Interview with Chris Bourassa, co-founder of Red Hook Studios and Creative Director of Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon is one of the most original and innovative dark RPGs ever. The addictive gameplay, the incredible art-style and the horror elements, created the perfect formula for a game that defined a new genre. As the name suggests, this is a really dark RPG, with strong horror components rooted in an unforgiving and complex system. Permanent death, mental and physical diseases, balance of light and darkness, Darkest Dungeon really knows how to perfectly integrate horror elements into a modern RPG. Worth also to specify that the world of Darkest Dungeon is one of the most original dark fantasy settings, from every abomination lurking in the darkness to the original classes.

With the recent announcement of Darkest Dungeon 2, the series is back to bring horror and despair upon the players. I had the opportunity to chat with Chris Bourassa, co-founder of Red Hook Studios and creative director of Darkest Dungeon. With more than 14 years of experience as art director and concept artist for several videogames, series and also pen-and-paper games, Chris is not only co-creator of Darkest Dungeon, but also the main artist behind the distinctive art-style of the game.

His answers provide information on how Darkest Dungeon was born, about his art-style, and also some details about a very interesting unreleased creature (which I really hope to see in the sequel). If you are like me, craving for news regarding the sequel, the following interview is the perfect reason to dig even more in the lore and the secrets of Darkest Dungeon.

Q1: I would like to thank you for the opportunity of interacting with you. Darkest Dungeon (DD) became in the last year a new reference for dark RPGs, with many games inspired by its art-style and mechanics. How the idea of Darkest Dungeon was born?

A1: Darkest Dungeon began as a series of loose sketches I would chip away at on my bus rides.  It struck me that that power in games is represented primarily through more and more elaborate gear.  However, in reality, it’s the willingness to fight, rather than the rarity of the sword that is the mark of a hero. Tyler Sigman and I sought to explore a more subversive take on the traditional RPG tropes – one that embraced the idea that heroes are human – have flaws, weaknesses, and shortcomings.

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Q2: The gorgeous art-style of DD is also something that contributed to the mainstream success of the game, something really unique that now defines a new style by itself (often you can read around “Darkest Dungeon style”). Why did you decide to use this particular art-style to portray the world of DD? Which are the main influences in your style?

A2: I had spent many years working in a variety of styles, generally more painterly.  However, I decided Darkest Dungeon needed a look that would reinforce its central themes.  Hard edges reflect the uncompromising choices a player is faced with, and the pooling black suggest ever encroaching disaster. I looked at a lot of illuminated manuscripts, medieval woodcuts, and modern comics including Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and Guy Davis’ The Marquis.  The latter being my favourite graphic novel of all time! All of these ideas and influences helped me craft a style that was morbid, but iconic.  I like to think that despite the subject matter, there’s still some ‘fun’ injected into the work.

Q3: There are many interesting references inside DD, but personally I love how you integrated in an original and personal way concepts from Lovecraft in the world of DD. Why did you choose Lovecraft’s myths as one of the main references for DD? Was there something “Lovecraftian”, such a tale or a setting, that you truly wanted to introduce, but at the end you were not able to?

A3: What appealed to us most was cosmic horror.  We didn’t want to make a Lovecraftian game, we wanted to make our own dark corner of the earth, and work with Lovecraftian themes like the cosmic insignificance of man.  I will confess that the story ‘Rats in the Walls’ was a touchstone for the narrative set up of the game, but we consciously avoided established nomenclature and specific creatures/references from Lovecraft.  By this time, all the DLC has come out, and I can’t say that we left much on the cutting room floor!

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Q4: DD implements several mechanics maybe more common in horror games, from sanity, to light/darkness management and permanent death. Why did you implement these features into DD? How these mechanics are integrated into the world you created?

A4: It was important that our game feel like high stakes poker – the player is playing with her best characters, each of whom represent a certain amount of time investment.  Permadeath in this context helps increase the tension and player engagement. Other mechanics, light torchlight help sell the feeling of dread and pressure – crucial to creating a good horror experience.

Q5: Fantasy RPGs are often quite standardized and can be easily full of stereotypes, especially regarding the heroes/classes. However, when the majority of the games have the Mage and the Paladin, Darkest Dungeon was really able to create unique and interesting classes, such as the Plague Doctor, the Grave Robber or the Hound Master. How did you came up with the idea to go far from the standard fantasy stereotypes? 

A5: Establish tropes carry a lot of expectation with them from audiences – that’s part of their appeal.  However, it can create dissonance when those expectations aren’t met. We explicitly decided to avoid standard RPG nomenclature and character classes wherever possible – the tropes themselves can really box in creative thinking.  If I tell you we have a Rogue in our game, but that the Rogue can’t turn invisible, doesn’t backstab, and has a pistol instead of dual daggers, your response would probably be “…that’s not a great Rogue.” But, if I tell you it’s a Highwayman, suddenly, as a creator, I’m free to dictate what makes this character cool, unconstrained by your expectations.  Additionally, the sense of discovery a player experiences as they learn about these new character classes is an engaging and refreshing journey!

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Q6: Still regarding the heroes/classes, which is your favourite hero and why?

A6: I like them all 🙂

I think I identify most with the Highwayman – something about the practical jack-of-all-trades brawler appeals to me.  I referenced The Shadow when coming up with his design, and I like the mystery that the bandanna brings. That said, the Leper and Plague Doc were milestones for us in terms of how we thought about our classes. 

Q7: DD was one of the finest example of a good use of the Early Access (EA). For the fans that didn’t follow the game since EA, what was the mechanic that changed the most from EA to the final release?

A7: Enemy corpses and skill/trinket balance are the things that changed most throughout our stint in Early Access.  Obviously, we added a ton of content as well, but as far as gameplay-oriented changes, those were the big ones.

Q8: DD is famous to be a challenging and unforgiving game, with a deep system difficult to master. Did you have some challenges yourself while testing the game?

A8: The biggest challenge we faced was getting the actual game finished!  Our team was small, and everyone worked extremely hard. There were periods of elation, periods of despair.  We had children born, and loved ones pass away. It was an intense, exhausting, and profoundly rewarding time in our lives.  We even began referring to our current state of mind in game terms, admitting when we were stressed, ‘afflicted’, or celebrating when someone over delivered by telling them they passed their stress-check!

Q9: DD is a unique game also for the design of the enemies. From the Collector to the Swine Prince, each boss battle is unique and interesting both for design and mechanics. How did you create these creatures and what inspired you the most during the process? Was there a creature you really wanted to introduce, but at the end was cut-out from the final release?

A9: The monsters and bosses were great fun to design and draw.  Often times they were built ‘theme-first’ – that is, the Hag and her pot was such a great visual that we figured out how to make the mechanics work after the fact [Figure Below].

I had an idea for a schoolteacher whose classroom was full of desiccated corpses tied to their chairs.  If you let him complete the lesson, he’d drive you mad. It was a cool idea. Actually now that I think about it, maybe we’ll put that in the sequel!

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Final Remarks

I would really like to thank Chris for his courtesy and kindness. It was really interesting to discover the complex processes behind the developing of such important game, and I am sure that fans of dark RPGs will appreciate too. As many others, I am really looking forward to discover which new classes and terrible abominations will be available in Darkest Dungeon. While waiting for the sequel, I suggest to the readers to try Darkest Dungeon, which is available for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, PlayStation Vita, and Xbox One.

Interview with ” The Game Kitchen”, the Spanish team behind the dark metroidvania Blasphemous

 

Blasphemous was one of the most successful Kickstarter’s campaigns, and one of the most awaited indie game of 2019. The gorgeous and detailed pixel-art caught almost instantaneously the attention of the press and the players, but there is a lot more in Blasphemous‘s world other than the graphic. The game is a really dark and gruesome RPG metroid-vania, with a strong horror background, especially for the grotesque enemy design. The world of Cvstodia, land where Blasphemous is set, is directly influenced by Catholic religion, creating a unique, twisted and disturbing atmosphere, where religion meets horror.

The Game Kitchen is the brilliant Spanish studio behind Blasphemous, previous authors of the horror point and click saga of The Last Door. Using as inspiration traditions and celebrations from Spain, this independent studio was able to create a really unique and dark world, and one of the most mature and original metroid-vania ever created.

I had the possibility to ask some questions abut Blasphemous to the Game Kitchen. In the following interview, you will find details on how the world of Blasphemous and its creatures were created, the traditional influences of the team, and what are the future plans for the game. If you want to know more about Blasphemous, I hope you will enjoy the following interview.

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Q1: Thank you for your time and for the opportunity. Blasphemous looks a really promising game, with an interesting and unique setting. As an action-platform, Blasphemous is very different from your previous titles, the horror point and click adventure saga of The Last Door. How the idea behind Blasphemous was born?

A1: (Enrique Cabeza) Sorry for my English in advance. After The Last Door we needed to lay the foundations for a new project and after a lot of testing we felt that the next game should be different and could attract a wider range of players but, more importantly, that the game would be very attractive to ourselves as developers. At that time the team was extremely small and the project was going to have a minimal budget, but after the Kickstarter campaign, everything changed and we were able to increase the size of the team and the budget considerably. In addition, the success of the Kickstarter campaign indicated that the game was attractive enough and that we were heading in the right direction.

Q2; Which are the biggest influences for the design, the lore and the gameplay of Blasphemous?

A2: Well, gameplay influences come from games like Castlevania, Strider, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Metroid, Dark Souls or Devil May Cry. We wanted to mix Hack&Slash combat styles and progression and exploration of the metroid-vania genre. In terms of lore we have followed the heritage of the Souls saga format that we love so much, but really the stories are inspired by legends of our city Seville of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and mystical religious writers such as Santa Teresa, Gonzalo de Berceo or San Juan de la Cruz. 

Q3: What was the most challenging part of the developing?

A3: From my point of view, the most challenging thing has been to unite the artistic part of the game with the combat design with the giant bosses. That’s probably what caused us the most nightmares. We’ve learned a lot about how not to do some things.

Q4: Spanish traditions, folklore and culture seems to have an interesting influence in the world of Blasphemous. How much Spanish traditions influenced the world of Blasphemous? Could you make some examples?

A4: We realized that our own city, Seville, was full of interesting and unique elements that could serve to create our own dark fantasy. The cultural richness of the city is enormous from the artistic, architectural and historical point of view, so we felt that we were doing an honest job and our own. 

For example, one of the Spanish painters whose works have influenced us the most is Francisco de Goya because he has a series of dark and macabre paintings whose atmosphere fell in love with us and that fit perfectly into the tone of the game we wanted to create. Seville is full of religious art with hundreds of years of antiquity. One of its most important traditions is Holy Week which is truly spectacular. Really, all these works and traditions are not lived here as something merely religious, but it is something cultural and traditional, and a part of our DNA.

Q5: From the title to the world itself, Blasphemous clearly integrates religious figures and symbolism, for example Michelangelo’s Pietà for one of the first bosses [Figure 1]. How did you integrate religious topics in a horror environment?

A5: Much of the religious art, especially that of Andalusia, in southern Spain, is very dark and gloomy. Seville is full of religious iconography that represents suffering and tragedy in a unique way. I think it was a good decision to inspire the art of the game in all this art and heritage of southern Spain.

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Figure 1: Boss inspired by “La Pietà” of Michelangelo

Q6: I am a personal fan of the creature design of Blasphemous, especially one of the bosses: a gigantic blindfolded child lifted by a humanoid dark creature [Figure 2]. The design is really terrifying and unique, is this boss still part of the game? Could you provide some details maybe about the background or the battle against this creepy foe?

A6: We don’t want to give many clues about it because inside the game the players will be able to find a lot of information about all the characters and the world of Cvstodia. We think it’s better for players to find and discuss the whole lore of the game. We have published a two hundred page art book explaining the artistic influences and creative processes that have given rise to all the creatures and characters in the game. I hope you find it interesting!

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Figure 2: One of the most creepy and disturbing bosses of Blasphemous

Q7: Let’s continue to talk about the unique creature design of Blasphemous. Which is your favourite monster or boss so far? Why?

A7: I think Crisanta is one of my favourite bosses, the design of her armour is very iconic, also the girl climbed to the giant is one of my favourite enemies and has turned out to be one of the most shocking for players, is inspired by one of the most important Spanish paintings in history and the universal painting ‘Las Meninas’ [Figure 3]. One of my favourite characters is Desamparados, the woman in the painting that appears in the Blasphemous comic “El Arrodillamiento”, which is published in Steam, I think is one of the characters I enjoyed most designing and writing.

Q8: How are you balancing the difficulty of Blasphemous? Will it be more difficulty levels or maybe a New Game+, in the way of Souls game for example?

A8: Yeah, there’s a New Game+ on the way. The balancing in the games is something very difficult to achieve and I think the gameplay designers of Blasphemous have done a tremendous job. Hopefully we can even improve this aspect in future updates with the help of the community.

Q9:  The world of Blasphemous looks a really interesting place to explore. How much focus will be on the exploration and on the search for secrets? Just to have an averaged idea, how big will be the map in terms of hours to be fully explored?

A9: It’s complicated to say. I think we’ve introduced a lot of rooms to explore and secrets to discover with the budget we had. There are players who complete the game after thirty hours and others much earlier.  However, we have plans to add more and more content to the game which we hope players find very satisfying.

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Figure 3: Artwork of the creature inspire by “Las Meninas”

Q10: My obvious last question will be about the future of the game. Are you planning to support the game after lunch, with DLCs for example?

A10: Yes!! We are already working on new game content as well as correcting and improving existing aspects of the game. Blasphemous has just started!

Final Remarks:

I would like to thank the Game Kitchen, especially Mauricio Garcia Serrano and Enrique Cabeza, for the great opportunity and for their interesting answers. As probably many other fans, I am also curious to discover what monstrosities will be lurking in the future DLCs. I want just to remember that Blasphemous is available for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and also STEAM.

Interview with Miro Haverinen, the creator of the dark RPG Fear & Hunger

Fear & Hunger (F&H) is a dark and mature RPG, with a strong horror and survival component. The grim world of F&H is definitely a mature experience, dealing with strong topics to create one of the most dark fantasy experiences. F&H is a wind of fresh air in the world of indie RPGs, especially in terms of morality and horror integrated in both lore and design. More information regarding the game can be found in my review.

What surprised me the most is that Fear & Hunger was practically created by just one person: Miro Haverinen. I had the possibility to talk with him regarding F&H, knowing more details about his creative process and his future ideas. Miro kindly answered to all my questions and, if you are interested in knowing more details about F&H, below you can find the complete interview.

Q1: Fear & Hunger is an original RPG with a dark, mature and disturbing setting. How the idea of Fear & Hunger was born?

A1: The original idea was born during my school studies few years ago. In our class we had this tradition of asking random (like truly random) questions from each other. During one class I started asking one of my classmates what he would do in these different morally awkward scenarios that would all happen in a morbid dungeon. The scenarios would continue for a while and more and more people got involved. In the end it started to take a shape of a pen & paper RPG and the dungeons were named ’The dungeons of fear & hunger’.

Later on I had to scrap together some academic credits and I decided to turn the dungeons into a video game format and make a school project out of it. I even ended up writing my thesis about the game. The thesis was about the aesthetics and thematics of horror in video games and the practical part of the thesis was the first demo of Fear & Hunger.

Q2: The setting and the lore of Fear & Hunger are original and interesting. What inspired you the most while creating the game? Which are the major influences for your work and for the complex lore of the game?

A2: I was originally inspired to create a sensation of relentless darkness. I wanted to experiment different ways to evoke hopelessness and horror in a sense. I think this is more apparent in the earlier builds of the game. It has since taken more of a ’video game’ form with the later updates if that makes any sense… As for the influences, there are so many that it’s difficult to pick just few… I guess the biggest influences would be Silent Hill, Hellraiser, Amnesia, Nethack, Berserk and the Souls games. I also want to name Mortal Kombat here, because the lore of MK is really underrated in my opinion. Also the early Mortal Kombat games had a really frightening and vile atmosphere.

The way the lore is presented in F&H is obviously heavily inspired by the storytelling and the world-building of Souls games. But the lore itself doesn’t try to replicate any of those titles. It felt like the game wrote itself on its own really, which is pretty weird looking back to it.

Q3: Let’s know a bit about you, Miro. What did you work before focusing on Fear & Hunger? Were there other videogames/projects before this one or you worked in a completely different field?

A3: Ah, well… I did play around with game developing when I was really young. I found game engines like the RPG Maker and Game Maker among others, but I couldn’t really concentrate on any single project for long and most of the games I made back then died within few weeks or months. I did release a couple of game demos back in the day but unfortunately I don’t have them anymore.

Eventually I drifted away from game development, thinking that there was no future in playing around with simple 2D graphics. Funny enough, right after I quit, the indie gaming exploded so it wasn’t necessarily the best move at the time. Later on I got into graphic designing and I really wanted to make art. Graphic art, music or whatever. There are some album covers around with my art and also some light graphic novels in which I took part. I didn’t really consider game development until I had to get those academic credits from somewhere. I decided to revisit RPG Maker as it was the engine I was the most familiar with. Then people seemed to like the early versions of the F&H and after the first Let’s Plays of the game I was hooked. With games I could fuse together all my interests in different art forms and it was very rewarding to see the immediate reactions Let’s Players had with all the things I had created.

Q4: Which are your favorite videogames?

A4: I have a deep love for Souls games. Demon’s Souls especially awakened something inside me. Also the first three Silent Hill games have a special place in my heart. I’ve never felt the same kind of dread as the 10-year-old me felt with the original Silent Hill. Other than those, I’d say Final Fantasy VII, Ocarina of Time and the original Resident Evil 2 are probably my favourite games of all time. It’s a pretty boring and obvious list haha. Maybe I should throw some more obscure names here too? From the top of my head – A Blurred Line, Legion Saga 2, Devil May Cry 3, Seiken Densetsu 3 and Lost Planet 2 are all cool.

Q5: Fear & Hunger is a really mature game, including sex and gore. In my opinion everything is not gratuitous and it adds darkness to the world, but I was curious: was there something that you deleted from the final release because you considered it too mature or dark?

A5: No, not really. Every time I felt bad about making some things I figured I was on the right path. If it created a repulsive feeling in me, it had to have an effect to people playing the game too. There were some things removed though, but not because they were too dark or mature, but because I felt they took the game more to the meme territory. Like for example the ’Stinger thrust’ attacks of the guards originally caused – erm – …different bleeding statuses during the combat. It was a bit too silly. The status ailment is still in the game, but it’s not too frequent now.

Q6: Personally, I love the monsters of Fear & Hunger, both in terms of design and for the unique battles. Which is your favorite monster and why?

A6: I really like the Skin granny [Figure 1]. Her design is really cool and menacing I think and on my playthroughs she is always one of the more intense fights. If you miss some of the attacks on the first turn, things can go south really fast. Also I think the very first enemy most people run into, the guard [Figure 2], is really the best enemy as far as the gameplay balance goes. In general I’m really happy with the way designs ended up too.

Q7: Developing a videogame could be complicated and many ideas often are cut from the original plan. What was an idea you wanted to implement but at the end was cut from the actual game? A creature or boss fight?

A7: Seeing as I still keep updating the game, I can’t say any of the features were really cut from the game really. They could just be waiting for the future updates! But originally I planned that in the place of the Salmonsnake boss fight [Figure 3], there would’ve been a random variation to the boss fight with a tentacle monster instead. I thought it was a pretty cool idea to go to the lengths of making randomized bosses too. But since that fight is optional to begin with, I felt that that the time it would have taken me to make that functional would be better spent elsewhere. So that’s probably something that will remain cut from the future updates too. There were also supposed to be swimming sections to the game in underground tunnels, but that might be cut out entirely too. Who knows?

Q8: What was the most challenging part of Fear & Hunger development?

A8: Things have gone relatively smoothly with the development. I’d say the most challenging part has been finding the time to make the game. It has demanded so much time for the past 2 years. I really can’t recommend game development to anyone who wants to keep on to their other hobbies and social life haha.

Q9: Fear & Hunger can be a really challenging and punitive game. During the testing, which was the monster/trap that killed you the most? I am talking about something that you really hated yourself, and maybe you also ended up fixing a bit for how much difficult it was.

A9: I didn’t really hate anything during the test runs. Otherwise I would have removed those elements entirely. If I die on my test runs, it’s usually within the opening hours and the cause is the guards. They can be pretty punishing if I go about too carelessly.

The boss fight of the Ending B was originally meant to be hard mode only, but since I could never beat the boss on my test runs, I changed it so that the boss appears in the normal mode as well. I can’t really think of other things… But I’ve changed many things according to the feedback I’ve gotten from the other players though.

Q10: Miro, what is your plan for the future? Are you planning to add contents to Fear & Hunger, or already thinking/developing a new game or a sequel? I would be curious to know some details, if for you is ok.

A10: I’ll continue updating Fear & Hunger to some extent. It has still been my priority, but I’ve also started to plan and make some early work for a follow up game. After the next update I think the priority will shift more towards the next game. So yeah there will be a ’sequel’. But it’s going to be different. I’m not sure if all the people agree with the direction the next game will take, but I feel like I want to make something a little different for a change of pace. And some details? Hmmm…. The game will use the same lore, but won’t be a direct sequel per se. Although it is going to follow one storyline F&H set up already.

Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank Miro for the friendly talk and for his cooperation. I will curiously wait for more news regarding the future of F&H. I would like also to remember the Fear & Hunger is available at itch and STEAM.

Reference Figures:

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Figure 1: Skin granny
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Figure 2: Guard
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Figure 3: Salmonsnake