I never thought I'd be moved to tears by a review for a video game I haven't even played, yet here we are. Nathan Grayson's review for Darkest Dungeon touches on issues of burnout and overwork that I've struggled with throughout my twenties.
Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based RPG with an interesting mechanic: as you explore dungeons and battle enemies, your characters accumulate trauma and stress caused by those encounters. Left untreated, this trauma will make them entirely useless and you will have to remove them from your roster.
From Nathan's review:
Trauma always leaves wounds. If left untreated for too long, those wounds fester, grow, and multiply. And yet, modern living subtly encourages people to ignore them. You gotta stay busy, the career world tells us. Taking care of yourself—whether that means taking some time off, seeing a therapist, or what have you—isn’t directly productive, and you’ve already got So Much To Do. If it’s not work, it’s social or family obligations. What will friends, significant others, or co-workers think if you disappear now? That you’re lazy? That you’re crazy? And anyway, where will you find the money?
You can try playing Darkest Dungeon like any other RPG — grind grind grind, fight enemy after enemy to get more XP, go deep into dungeons to get better loot — but you're not going to have a good time.
As I played Darkest Dungeon, I tried so hard to follow the golden rule of progress, to play like I’d play any other video game. Sure, I’d retreat from battles or dungeons occasionally, but everything had to be in the name of slow advancement. I prioritized short-term gains over long-term decision-making, and I did it almost unconsciously. Other games taught me that it’d work; they told me that heroes are defined by the progress they’re making, the XP and items they’re earning, the stories they’re exerting agency over. So I picked my hill to die on, and god damn it I was gonna climb all the way to the top, no matter what got in my way.
I kept falling down, further and further.
It has taken me (nearly) thirty years of my life to know when to stop working and take a break. I still hurt myself, ignoring signs of burnout and pushing through the pain, but I'm slowly getting better at taking care of myself.
Turns out, willing yourself into being alright isn’t the same thing as being alright. Sometimes, digging your heels in and making one last push just gets you dirty feet.
Learning to be kind to yourself takes a long time. It's almost an act of defiance against everything that has been drilled into our heads.
Sometimes, the best way to move forward is to find a way to stand still. On some occasions, you’ve gotta take a step back to create something sustainable. You have to take care of yourself.
Am I going to play Darkest Dungeon? Maybe. Probably. At some point. After I've finished these other twenty games in my backlog. Meanwhile, I'll keep reminding myself every day that it doesn't have to be so hard.