In this, the dying hours of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 era, a number of designers, now buoyed by their familiarity with the systems, have been stretching the capacity of this console hardware to breaking point in order to create the most immersive, engaging game environments possible. Not surprisingly, many have opted for breadth and diversity in sculpting these worlds, hoping that square mileage and variety of game play will help players suspend their disbelief and invest in these spaces more successfully.
Grand Theft Auto 5 offers an entire American state to traverse, with automobiles, scuba diving, aircrafts, multiple protagonists, a working stock market. Far Cry 3 has a whole island to explore, peppered with vehicles, platforming, hang-gliding, stealth, a diverse ecosystem, and enough weaponry to invade a sovereign state. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag presents the player with the autonomous life of a pirate (in rather stark contrast to the constricted opening of Assassin’s Creed 3), delivering a wide ocean to negotiate, and all manner of fishing, thieving, fighting, treasure hunting, warfare, and contracting to undertake at their leisure. Even Skyrim (going back a year or so) lets you loose in a world of magic and warfare and mystery to do as you will – become the all-conquering master of every faction in the land, from thieves to wizards to warriors to bards – or spend your days hunting for deer and fishing for salmon, tanning leathers and selling your wares door-to-door.
Many of these texts have been profoundly successful at evoking the feeling of a credible space, utilising their art design and drip-feed of exposition to craft an organic sense of history, and wrangling the diversity of their content into a cohesive, interrelated order*, but this kind of sprawl, and ‘more-is-more’ mentality is certainly not the only way in which game designers can create an engrossing experience through which to marry the player to their landscape.
Indeed, despite exploring many of these expansive game spaces, I was surprised to find that the most effective and absorbing experience I have had of late actively eschews all such graphical and mechanical largess, opting instead for a kind of stark unfussiness that harkens back to the days of rudimentary text adventures. Here is the game’s opening screen, which contains a few sparse, objective sentences and one button prompt:
It is a game called A Dark Room, created by doublespeak games – and truly, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
It was suggested to me by one Delta V of the AWTR site. Although he is a fine and learned soul he is nonetheless history’s greatest monster for introducing me to Cookie Clicker – I have condemned him for this crime before. But while it was he who inflicted this unceasing reflection of my own obsessive compulsive impulses upon me, he also steered me toward A Dark Room as another browser-based mild-’incrementer’ game experience.** Most admirably of all, however, he did the immeasurable service of saying nothing about it – simply pointing people its way, and leaving the game itself to speak its meaning.
And so, before I go on to tarnish this untrammelled delight with my clunky prose, I want to first follow in Delta’s footsteps and heartily, wholly, unreservedly encourage you to likewise go play it now – definitely if you intend to read on. Honestly, I am about to trundle ham-fistedly into some gigantic spoilers that will utterly destroy the marvellous experience of exploring this game’s unique space, narrative, and mechanics – and this work has a sleek, unassuming design that can be best appreciated when viewed through fresh, impartial eyes.
It’s free; will only take a couple of hours; and is well, well worth it. So go ahead. Truly. I’ll wait.
Hopefully now you’re back having played the whole thing, because, again, there will be spoilering… ish… liness ahead.
So… did you answer the minotaur’s three riddles correctly?
That was a trick question. There’s no minotaur. If you didn’t know that that was a trick question – if you’ve just decided to read on anyway: what are you doing?! Seriously, it’s worth it to not have the whole game ruined by some mouthy jag like me. Shame on you. …And me, I guess. But mostly you. So go on. Scat.
Right. Now it should be just us people-who-played-its. Or at least, us people-who-gave-it-a-fair-go-but-decided-’nah-you-know-what-this-isn’t-really-for-me’-its.
And so… Pretty cool, right?
From three lines that situate you in a lifeless freeze in a dark, nondescript room (a point of introduction that I shall return to momentarily), one single button click – a moment of interaction with the code through which the player, like a God, literally grants the game light – transforms this space into ‘A Firelit Room’, and gives the world – now operating at the player’s behest – its form and structure.
Soon there is a doorway through which a weary stranger can stumble; when the fire wanes, there is a wood beyond the threshold where one can gather sticks; then there are houses to build; and refugees to shelter; and resources to fashion; and supplies to craft. New strangers will shuffle through with stories to tell and supplies to trade, should you let them. Rudimentary social dynamics are formed. Occupations are assigned. Thieves attack your supplies and must be dealt with. Illnesses can ravage your community. Soon, not only is this environment increasing, but the game itself is stretching its form, growing exponentially, expanding outward: from a one-button incrementer; to a light supply sim; to an interactive mystery narrative; to a rudimentary RPG; to an exploratory survival horror; to a bare-bones arcade flier.
And throughout it all you are the one guiding this evolution. Indeed, I struggle to recall the last time I’ve seen a game so organically reveal itself through its mechanics, inviting the player to invest in this environment by binding the world and the player’s interaction into a seamless one.*** By the time you’ve fashioned a compass, packed your supplies, and stepped out into the wilderness, you no longer feel like a scrambling, starving survivor amongst a handful of lost souls, you become a true desert traveller, sharing this Wanderer’s trepidation and wonder, because you – like he/she – are legitimately watching this environment unfold and broaden with every compounding progression.
And yet the whole effect is achieved with @ symbols and simple progression boxes and text elegantly fading into white. The game offers an entire enigmatic, apocalyptic crypto-scape that it peppers with mystery, inviting the player to project as much or as little as they want upon that glorious absence of graphics, to dig into the game’s grim, implied back story only so deep as they wish.
As soon becomes evident once you start scouring the peculiar scorched battlefields and surface boreholes – where laser weapons and strange technology lie dormant in the dust – this is a planet that has recently been levelled by intergalactic war. It helps put into context why hostile soldiers still roam the land, and why distrust and hostility and illness linger in the ghostly towns that remain standing. Even more, once you find a certain downed spacecraft and drag it home to repair it, it becomes clear that you are in fact one of those invading alien soldiers. You are not only a wasteland Wanderer, but a galactic one also – a traveller left behind afteryour species’ invasion attempt was thwarted. Having rocks thrown at you and getting whipped now make complete sense given that you are one of the defeated aggressors now reduced to a despised social pariah.
It even explains (in a detail I am ashamed to admit I missed in my first run-through) why you are able to carry and use several different weapons at once. Your capacity to multitask in battles is not a glitch, or a programming oversight: your species literally has multiple arms. So now whenever I think of my Clint-Eastwood-style Wanderer being pelted with a rock from an angry youth, the response I now imagine is of a poncho suddenly splayed wide, the controlled chaos of a flurry of exposed limbs buzzing in simultaneous fury (SLASH; STAB; SHOOT; SWING; LASER; NIPPLECRIPPLE; OFFENSIVELY GESTICULATE).****
Even though this slow revelation is quite striking, I must admit that I was so absorbed by this game’s aesthetic and mechanical fluidity that my own interpretation of the narrative ran a bit deeper. I share it with you now, but freely admit that it is almost certainly both wrong, and more than a little unhinged…
In my reading, I was not merely an extraterrestrial soldier on the losing side of an invasion; I was the deceased commander of this occupying alien armada. To me it appeared that I had been killed in the battle that had devastated this world – the fleets I had commanded lay as scattered detritus across the landscape – and this entire game was a limbo state in which, out of the haze of a frozen white space, I was piecing my memories back together before moving on to whatever after-limbo state awaits…
The moment that really got me onto this track was when the player meets the old, mournful stranger in the swamp, lost in reverie – the figure that you have to ‘charm’ out of his stupor in order to recount his story. He introduces himself as a commander who helped lead a greedy nation on a quest to pillage (colonise) other worlds… But then the game just leaves him there – mired in a swamp. He doesn’t return with you; he doesn’t offer any usable wisdom; he just remains the broken shadow of a time before the devastation – a pilot, a fighter, a leader of men – just as you gradually prove to be.
And so, while you continue to gather your little workforce, to push further into new territory, gradually becoming more powerful as you clear out towns and cities filled with hostile faces, this memory of the old guy who didn’t seem that surprised by you, who – unlike nearly every other figure you meet on your journey through this hellscape – didn’t try to attack you, starts to resonate more… Indeed, in case the equivalency was not clear enough, in another parallel with your protagonist you ultimately both find him and leave him in a dark room, his only gift to you the ‘gastronomy’ perk that allows you to heal more through eating – to live longer in this barren wasteland of your own making.
It’s why the ‘death’ within the game is both total and overarchingly inconsequential. When you go out on a scavenge you can die – you die – but despite this, you simply return to the fireside, ready to head out again. (And this demise is distinctly not ‘reload’, because any equipment you took with you is lost, surrendered to the wasteland along with that body.) The game protagonist’s perspective remains constant, but multiform, dying and reviving and multiplying as it struggles to fill in the blanks of itself.
It also explains why the whole game operates like, and is reminiscent of) a computer screen prompt. As this community’s makeshift leader you press buttons, issue orders; a map is methodically filled in like computer script; human beings are reduced to resources than can be reassigned and maximised for efficiency. You, as player, become the steward of this computer code reclamation of self, directing skirmishes, managing fuel, deciding who lives and dies for the good of all. The whole interface becomes like a minimalist, Star Trek control panel, gathering data, restoring files, ultimately preparing this amnesiac, disembodied psyche for the ‘lift-off’ through a scatter of now-disconnected typeface that will return him to the stars from which he came. And so, this ascent achieved, the game fades to white, the deathly vacuum of space cyclically restoring the player to that dark room and their initial rekindling of life.
No doubt I’m wrong, and this has all been a dribbling interpretive misfire, but A Dark Room enticed me to speculate wildly (in a good way; not a six-seasons-of-LOST kind of way), and throughout the experience I really did feel like I was exploring – both in the physical and thematic sense – a complete and unified world. For a game to do that with text prompts, silence, and the steady pulse of a fireside that yearns to be stoked back to life with a mouse press, that’s pretty astonishing.
Indeed, in many ways A Dark Room reminds me of that sensation of unfolding wonder that videogames used to evoke so effortlessly. In many ways it recalls the elements that I loved so much about classic games like the original Mario Bros: it creates a world, it has rules, behaviours, and consequence – but it leaves you be. People tend to forget, but one of the greatest aspects of the first Mario Bros game was that it just started. There was a little bit of musical fanfare and bam there you were in the game.
Figure it out.
There was no prompt saying, ‘Press A to jump’. You just pressed ‘A’ and he jumped. Later you head-butted a cube and – what’s this? – a mushroom came out. You fiddled around on top of a pipe and – whoa, there’s a whole other world under here! It made you play with the mechanics. To explore. To test the boundaries of the environment and your place within it. Suddenly you were asking: What about if I jump up on the clouds? What if I kick this turtle shell? Am I able to angle this fireball to hit that plant?
It was all simple stuff, but it felt profound because you were doing it yourself, without the omnipresent voice of the game designer breathing down your neck:
‘Did you know that you can LOOK AROUND by using the RIGHT ANALOGUE STICK?’
Yeah. Yeah, I probably would have guessed that.
‘But did you know that you can call up the INVENTORY by pressing the START BUTTON MENU?’
…Uh huh. Yep. Probably would have figured that out too.
‘And if you need to use the FLASHLIGHT –’
Okay, shut the f*%k up, because this is getting really annoying…
People wonder why games like the aforementioned Skyrim blow up in the way that they do, but I think it’s because (even though Skyrim has some hand-holding, of course) it recaptures that sense of exploration and experimentation that many games used to have. You and the game, trying to figure each other out; doing your little game-mechanics dance and seeing where it leads. You invest in the world it is offering because it has been artfully designed to respond to your level of investment in it. Not holding your hand and dragging you along, but inviting you to press on, to dig deeper, to discover on your own.
For me, A Dark Room boils that sensation down beautifully. It makes each progression a choice rather than a burden, a pursuit of synchronicity with the game in which you and the action of traversing this space align. You can click the button and illuminate this land, get lost in its dance and evolve along with it, read as much or as little into its plot as you desire, or close down the browser bored and never think of it again. The game allows you the freedom to do and think what you like, to wander where you will, never judging, or nagging, or teasing. It makes you the light of your own journey through its dark spaces, trusting that the act of play itself is enough to bring life to the world.
* For me, Assassin’s Creed 3, although technically impressive and narratively broad, had some major problems in legitimising its myriad components – a subject to which I hope to return in a future post.
** Delta introduced it alongside another now cult-favourite browser-based, play-experience called Candy Box, which has just this month released a sequel. I can see the connections between the two, and can certainly imagine the sense of surprise that must have accompanied people’s first encounters with its gradually expanding mechanics and whimsical light-RPG tone – but I must admit, after experiencing A Dark Room’s tonal and thematic surety, I found it rather less captivating.
*** Perhaps the wonderful FTL, but that may be more to do with the shambolic, every-step-could-be-your-last panic that it ferociously beats into you.
**** Indeed, I even like the way that this detail is unceremoniously revealed through the game mechanics; in my first run through of the game I was at only venturing out into the wilderness with two weapons at any one time, naturally presuming that I only had two hands. It was only by happy accident that I happened upon a third weapon and came to learn of my curious physiology.