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Reviews

A Dark Room

Andy Robertson

Doublespeak Games, iOS

Video-games rarely wear their hearts on their sleeves, requiring hard work from players to discover any deeper story and meaning. A Dark Room takes this to extremes with no graphics to speak of beyond the textual interface, minimal colour and no sound. In fact we are not even afforded an uppercase letter in the opening black and white title screen with the words "a dark room". There is just one option, click stoke the fire and transform the black screen to white, and start a journey towards an unknown adventure. Soon after this a stranger arrives, we are told in simple text, who wants to join us in the safety of our recently lit room. With company not only comes the danger of attack, but also the possibility of venturing out to gather resources. From these incredibly frugal beginnings grows a labyrinth of lists and decisions slowly opening one to another. As the community grows with more strangers attracted in from the cold we need to manage both manpower and resources. Skills are acquired and the ability to create and build tools to aid our survival. Merchants, workshops and builders each play a part but it is the discovery of 'a dusty road' that opens the game out dramatically. The drama is simple but compelling. Encapsulated in the text, buttons and depleting resources threads a story about people. It's not narrated, but discovered through encounters, the risk of venturing out or trusting the next new stranger who arrives on the scene. It hooks into our modern need to constantly check our smartphones. When Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds have run dry we can turn to the game for a seemingly endless stream of trivial activity to be attended to. However, whereas we essentially know what we will find on social media, A Dark Room offers unexpected twists and turns when you least expect it. Like any good piece of art it redefines what we expect from its genre. Unlike big budget games like The Last of Us, unable to move beyond its shooting-people-in-thehead mechanics, A Dark Room moves seamlessly from text adventure to dungeon exploration to alien invasion and ultimately character study. Emotionally this is important. Not knowing the end from the beginning, and allowing any presumed ending to be subverted by unexpected turns means we have to commit to the experience on offer. It challenges the comfort of stories with overly well known paths and endings. Do we miss opportunities by reading the bible narrative with this security blanket, it seems to ask. As with other video-games, A Dark Room resists foreknowledge about what's coming next and forces us to find meaning and coherence in the fragments of story we haphazardly encounter. After the first blush of discovery and excitement around this gaming gem, A Dark Room settles into more traditional dungeon and world exploration territory. The lists start to make more sense and an economy of materials and tools emerges from the mess. Yet even here the game manages to surprise and subvert expectations. Sometimes that is a cruel and unfair demise, or an encounter with an entirely new individual or enemy. Throughout all this it never once breaks cover to overly explain what is going on. Instead it lets the simple writing, game structure and button pressing to be the sole means of communication. I came away from the experience extremely appreciative at what can be communicated with a few well written words and buttons on a smartphone screen.