- Darkest Dungeon Interview: An Interview with Chris Bourassa - June 18, 2023
Darkest Dungeon 2 is the long-awaited sequel to the highly acclaimed first game, Darkest Dungeon. With so many fans enjoying the first one, the hype and, excitement for the next entry in the series had been very high.
However, many have been curious and slightly worried about the game’s sequel, as Darkest Dungeon 2 has taken the game from its original gameplay style to a more rogue-like inspired gameplay loop.
Many fans have wondered why Red Hook Studio decided to take the game in this direction, among many other questions from the community. Thankfully, we managed to get an interview with co-founder and lead art director Chris Bourassa to answer this question alongside many others.
This interview with Chris gave us a better understanding and the ability to peek behind the curtain to fully understand why the team decided to take the game in this direction and discuss the difficulties and challenges they faced during the sequel’s development.
Furthermore, Chris enlightened us about some aspects the team enjoyed during their time on the series and even explained how they managed to get legendary voice actor Wayne June to narrate the games.
We talked about many things, and it was a genuinely fantastic chat, so without further ado, grab a coffee, tea, or whatever you want, and let’s start with our interview with Chris Bourassa.
A Sharp Sword & a Stronger Chat
Question 1: How would you best describe what Darkest Dungeon is to people who have never played any game from the series?
Answer: Well, Darkest Dungeon is a gothic turn-based RPG. It’s uncompromising. We punish bad decisions in the game, so people can find it quite difficult and frustrating, which is part of its charm.
Dark Dungeon 2 is a rogue-lite in its structure, where you do repeated runs with the same party and work through five-story bosses, upgrading things along the way and struggling to survive.
The entire hook of the franchise is about the mental toll that adventuring would theoretically take. It would be stressful if you spent all your days killing, trying to find food, and surviving.
Question 2: What is your background in gaming, and where did you get the idea to start Red Hook Studio?
Answer: Well, I did an animation degree 20-plus years ago, and I didn’t like animating, but I always loved drawing and doing textures and models.
So I finished my programming degree and had to look for a job. But I pitched a small platformer game to a studio and got a job with them, which worked out.
I’ve been working in the industry for about 15 to 16 years, just in different capacities in the game industry.
I got a job here as an artist; I got a job over here as a lead artist, the art director, and so on. I spent a year working on a cartoon show to try it and freelanced for about two years, just doing stuff for games, workshops, and commission-based work.
During that time, I met Tyler Sigman, who became a good friend of mine, and we talked about maybe doing something together.
Then, after talking one day, everything just lined up. I had just gotten a decent tax return, so if I was ever going to try anything on my own, now was the time. I already had one kid, so it would be unrealistic to try anything risky at that point in five or ten years, so it was more or less now or never.
We just dove in on the idea and did a mock gameplay slash teaser trailer and put that on YouTube first to see if there was any interest in what we were planning on doing because we were both in our mid-thirties and lived in a position where we were going to have to sacrifice everything we’d earned in our careers if we wanted to give this a proper shot.
We didn’t have any financial investments. So, we just moved through stages with the game. We did the YouTube trailer. Then we tried to build anticipation for a Kickstarter campaign, which went well.
So with each stage, we gained a little confidence that Darkest Dungeon, the first game, would find an audience. But it was pretty scary. I was down to my last 5,000 bucks when we launched the game.
From a personal perspective, that’s terrifying when you have a mortgage and everything else. But we managed to get it over the finish line, and it worked well.
Question 3: What made you want to change the gameplay loop from Darkest Dungeon 1, as the change is quite drastic?
Answer: We’ve been getting this question a bit, and we knew the change would be controversial or unconventional. But there are a couple of reasons. First, we spent five years on Darkest Dungeon, including DLC and expansions.
So creatively, we just wanted to do something different. We still loved the IP and wanted to do more in that world with those characters.
However, we were starting to get a little burnt out creatively, and as a studio, we try never to do anything that we don’t have a genuine creative desire to do because I think that if you’re not excited about making the game, it can feel like a drag.
Likewise, chances are that if it feels like a drag to make, then odds are, when people play it, the game may feel like a drag to get through.
I believe that there’s some truth to that. So we wanted to be excited about what we were making. Having done the sort of XCOM adjacent base building giant roster type of game, we just thought, what would be an exciting twist on this? After many ideas, we got enamored with the idea of this road trip style.
I’ve been on a couple of road trips during my time. They’re always crazy; the couple you start with always breaks up. There are always these kinds of dramas and adventures that can happen that you didn’t expect.
So we got attached to that idea. The second reason was that whilst the first Darkest Dungeon was well-regarded, and I’m very grateful for that. One of the game’s biggest criticisms, and I think it’s fair, is that the middle section is too long.
It takes too long to beat that game. The middle section, specifically, is a real slog.
During development, looking back, we made many choices in Darkest Dungeon 1 that make it worse from a game-dragging viewpoint, where you need top-level adventurers to go into the Darkest Dungeon, and once you use that party, they’ll never go back. If you die, you wipe and lose all your gear and trinkets.
So the middle part of the game was a real grind, and I think the game was great for what it was.
But we felt like we could improve and try to condense the experience a little bit so you get the interest and excitement of the pre-planning, the beginning, and then you get the payoff of the end game without this massive 50-hour slog in the middle where you’re just leveling 30 characters up.
Question 4: What was the most challenging part of developing Darkest Dungeon 2?
Answer: Certainly, the starting process brings a lot of logistical challenges. We were five people in the first game, so communicating was easy as everything was out in the open.
However, for Darkest Dungeon 2, the communication side of things is a lot more complicated. Our final tally for the game’s development was 26 to 28 people.
So, that brings management overhead that can be tough to deal with. Sometimes the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.
However, another problem was switching to the 3D pipeline graphic engine, as it was a big challenge and investment. We had to rebuild the game entirely because we used our own engine the first time, and we’re using Unity now.
But the payoff is that the visual effects and the animations are more sophisticated, and it’s a reinvigoration of the art style from the first game.
Question 5: How important is the help from the community, and how big of a part does the community play in Darkest Dungeon?
Answer: It’s a really big part; that’s what early access is all about. This is our second time doing early access. From a developer’s viewpoint, we weren’t afraid to take the community’s feedback and criticisms of the second game at face value.
We spent over a year and a half in early access on the Epic Games store and did significant surgery to the game. We replaced the progression system; we did a massive update to the relationship system.
We did a huge pass on the driving for the traversal. So a lot of that stuff, all the way down to the granular balance details, is informed by the community, so we try to engage with them as much as possible.
We have a Discord, and it’s a pretty positive place; we even have a feedback channel for the community to let us know what they like and dislike.
We get thousands and thousands of feedback messages, but they’re all phrased pretty respectfully; we scrub through that stuff all the time, and we keep our eye on discourse on Reddit and social media.
We’re always trying to provide outreach for the community, and you can see in our patch notes that when something was taken directly from a community member, we put a little icon next to it on the patch notes just to show people this was one of their ideas. We think that is pretty cool.
Question 6: From a developer’s viewpoint, What’s been something you’ve enjoyed working on the most while developing the new game?
Answer: I always like doing the monster and boss designs. It’s my favorite thing; drawing all the crazy, grotesque enemies is always fun. But I think, honestly, the thing I’m most proud of personally on the game is probably all the script for the game.
I’m an art guy, so I love the art, but I think writing five parts of stories for each hero and then the overarching narrative was a big task, and I’m pretty happy with how that turned out.
Question 7: How challenging is it to design and implement gameplay factors like the stress system and so on from a developer’s viewpoint?
Answer: It’s a fine line. So Darkest Dungeon as a series is nasty because when you win, you feel something because if the game is easy throughout the entire playthrough, it won’t feel any different or rewarding.
So you can’t get the highs without the lows. I’ve been watching many streamers play the game, and they get tilted in rage when they lose and die to a specific boss.
However, when the same streamer beats that boss, they’re shaking, they’re all excited, and you can’t get to that emotional place without some hardship. So that’s the line we want to walk, and it’s not easy, and there’s no silver bullet science behind it.
Question 8: What would you say was one of the most important things you learned when developing the first game that you brought into Darkest Dungeon 2?
Answer: The most important thing we learned goes back to your community question. If we’re going to make changes or introduce important features, even if the game is known to be in an early access state, big changes can be jarring and annoying.
In fact, we learned this from the first game, as sometimes we would add significant changes to the game, which could cause a bit of an uproar in the community.
From that experience, we realized we had to announce upcoming changes. We have to put them in a beta branch and invite players into that beta branch to ensure it’s an optimal experience.
From there, we have to refine it, get everybody used to it a little bit, and then roll it out live so that people who have had experience with those features can be our evangelists when the new features do go live. In places like Reddit or Discord, and say, no, it’s not that; this is what they’re trying to do. It works, trust me.
Question 9: My final question for the interview is, is there anything you want to say to the fans listening or reading?
Answer: I want to thank you so much for the support and for showing up. Hopefully, you’ve failed more than a few times when playing the game as designed.
The team was very excited, and it was a powerful moment on launch day to see such a great Twitch viewership and see people reacting positively on social media.
That’s very validating from the developer’s viewpoint. To end on a positive note, we’re just getting started with Darkest Dungeon 2. It’s entering a new development phase for the game, and we’re looking forward to taking it some places.
Question: What Platform is Darkest Dungeon 2 Available on One?
Answer: Darkest Dungeon 2 is currently only available on PC. However, the game will arrive on PlayStation, Xbox, and the Nintendo Switch soon.
Question: Do You Need to Play the First Game before Diving Into Darkest Dungeon 2?
Answer: While the game follows beloved characters from the first title, you don’t need to play the first game. However, it can give you a better idea of the characters and such, but no, you do not need to.
Question: Is Darkest Dungeon 2 as Long as the First Game?
Answer: The answer to this question is no. In fact, Chris himself stated cutting down the grind and fat not needed was a big part of the development they wanted to do for Darkest Dungeon 2.
And that Ends the Interview!
That wraps up the great chat I had with Chris Bourassa to talk about Darkest Dungeon 2 and get insight into some of the things I know myself and many others wanted to know about the game behind the scenes.
Don’t forget to watch the video, as there were some questions we left out as we couldn’t fit them all on the blog, and you definitely will wanna hear the question in more detail being Answered By Chris.
Thanks for reading RPG Informer. Darkest Dungeon 2 Steam page link: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1940340/Darkest_Dungeon_II/
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