of Viktor Kalvachev. They even brought on a programmer to start fitting the puzzle pieces together in order to make sure the world that had been been inside their head for two years could come to life on a computer.
Another one of those puzzle pieces was marketing. Sigman and Bourassa had been around the industry too long and been attached to too many failed projects to operate under the delusion that building a good game alone would impress anyone. On this point, Sigman in particular is unapologetic.
“It’s not very popular in today’s indie circles, but [we] always wanted the home run that [was] incredibly fulfilling, critically well received, and commercially well received. And the commercial [was] an important part of that. I think…you ask most creators, ‘do you want this to be sustainable?’ then they’d say ‘absolutely!’ But if you say ‘do you want to make a bunch of money,’ they say ‘no I just want to be able to keep doing what I’m doing.’ Well, how do you think you do that?”
They set about doing that by ensuring that they had a production-quality “story trailer” for the game ready as soon as humanly possible. Debuting in October of 2013 – just six months after setting out on their own – the “Darkest Dungeon: Terror and Madness” video showcased the project’s most exciting visuals and gameplay elements, all set to an unrelenting piano score and the goosebump-inducing narration of Wayne June. Spreading it throughout their extensive network resulted in coverage of the trailer’s release on major gaming websites, netting it tens of thousands of views almost immediately.
One of those views was that of Jamie Cheng, founder and owner of Vancouver indie mainstay Klei Entertainment. Excited about the prospect of getting in at the ground floor of Darkest Dungeon‘s development, Cheng offered Sigman and Bourassa a small loan — something he’s been known to do for local projects that inspire him. With a portion of the game’s development costs taken care of, and electric excitement surrounding the initial trailer, the guys knew exactly where to go next: Kickstarter.
Putting their faith in the idea that fantasy fans and role-playing enthusiasts would be as invested as they were in the world of Darkest Dungeon, they launched the game’s crowd-funding effort in February of 2014. Pitched under their new studio label Red Hook (naturally named after an eerie H.P. Lovecraft story), Sigman and Bourassa were asking for $75,000 to build the most basic version of the game. Here, Sigman remembers being exceptionally nervous.
“Kickstarter was very important. We talked a lot about, ‘if we Kickstart, and we put our best foot forward on Kickstarter and it doesn’t fund…'” he trails off. Unthinkingly, I finish his sentence with a doomsday scenario.
“Let’s just cancel?” With no irony in his voice, he fires back.
I remember all of their deaths. I watched them happen.
Ide’s strength was paradoxically her undoing. The first time we encountered the rotters, no one could accept it. The skeletal frames of men and women draped with rotting flesh and moving as they would have in life. It was Ide who was unflinching. Unquestioning not only in her surety of their existence, but in her power and purpose. Reciting holy psalms in tongues unrecognizable and brandishing her mace with righteous fury, she reduced each reanimated corpse to dust. She kept us alive. At first.
What began as pious protection turned quickly to zealotous paranoia. She passed judgement until all that passed through her was judgement. It became harder and harder for her to render distinct in her mind the faces of a rotter and a human. When Sguier was paid in kind with an arm full of shattered bones for suggesting we rest and “committing the sin of sloth,” he offered to pay penance by mixing her a more potent vial of holy water — all she would let flow through her by then. When she drank deep, we didn’t stop her.
I will never forget the screams as Sguier went blind. Sitting at that table in the inn, it had been so simple to convince myself of the man’s self-interest. The “plague doctor” they whispered, thinking only of the gold that lined his pocket as he pawned off poisons as cure-alls to feeble minds. And doubtless, he did not deny the visions of glittering citrine dancing in his head as we probed deeper and deeper into the tunnels. O, but what purity lay beneath his carefully hewn image.
This man, content to sacrifice standing and stature to finance a search for his daughter’s cure. This man, manufacturing the image of a charlatan to divert ill-gotten gains to the mixing of genuine medicines. This man, who saw no way out for himself when ambushed by rotters, but who never the less exhausted his supply of noxious gas to ensure our escape. The last thing Sguier must have seen before he died was the melting of his own eyes within his skull.
Like a leech with limitless appetite, this place drained from us all that we were, leaving in its wake all that it wanted us to be. For Turnai, that was perhaps the most painful transformation of all. Everything she did was in jest, but once she had been ingested by these catacombs, the unspeakable forces within sought to find out what jest they could do to her. I often found her juggling spikes bare-palmed or contorting her limbs until something cracked. I sought in vain to convince her that there was no audience to impress. We both understood that to be wrong. I woke up covered in her blood. The walls had demanded a concert, but poor Tournai, she had broken her fiddle strings.
They had her play her vocal cords instead.
Thankfully, the disaster Sigman was worried about never materialized. By playing the long game, he and Bourassa came to Kickstarter looking less like panhandlers, and a lot more like friends you trust asking for some help. In breaking things down for me, Sigman chalks it up a few key pillars: clear targets, a modest budget, and a day one deluge of their friends and colleagues with reminders. Even still, they couldn’t possibly have imagined just how well their strategy was going to work. In specific? Darkest Dungeon raised all $75,000 in less than 24 hours.
It’s easy to see how preparedness played a huge role in that. Invariably, though, so did genuine innovation. In an industry where this is just a buzz phrase, Darkest Dungeon was genuinely something no one had done before. Bourassa’s initial kernel – focus on the sword-arm and not the sword – had materialized as the fascinating “affliction” system. In addition to taking standard damage from enemies, each of the four playable adventurers would suffer unavoidable stress over time, and succumb to everything from paranoia to masochism. They’d start doling out damage to friendly characters or refusing to accept a healing potion.
More boldly, Sigman’s desire to tamper with player agency wasn’t just lip service. Permanent death meant players would have to treat each health point as precious and strategize during battle lest they have to recruit an entirely new party. Constant saving also meant game data was being overwritten all the time — every action was permanent. The elevator pitch was dead simple and wholly true: Darkest Dungeon was the first role-playing game about the psychological stresses of adventuring.
For Bourassa, Kickstarter launch day was far less about playing armchair psychologist, however, than it was about completely and totally freaking out.
“I didn’t stand up for about 16 hours once the campaign launched!” writes Bourassa. “I was glued to my computer screen, just blown away at how quickly the number was rising. The team was all working from home that day, so we set up a Google Hangout, and were emailing everyone we knew like maniacs, and basically freaking out together. It was a rush, knowing that our concept and hard work leading up to the campaign’s launch had found an audience and was being validated right in front of our eyes.”
By the time funding closed on March 13th, 2014, Darkest Dungeon had raised $313, 337 from nearly 10,000 interested backers. New dungeons, new locations, new costumes and bonus content. Practically every “what if” idea that Red Hook had included as a stretch goal would now become a reality for fans. Of course, Tyler Sigman couldn’t help but play the devil’s advocate.
“That was our last sort of checkpoint where it was like, ‘once we’re past this, we’re committed. We’re going to finish this game. There’s no scenario where we’re not going to finish this game.’ … [We were] really, now, obligated. [We had] to finish or die trying.”
In the time since Darkest Dungeon was successfully funded, Red Hook studios has continued their streak as something of an anomaly in the industry. After just a year of heads-down development with an expanded team of former industry colleagues, Sigman and Bourassa decided to release the game on Valve’s Steam service as a part of their “Early Access” program. With Early Access, players get to buy and download games while developers are still in the middle of creating them, and are guaranteed a final copy upon release. The rub? Developers are under no obligation to finish the game at all, and many don’t, giving the service a very mixed reputation.
Darkest Dungeon, however, has been furnished with regular updates since its February 2015 debut, including the addition of promised features, new character classes, and a constant stream of behind-the-scenes tweaks, all en route to its official launch in October of 2015. The result, Sigman confirms, is something in the neighbourhood of 400,000 early access copies sold. And it’s numbers like that which have made it easy to confuse Sigman and Bourassa’s journey for a Cinderella story.
“We’ve had people say, “well, you knew it was going to do amazingly!” … [but]…we didn’t.” Sigman and I are winding down, and I ask about whether or not Darkest Dungeon is a metaphor for game development in any way — for the mental toll that crunch time, and game cancellation, and crises of identity all take on the people creating the art we enjoy. He’s insistent that the game is not a social statement piece, but acknowledges that it’s hard not to see some parallels.
“It’s a way to discuss the reality [of] people — we get stressed out and these are our lives.”
“There [were] just so many sleepless nights, just wondering if [it was] all going to work it. Like your adventurers in the dungeon…our stress levels would ebb and flow. [There were] many afflictions within the team [and] we got to a point where, especially Chris and I, would call it that…especially about each other. We’d [say], ‘remember, you were afflicted yesterday, how are you feeling today?’ It’s a way to discuss the reality [of] people — we get stressed out and these are our lives.”
In both of my interviews, I find myself hesitant to ask about what the biggest afflictions were for both Sigman and Bourassa. When I do, however, they’re both astoundingly open.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve struggled with is the demands of fatherhood in the context of a 65 [hour] work week,” reflects Bourassa of his own situation. “In hindsight, I would not recommend kicking off your own indie game with a small child in the mix. Nor would I recommend having a second child halfway through development! But, like Darkest Dungeon, you have to make the best of an imperfect situation…the creative output and sheer number of working hours required for an undertaking like Darkest Dungeon is exceptionally draining over the long term, but throw in [two] kids and I find myself without any real opportunity for recovery; spare moments must be spent making up lost time with the family. I also struggle with…guilt from witnessing the extra effort my wife has to put in, all in the name of my dream.”
For Sigman, the answer comes later, well after we’ve finished our interview and parted ways. Reading a follow-up e-mail he sends me some time after, it’s impossible to remain dispassionate.
“During your interview, you asked about some of the bumps during [Darkest Dungeon’s] development. There were many, but there is one I didn’t feel like talking about at the time … We launched [on] Early Access on Feb 3rd, 2015 and the game was off to the races, hitting #1 on Steam and basically staying there for a week before getting displaced … Then, on March 10th, my father died.
“Talk about going from a highest high to a lowest low right after one another. It’s still very fresh. But if anything can quickly bring you back to Earth after the elation of a successful launch, it’s that. My dad and I were very close and I’m obviously still dealing with the effects of it and it certainly doesn’t make finishing the game at this point easy. Fortunately we have a great team and [Darkest Dungeon] is great fun to work on because we truly love it. But I definitely am looking forward to some extended recovery time after we finish.”
After reading both Sigman and Bourassa’s e-mails, and poring over the audio transcripts, I’m left with a little bit of analysis paralysis as I sit thinking about the totality of their journey. Of how they changed, what they accomplished, and everything they faced along the way. Then I remember a kernel of something Sigman said as we chatted about Darkest Dungeon. That’s when everything clicks.
“Chris and I love poker – [and] everyone’s “bad beat” story is, ‘I had the good hand, I made the right decision, I lost.’ Often that involves the old, ‘I had pocket aces, I got him to push all in, I had him right where I wanted, and he drew out and won. That’s such bullshit!’ But [that’s] adversity … just because you lost the hand, doesn’t mean you made the wrong decision. [And] if you played optimally, it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to win.”
“Bray. My sweet, sweet Bray.”
It was her voice. Emilia’s voice. I had not opened my eyes in days. Of Gideon’s fate I only knew from the smell. Left alone – truly alone – I had been powerless to withstand the total erosion of my sanity — the wholesale absorption of my last shreds of self into the walls. The walls. Even with no torches, no vision, I could see them undulating. Hear them laughing derisively. Smell them dripping with blood.
O but that voice. For all its sure falsity and pure trickery there was no power in me left to resist it. Giving myself over to it in whatever form it may have existed, I expended what little energy I had left to force my eyelids upward. As my blurred sight adjusted to the all-encompassing black, I saw them. Rotters. No. No, not rotters. How could this be!?
Towering over me with the frames of bone and faces of flesh were Ide, Sguier, and Tournai. Melting eyes, severed vocal cords, poison-stricken palor — all gone. In their place were massive gaping grins, growing ever wider. Wider still, until the skin slowly split from their cheeks, exposing teeth and gums and blood besides. They stood, all of them, simply stood. Then, they spoke. In unison and with her voice.
“Why Bray? Why did you do it, Bray? Had I become a burden?”
I reached, and clawed, and fought to find the part of me that saw her slip sweetly away. I struggled with all that I had to remember the kiss I had laid upon her cheek. But those memories were gone. All that remained now were my hands around her neck — the colour slowly draining from her face. Had…had I done this!? I asked, and I begged, and I pleaded with myself until the very question no longer made sense. Had I done this!? Had I done this!?
I had done this.
My affliction took hold as I mercifully loosed my grasp on her. Where my darling’s suffering was of bone and body, however, my pain saw fit to burrow deeper — a consumption of the mind. An unwavering, implacable certainty that when I had taken my love from this world, it had crawled into me from the eldritch beyond…
And brought me to the Darkest Dungeon.
“[He] was satisfied to let his notions remain as half-spied and forbidden visions to be lightly played with…hysteria came only when duty flung him into a hell of revelation too sudden and insidious to escape.”
– H.P. Lovecraft, The Horror at Red Hook