I Heart…Dungeon Keeper
For all our idle wanderings through lush dells and sunny kingdoms, performing endless fetch quests, rescuing vapid princesses, and slaying bad guys in gloomy dungeons, we gamers never considered what it was like to be on the other side of the dark divide. Do we know what a headache it is organising and running an evil dungeon? How hard it is motivating lazy creatures who’d rather eat than work? Creatures who squabble over room assignments and trash the place after a well-earned slap or two? Honestly, it could reduce an evil overlord to tears of frustration. Evil tears, mind. If we knew all these things, we would perhaps have shown a bit more appreciation for the hard work that goes into the evil places that we so happily destroy in the line of our pure duties. Well, thanks to Dungeon Keeper, we finally got to walk a mile in some evil shoes… and they felt good.
Back in 1997, Bullfrog and Peter ‘not yet so hypey’ Molyneux created a critically acclaimed game which swiftly became a cult hit and Dungeon Keeper subsequently sank into the annals of gaming legend, remaining one of my all-time favourite titles. An original blend of strategy, management, and combat from the dark side of the fence, wrapped up in a ribbon of warped humour, Dungeon Keeper went on to spawn an expansion and, later, a successful sequel. The idea of constructing and managing a gloomy underground kingdom, while simultaneously crushing the forces of light and dispatching rival keepers was too good to be true. Ultraviolence, torture, dark humour, and voyeuristic S&M? Ker-ching, I’ll take a dozen please.
Dungeon Keeper was (and, indeed, is) beautiful in its simplicity. Starting out with a pulsing Dungeon Heart, your imps must hack your dungeon from the very rock around you in order to build rooms and link to portals which allow creatures to make their home on your patch… which is where the management leaps in and gives you a kicking.
Rather than the resource juggling and production queues common to most strategy/management games, Dungeon Keeper is about the tools with which you’ll crush your enemy: creatures, spells, and traps. For each of these things, specific rooms are required to be researched and constructed. Don’t have a library? Then every self-respecting Warlock will turn their hooked noses up at your paltry pad. Hatchery not big enough? Then don’t expect any Bile Demons to park their corpulent (and flatulent) backsides in one of your carefully constructed lairs. Every room, from the torture chamber to the training room, has a purpose and fulfills the desires and needs of the range of creatures floating around the portals, as well as adding more spells and traps to your arsenal.
The rooms, while seemingly simple, actually require careful planning if you want to avoid headaches; space is often limited and layout is everything. Not only that, but pandering to your creatures’ needs is a headache in itself. I wasn’t being flippant earlier either; your creatures are contemptible slackers who would rather mooch around the hatchery, snooze in lairs, or pick fights with someone they don’t like the look of, than work or train. If you let certain rivals end up in the same lair, then fuck help you. Forget driving back the Lord of the Land and his nauseating forces of light… no, they’d rather break out the knuckles over whose room it is. Spiders hate Flies, Vampires hate Warlocks, Mistresses hate Samurai, Bile Demons hate Skeletons, and Horned Reapers hate absolutely everyone.
If that wasn’t enough, the childishness of supposedly bad-ass minions continues… put them to work doing something they hate, such as making Vampires dirty their hands in the workshop, expect rebellion, sulking, or in extreme cases of peevishness, them packing up their bad attitude and abandoning your dungeon (especially if you have employed your sublime ‘hand of evil’ cursor to deliver a few satisfying slaps). What is nervous wreck of an evil overlord, whose temper is fast fraying, supposed to do then, in the face of such petty abandonment? Fight like with like, that’s what. Surround the portal with locked doors to prevent the filthy splitters leaving and watch them huff and sulk, getting slowly angrier.
However, if you employ this tactic, expect a rampage since unhappy creatures will quickly snap, drop their bags and start trashing the place. Next thing you know they’ll be drawing on the walls and throwing crayons at each other. Still, as a last resort, you can always sacrifice irritating or mutinous creatures in the temple for an equally ungrateful minion if you can’t or won’t bribe them into staying or behaving. The general shitty attitude is prevalent throughout, causing countless headaches as extra lairs have to be built, gold mined, and hatcheries enlarged. In the past I’ve had to actually reposition entire rooms to stop miserable Vampires and Warlocks zapping any creature who took a shortcut through the library and presumably coughed too loudly en route.
So why bother with the sorry, surly shower? Simply put, if you are to smother the twee lands above with all-encompassing darkness and despair, and maybe start up a McDonald’s franchise to really rub it in, you’ll need them, so buckle up. If there is one thing that minions love more than hating you and each other, it is duffing up do-gooders. Or anyone else likely to threaten their weekly wages and food supply, that the game, especially in its later stages, throws at you.
Swift construction and research to unlock new rooms and spells is crucial because, before you know it, rival keepers will be moving in on your gold and gem resources and dwarves, elves, and tin-lidded heroes will be making a beeline for your patch of the underworld in search of fortune and glory. Remember being one of those? You’ll be sorry when you have to try and drag your creatures out of bed and into the training room to prepare for it, I guarantee. If you liked, you could fortify the walls of your place, put your feet up with a copy of ‘What Minion’, a bunny bap, and a cup of cocoa, but that would be no fun. Death, imprisonment, and torture are all the order of the day and doing the nasty of healing creatures in the torture chamber to keep them alive longer can lead to conversion, bolstering your dark army for an offensive attack on underground hero heartlands and rival dungeons.
The game presents a variety of tactics to the player which is a relief, since most of the battles are a numbers game, aided by whatever spells you can muster, and you are almost always outnumbered. So, for devious bastards like me, stealth and sabotage are two particularly delicious cards to play. With a combination of spells, traps, stealthy takeovers, and careful excavation, weak spots can be found in enemy dungeon defences and my favourite trick of stealthing an imp and having them take over an enemy library in order to sell it off and cripple their spell ability was often employed. If I was feeling especially malevolent and wanted to avoid a thrashing in a straight up scrap, I would frequently infect one of my creatures with a pestilent disease and drop them as close to an enemy lair as I could (after having used my cloaked imps to take over a path nearby). The creature, especially in the case of a Mistress, would wade into a fight and infect every enemy creature who attacked her. I’d then rip her away, cure her, and send her to bed with a kinky spanking while the enemy creatures started to die. Slowly.
As for other dirty tactics, well, frying enemy imps with lightning traps is always fun, and if you get the chance to roll a boulder trap around an enemy lair, do so, you’ll love the squishy sounds of death. Locking a posse of imps into a small room and slapping them to death is a great, if twisted, way of producing enough corpses to raise a vampire on the cheap, and inflicting random abuse on your minions will increase their pace at work for a while. And all they can do is hate you. And trash the place. Yes, the game is a playground for happily-twisted fun and offers a comic, but perverse, sense of pleasure that is catnip to a freak like me.
Bullfrog, of course, were also famous for management games such as Theme Park and Theme Hospital which brought their unique brand of humour to the genre, something which also helped make Dungeon Keeper the success that it was. Slap a Bile Demon and you’ll get a two finger salute; slap a Dark Mistress and she’ll groan on cue; pay a visit to the torture chamber when it’s in session and watch fairies get spun around by their wings or the mistresses offering up their PVC clad rears to be well lashed. Heroes march nobly through your pad, spouting every cliché imaginable, only to end up in your graveyard as bio-fuel for your next vampire. And through it all, amid all the humorous touches and gameplay, a narrator directs your efforts and mocks your progress with the most sneering, sarcastic, unpleasant voice that you could ever hope to come across outside of an Eton alumni reception: “you cannot afford to train creatures.” It still makes me twitch. Twisted and dark it may have been but it never strayed into the realms of gore or outright violence, instead maintaining the perverse humour and over-the-top edge that Bullfrog did so well.
While Dungeon Keeper went on to spawn a sequel, I found DK2 to be an underwhelming affair. My favourite tricks were crippled by the removal of certain spells, boulder traps were castrated in their effectiveness, and a clunky mana system and combat pit were added. The third game never came to be and, sadly, when Bullfrog were snapped up and spat out by EA, the series vanished back into the shadows.
Dungeon Keeper may be thirteen years old now but it was a truly remarkable and absorbing game. Everything about it oozes character and charm, from the pixelly graphics, to the delicious narration, to the concept itself. Any game that has me suddenly realise that it is actually 3am, and my hands have frozen to my mouse because I couldn’t stop playing it, must be worthwhile.
For all its quirks and warped charm, Dungeon Keeper will remain a firm favourite for good reason. It stands out, for me at least, as an original, dark, funny, and highly entertaining game. But now, please excuse me… my mistresses need attending to, the Bile Demons have wreaked havok with the plumbing again, and there is a suspicious stain on this month’s copy of ‘What Minion’. There’s truly no rest for the wicked.
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