Exploring A Dark Room

Exploring A Dark Room

(This article may have spoilers for A Dark Room and Candy Box 2)

I used to think the joy of exploration was in gathering up hidden packages and unlocking nodes on a skill tree. There’s the caricature of an ultra-conservative mammy screaming “Videogames rot your brain!”, but here, I was raised on a diet of games and this is the nonsense they imparted to me. Videogames are king at making sure you suffer from Stockholm Syndrome; it took a long time to divorce myself from that belief.

So there we go: I used to think games where you had to first gather something in order to unlock the node were the height of system cohesion. The Last of Us unveiled the lie in that, all of Joel’s possible upgrades melting into one long groan of boredom, each option as mundane and timid as the last. Nothing of interest lay there, so nothing of interest lay in the nooks of desiccated Boston housing the pills needed to upgrade.

When I was 15 this was enough for me. I remember devoting myself towards finding all the hidden packages in Grand Theft Auto 3, with pictured lists and a map I’d attacked with a pen sitting permanently beside me as I pored over that bloody game, wracking myself trying to find the last fucking collectible. I told myself this was a thing I needed to do, so I burned far too much of that horrid gameworld into my memory in pursuit of—I don’t know what. I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t feel complete after it. Even thinking about it now is making me cranky. When Vice City came out I lied and swore I’d never do that again.

So nowadays when a game dolls itself up to inspire a rush of completionism, I see these trinkets scattered throughout the world only as incentives for travelling there, to cynically justify the time and effort of building this place with these nooks. It kind of dampens my connection to the gameworld, like the developers thought so little of it that I wouldn’t care if it weren’t populated with prizes. A shrug and the ding of a trophy say their reward as collectibles is self-fulfilling, that their pursuit nets their worth through the trouble in finding them, and in this is exploration: the scouring of a level to get all the things.

Some games remove the trinkets as middlemen and the motion of travelling is thought enough, as with No Man’s Sky’s glee over its world generation: “if you see a mountain you can go over to it.” This is what they reckon exploration feels like–going. Moving yourself from one place to another. Were this so, I must have explored my apartment every time I’ve lost my keys, for all the sense of physically doing that involves. And when I visit the bathroom I’m Jacques Cousteau.

In truth, exploration lives in fresh beginnings, in the sense of your future lingering in the air, waiting to be plucked up and brought to life. A strange new world, not explicitly travelled but learned and understood in its nature and its systems, its meaning as a playing field, the meaning of me as a person in it, in the expanding ways I relate to it as a player– this is what gives exploration its flavour. Fundamentally, it’s a feeling inside of me embodying my actions, since exploration can be walking or collecting or conversing but it isn’t necessarily these things, just as hearing doesn’t necessarily mean listening.

I’ve heard A Dark Room [iOS version here] compared before to Fallout in its dusty setting, or The Road in its fractured diction. Neither speaks of what endeared it to me, of the mystery and lure of a narrative entreating my desire to discover. It feeds a hunger barely staved in a medium of journals and audiologs, little nuggets of unbridled narrative potential. I love the way in Dark Souls, collectible items are represented by this warm golden glow. It might be a magnificent shield or a dainty heirloom, there’s no way of knowing until you pick it up. Because each item comes with a dollop of text that gives a little bit of the world away, every single glow is potentially invaluable.  The way Dark Souls uses lore to conjure up thoughts of undiscovered truths inscribes a litany of wonder through the relationships of items and creatures to their place in Lordran. It’s like that Windwaker cutscene of Link opening a treasure chest, except here as an atmospheric constant.

Likewise, what differentiates normal everyday loot from what lies within A Dark Room is the fantasy of possibilities, the promise of discovery allowed by mechanics and world.

A Dark Room starts plainly with just a few lines of text and a button to press. As a text adventure it has the advantage of a mechanical language shared with journals and diaries – any word or phrase in the English language has the potential of an action. So it starts with the stoking of a fire, which opens up the option to gather wood, which makes available a cart to build, and so on. With each newly uncovered action the screen fills up with a new button to press or more information to survey, and you realise the clean empty space of this textual world exists as a void to fill. A scrolling column of narration expands with new words alongside your actions, turning the world from the blank canvas of a cold dark room into a village, a wasteland, a battlefield, a roadside picnic, with more outwards and outwards.

So there comes a mystery with every new option of actions as each new step forward in your hovel’s growing economy pushes you deeper into the world. You start to hear shuffling and whispering behind the walls, you find missing traps torn to splinters some ways afield, the tattering of cloth and scales, and a crudely made charm, but for what? Everything is dust and dry and dead and tired, being pulled back slowly, warmed to life, revealed by the light of your fire. Through your expansion, the world revives. But with every revelation of new survivors and families and sickly beggars are more questions, and more to learn.

Here discovery is perpetuated by continuance of mystery, through the tantalizing imagery of shattered bones of the world revealed further as a corpse and further as alive, together with the shrinking canvas of your mechanical limitations. It presents you with a wanderer, who is you, and a world to read, then to fear, then to see, with understated questions stretching right until the end. It doesn’t frontload its secrets, it can afford not to be the kind of game too heavily funded to be coy about its systems and narratives, the kind unable to withhold itself. So it doesn’t need to funnel you forward with Pavlovian tricks and junk collectibles. A Dark Room shrouds its substance for your unveiling, drip feeding you with a patience rationed by the destitute world. As we learn about what we can do, we come to find out what has happened.

Another text-adventure, Candy Box 2, takes a different approach, hiding itself with irreverence instead of mystery. Here the world is upbeat and brims with magic and talking squirrels and witches and three-headed monkeys. It isn’t cloaked in abridged descriptions of a haunting landscape, but in the wonder of a bizarre cosmology. The map opens up much sooner and is more inviting and forthcoming, for it’s spatially imagined from words of text and images of type, rather than from its prose.

From a world where anything can happen extends the same opportunity to your actions: your verbs are less sophisticated than the economics of A Dark Room but much more carefree to the constraints of its narrative. You can plant lollipops for revenue, mix and stir and boil up a magic potion, liaise with a morose Cyclops, or dig through the title screen for a chocolate bar. In this Candy Box 2 enjoys a childlike freedom to its mechanics, the sense that anyone and anything is possible and you the agent that brings it all to life.

Most games lose their magic for me within a few hours of their beginning, as soon as the last big system of their gameplay opens up to reveal everything you need to know for all the hours to come. So I latch on to their stories and favour their mechanics and items and systems to this end. The joy of exploration comes not from climbing a hill but in discovering what’s beyond it. It’s in using Cinna’s Hammer and God Save The Queen to revisit old friends and see resolution to their stories. It’s in uncovering the lonely painted world whispered by a peculiar doll, and wondering how it came to lie in your asylum cell. It’s in the shuffling figures beyond your firelit lodge and ghostly shapes making off into the night.

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Edit 14/3/14: While the browser version of A Dark Room is completely free to play, they’ve also recently released an iOS version for 99 cents, available here, and an upcoming version for the iPad. I can’t recommend it enough.

7 thoughts on “Exploring A Dark Room

  1. I agree that exploration should not be conflated with the rote action of finding and picking up trinkets, replete with a ka-ching. For the most part, I can only think of them as unnecessary padding (that is a little condescending and manipulative), and cannot even bring myself to play games adhering to this kind of open-world model.

    But I played a game last year that did exactly this, only so effectively disguised that I didn’t realize I was playing the collectible shell game until after I had moved on from it. It was a pleasure finding every single one of them, and I felt the impact of the narrative would have been significantly poorer if I hadn’t bothered.

    I’m talking about Dishonored’s bone charms. The whalebone rune charms were almost always hidden along the critical path and choke points, probably because they were critical to the player’s progression. Finding these was mostly boring.

    The bone charms, though, are a curious nugget of design. The benefits they provide individually are practically worthless, so they’re close to the little animus fragments in the Assassin’s Creed series in that sense. But they served a number of other functions:

    1. They highlighted alternate paths, reinforcing the idea that the player almost always has navigational options. Bone charms were rarely at dead-ends that the player had to backtrack all the way from.

    2. They tricked the kind of player who seeks out collectibles only for the little rush of watching a counter tick up into exploring and experiencing more of Dunwall. It was a bait and switch we could use more of.

    3. You could always see the glowing charm with the Heart, but navigating to it was a puzzle–they were behind locked doors, or in secret rooms, at the bottom of shafts, or surrounded by rat swarms. Finding your way to them was satisfying in itself.

    4. The little boost they gave your abilities was randomized.

    5. They were always contextualized. The locations they were in were little stories–you could often find the corpse of the owner driven mad by them, or a note about quarantining the artifact penned by an overseer. Most of these were on the nose, but a couple of situations involving them were delightfully vague. Some were just washed up to shore by the river.

    I thought the bone charms (plus the heart) was a good example of using collectibles to promote exploration, as opposed to being the purpose of it. Of course, I use exploration in the narrow sense of visiting or “conquering” level geometry–I just think Dishonored shows there’s plenty of scope for creativity here.

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