Horror

[Retrospective] Evil is Still Strong With ‘Dungeon Keeper’ 25 Years Later

Evil is good. That’s what we were all told in ads for Bullfrog Productions’ Dungeon Keeper. Unlike most video games at that time in 1997, this RTS bucked the trend of playing as the good guys, and had you indulge in your darker side as the boss of your own villainous lair looking to conquer a righteous kingdom (with a touch of humour, no less). While the series met its demise far too soon (and was briefly resurrected as a cheap mobile game filled with microtransactions), the first game gave those who wanted to be over-the-top villain bosses some needed release. And 25 years later, its influence can still be seen.

If you’ve never heard of Dungeon Keeper, the story is straightforward as it is simple: You are a dungeon keeper, who must literally carve out their underground domain in order to take over the peaceful and blissfully unaware land above. As you expand your domain, you attract monsters who will join your cause, and slaughter any heroes that venture into your lair in an attempt to stop you. Of course, the task itself is not so simple. Along with building lairs for your monsters, you’ll need to provide them with food, places to train, as well as pay them. You’ve also got rival dungeons that don’t take too kindly to sharing the spoils.

Right away, Dungeon Keeper draws you in with its presentation. The game’s tone plays it straight, but also exhibits that off-kilter humour that many Bullfrog games had at the time. The intro cinematic where a lone hero ventures into a dungeon in search of treasure, only to meet his fate at the hands of the Horned Reaper exhibits the right balance of humour and dark fantasy horror players were hoping for. Starting the game greets you with voiceovers from Richard Ridings before each level that tread ever so close to being over the top in their description of the peaceful and good land that you were aiming to corrupt, but thankfully pulled back from being truly camp. You really did feel like a villain, but in a more lighthearted manner akin to a Saturday morning cartoon, but with touches of horror that permeated throughout. There’s still a delightful glee in picking up chickens from your Hatchery and dangling them above your chosen creatures before dropping them down as a reward for a job well done.

Graphically, the game expertly delves into that evil experience with its dark and foreboding graphics. Your dungeon is dimly lit, and you can almost feel the dankness of its corridors. While it didn’t initially take advantage of those newfangled 3D accelerator cards on release, Dungeon Keeper eventually received an update that took advantage of 3D cards that enhanced the graphics a but, but was still a mix of a 3D dungeon and 2D sprites. Nevertheless, it was still gloriously evil. Coupled with patter of your minions feet, if you weren’t in charge of the dungeon yourself, you’d feel a great hesitancy in stepping into it if you were one of the heroes. The score by Russell Shaw only added to the creepiness with its mixture of ambient sounds and foreboding chants.

Despite its initial impressions, Dungeon Keeper is less an RTS, and more akin to Bullfrog’s other “god games” like Populous and Theme Hospital. It’s this mix of the god game aspect with an RTS that makes the game so fascinating, even today. You can create units, but you don’t directly control them. Rather, you oversee the management of the dungeon by directing your creatures what to do, and the game’s AI would do the rest. You also have specific areas of your dungeon that serve a specific function, such as a Hatchery for food, a Lair for creatures to rest, or a Library for spell/room research. These rooms also tie in to what creatures you’ll attract to your dungeon.

This is where things start to get interesting with Dungeon Keeper. Creatures have their own requirements for joining you, but they also have their likes/dislikes that you had to take into account. For example, creatures such as Spiders will avoid spinning their webs in a Lair if it’s occupied by Flies. If they’re forced to share a Lair, don’t be surprised if they start infighting. Creature happiness also extends to how you treat them. Wake up a Vampire from its nap? Slap around a Bile Demon too much? Don’t have enough money on Pay Day? Your creatures will react with annoyance, and too much annoyance will result in them potentially deserting you, causing fights, or even damaging your dungeon as payback. Each creature has their own aptitudes, so it’s imperative that you keep track of those aspects instead of just focusing on direct control.

That’s not to say that direct control isn’t impossible. When times get hairy during combat, you can intervene. You could lend a hand (literally) in picking up and dropping your units in an area that you want focused on, or pick up gold and transport it into your treasury to save time. There’s also the helpful motivation of backhanding your units to make them work faster like a good villain (and to relieve a bit of stress). In fact, the Mistress unit actually enjoys that sort of thing.

But once again, direct control isn’t what Dungeon Keeper is about. The game’s AI will do much of the work, but you can still intervene in the form of spells such as causing cave-ins, spreading disease or even turning foes (and friendlies) into chickens. But this is all at the cost of gold. Combat is probably where Dungeon Keeper comes up a bit short. There’s not much strategy involved in what essentially boils down into a messy war of attrition. You just had to keep attracting new creatures to replace the fallen ones, cast healing spells for the ones that are still alive and hope for the best.

Despite the shortcomings in the combat, Dungeon Keeper impressed many critics and fans upon release. Remember, apart from one or two games at the time (such as Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain), you didn’t have many titles that had the unique concept of you playing as the bad guy. That, along with the dungeon management aspects and aesthetic, made Dungeon Keeper a hit. It even won “Computer Role Playing Game of the Year” at the 1st Annual AIAS Interactive Achievement Awards (which were the precursor to the D.I.C.E. Awards).

Dungeon Keeper‘s success led to an expansion, The Deeper Dungeons, which improved the AI and added more maps for players to try in both single player and multiplayer. Eventually, Dungeon Keeper 2 was released, but this was after Bullfrog had been absorbed by EA, and Peter Molyneux was uninvolved. Sadly, despite DK2 being well-received, it would be the last real entry in the game, as a third entry in the series was ultimately cancelled by EA after focus was diverted to other projects.

But part of the test of a game’s longevity is in the games it inspired. And Dungeon Keeper has had plenty of those. Titles such as Brightrock Games’ War for the Overworld and Realmforge Studios’ Dungeons were seen as spiritual successors to Dungeon Keeper, while Elixir Studios’ Evil Genius took much of DK‘s management side of things, but with a decidedly less horror focus. And if you think about it, Triumph Studios’ Overlord has that same sort of aesthetic of playing as the villain while managing your troupe, though not in an RTS way.

Regardless, Dungeon Keeper still stands as a unique offering in strategy management games that revels in its oft-humourous take on being the bad guy. While some might prefer a more hands-on approach to painting the walls of your dungeon with the remains of your foes, there’s always the appeal of a leader who prefers to have their minions do the dirty work while you take all the glory. Plus, someone has to cut the cheque.

If you’re keen on reliving the experience, or want to check it out for the first time, GOG is your best bet, as Dungeon Keeper Gold contains the base game and the expansion.

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