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.


Best Games of 2013 – Moirai, Imscared, Bubsy visits James Turrell, A Dark Room, Candy Box 2

This is the worst thing I can say about the Game Of The Year tradition: the point of it is in the spectacle. It seldom brings anything new to the table on the games it lists, it seldom presents the games in any context other than a rehashing of what was believed by the author months and months ago. The dying year is a handy excuse to categorize, rather than cause to reflect on it as another step in a journey forward. So The Last of Us replaces last year’s summer romp, which replaced Uncharted 3, which replaced Uncharted 2… I wonder if it might be a fun experiment to present GOTY blurbs over the years with names and proper nouns omitted to see how distinguished and memorable these games truly are.

Today, at any rate, I’m going to share with you my favourite games of the year. What I’m hoping will stop me from being a big smelly hypocrite is these games are probably not titles you’ve heard of, unless you’ve kept your ear fairly close to the ground. The best thing about these games is that they’re all free – you can play them in your browser or download them in only a few minutes, so my motivation in speaking of them is partly driven by the knowledge that you could be only a heartbeat away from falling in love with them as I did. I’ve arranged them in order of length – Moirai will only take a few minutes to complete whereas Candy Box 2 might take you some days.

I’ve included each game here in the title to diminish the spectacle. Instead, for each title, I’m going to talk about what each game awakened in me, what it did for me that changed something in the way I look at videogames or think about design, or planted the seeds of ideas that I hope will bud and flourish in the year to come. You might think I’m taking the piss in my choice of titles, that Bubsy couldn’t possibly be better than BioShock Infinite or TLOU. I’m not. This is a list of my favourite games from this past year. The reason those games aren’t here is because I don’t think they are very good.

Please assume spoilers for each game. I’d recommend you play these games before reading my bit about them, but you shouldn’t be terribly inconvenienced by reading on regardless.

Moirai – HyperNexus

Two things I love about Moirai are how it uses its controls to push the player towards empathising, and that it knows empathy comes from experience and social context. I stress the latter because of games like Ico and The Castle Doctrine that measure relations by proximity, utility or monetary value, which is sadly still the consensus among many game designers.

Once you launch into the Moirai there’s this great feeling as you’re getting to grips with the archaic first person perspective controls – it’s a feeling I also enjoy from the old Resident Evils, Project Zero, Clock Tower, etc. Hindering and regulating the way the player navigates virtual space is very important when aiming to disempower. For myself as someone fairly experienced with modern FPSs and their control schemes, becoming refamiliarized with an old style interface hit me with a jarring, confusing sense of sense-awareness. It compliments the old timey setting and aesthetic quite nicely.

So the control scheme is paramount to jolting you to empathize. Though you are given a pathetic-looking dagger with which to protect yourself, you are not given a chance to practise it and accustom yourself towards its use. You’ve no notion how make good with it – it’s at first a safety blanket, then revealed to be a burden by its symbolism. This is how Moirai enacts player empathy, by putting you in a brief spattering of social encounters wherein appearance and context conjure a flurry of fears and anxiety and understandings. The use of freely input text forces the player to self-express, ideally articulating their experiences in the cave in as brief a format as possible in a tone endearing them to their challenger. Through disempowerment you realise the power of other people over you, as opposed to stimulating the imagination on what you can do to other people. Because you’re put on the back foot, your best weapon is your ability to relate to the stranger. The second encounter overlayers this with a deeper kinship with the first farmer, and an odd sense of disembodiment in the mirroring of your earlier self through the second farmer. Everybody seems so fearful and threatening, and you realise, “They’re just like me.” It’s a complex social situation played out eloquently, founded on the blood and sinew of the player’s pre-existing social experiences – how to read body language, perceiving objects and bloodstains as signs of aggression, perhaps a fear of the supernatural.

Imscared – A Pixellated Nightmare – Ivan Zanotti

What I liked most about Imscared was its use of fourth-wall breaking puzzle logic, where the horror exists first within the boundaries of the game before spreading into your harddrive and browser and the game’s description, all the while the game’s fundamental rules keep shifting. I say fundamental but this doesn’t disjoin your ability to play the game: it plays the same from start to finish, but each time you boot up the game, you’re met with a brand new room and a new scenario, which we know is not what games are supposed to do on double-clicking the executable file, and each time the window closes thereafter, you’re never sure if the game is actually, really over.

At first I thought White Face was going to be just another horror baddie that chases you and catches you and it’s scary but unoriginal. Instead this is a thing that wants to communicate, who wants to play with you rather than simply get you. I felt a complex relationship form out of that: although it had vast power over me, I knew my own sense of power by the exercising of consent into its games and participation with it out of desire to complete the game and free myself from his control. It’s all the more tangible when you consider how you need to re-enter the game each time you’re kicked out, to re-initiate your participation with White Face. Because White Face wasn’t just malevolent, because it behaved in sometimes odd ways – teasing me, watching me, goading me or encouraging me, always with that goofy smile on its face – I suppose I gained a weirdly appreciative inclination towards it, when for example it wouldn’t chase me though it very easily could have. By the end, I don’t know what I felt, but it could have been a bond. Which is a ton more memorable and insidious than your generic ‘ultimate evil’ horror ghoul. I would like to see more games that befriend you with the token of your horror.

Imscared was actually released around October 2012, but I’m putting it here because it received a bit of resurgence this year while still getting less attention than it deserves. Also I only realised as much while writing this up and sure it’s done now. Breaking all the rules.

Bubsy 3D: Bubsy visits the James Turrell Retrospective – Arcane Kids

Bubsy embraces its stupidity, it thrives in the pretension of the museum setting, spouting wanky observations about wanky art in a perfect mockery of self-acclaimed art games. Its disdain for the struggle of Being Art shows quite well through just how dreadful everything is, even the web design with its multicoloured comic sans and disorientating background. Bubsy’s constipated face pierces my soul, the anguish of a revived corpse of an icon who was never popular. I think if this were anyone other than Bubsy it wouldn’t be nearly as pompous.

I love how Bubsy’s pupils hover a foot outside his head when you glide. I love how the frogs say nothing of meaning, how the collectibles are pointless and frustrating to reach. I love how the utterly shite descent into Hell is presented as part of the installation, how heavy-handed a commentary it is on the practise of games as art. Most of all, I love how meaningless the entire thing is, how it gestures towards some feint idea of a message that could be read into (Bubsy rides a bobsled and he is a bobcat, this is a Metaphor), when really it’s all just a load of nonsense. You can read into it any way you want and no matter what you’re left the fool because it doesn’t deserve the consideration and it doesn’t substantiate a thing you’ve said. We’ve a term in Ireland for this kind of irreverent mischief, for something playful and troublesome and valuable to our lives and entirely unworthy of reflection – “a bit of craic.” I think Bubsy is a good leg beyond any other game at being good craic. Another term which I think Bubsy shows art games to be: gobshites.

A Dark Room – Doublespeak Games

I haven’t played a game in a long time that relates mechanics to narrative as solidly as this. The curt, broken language used to describe the world is the same that empowers you to act within it, to build and stoke and craft. As the narrative unfurls, more buttons are made available: behind each button is a mystery to the purpose of that action, to its placement within your economy and the wasteland around you. Immediately upon starting the game you conceive the narrative possibilities with mechanical possibilities and recognize how the empty visual space around your mechanics relates to depths of the world yet explored.

A Dark Room was the game that finally helped me realise that exploration is predicated on mystery and discovery, that without a drive to learn something about myself or the gameworld or the game’s systems, I was just plodding around collecting trinkets so I could say I did it.

Candy Box 2 – aniwey

This one is much like A Dark Room, but whereas ADR teases you to scrape through the rot of a dead world, Candy Box 2 lifts you up and out and unlids your imagination. I’m not sure if that makes sense. I played A Dark Room with a furrowed brow, creeping and guarding against horrors unknown. Candy Box 2 is like flying above the clouds and looking down at a brand new world through the joyous eyes of a child. It feels boundless and senseless, and there’s such freedom in that that’s inaccessible to games made of polygons and budgets far too high.

The most curious thing in Candy Box 2 is the magic system and how you have to brew up your own potions. It’s like there’s an entire realm out of your cauldron and the spellbook, there’s so much that can be done with even only a few options involved in potion-making. That the world allows for seemingly anything enhances this sensation. It makes me desperately want to see a game where I play a witch whose supernatural reputation manifests through knowledge of herbs and the preparation of poultices and expertise in their use, as opposed to the usual business where you buy spells or find them lying around and you just shoot them like a gun.

This Week I Read – Pure Again, Final Fantasy VIII and cultural rumblings

Hello and welcome. For newcomers, this is where I share with you a bunch of articles, comics, games, podcasts – anything about videogames that I read over the past week and think you might also enjoy, with the goal of helping the flow of discourse and spreading the word on these authors and their works. This week there’s a good scattering of subjects covered, from sexual dimorphism to responsibility, a couple of underdog games of the year, and some reminiscing on a few 90s classics.

Links and articles that contain minor spoilers (minor narrative beats or gameplay segments, etc.) will be marked with a *. Those with major spoilers (major plot twists or story beats) will be marked with a **.

Starting on a high note, definitely read this piece by Zoya Street on his game of the year, Pure Again,** a game about trans experiences that makes no assumptions about gender and an article that beautifully conveys what that means. You can play Pure Again by Kevin McGowan here.

On Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Samantha Blackmon reflected on BioShock Infinite‘s satire in context of the Tea Party’s racist appraisal of some of its imagery.

Mattie Brice threw her hat into the ring on the topic of ‘gamer’ and the notion of games as a meritocracy. I wrote something similar the other week, too.

IndieStatik wrote about the harassment directed at some developers who tried to get their game Greenlit while having the audacity of being women.

For Robot Hyena, Bryce Mainville discussed what sexual dimorphism says about character design, using a few MMOs as example.

I don’t normally do podcasts but Indie MEGABOOTH have a 40-odd minute bit between Christopher Floyd, Rob Manuel, Patrick Lindsey and Maddie Myers on A Dark Room** that is well worth your time. A Dark Room is available to play in your browser here, it’s one of the best games to come out this year so I’d recommend playing it before you listen to the podcast.

Speaking of A Dark Room, check out Elizabeth Simins’ comic on The Bygone Bureau.

In Chris Leggett Gameranx piece, he talked about the power of media to affect the minds of audiences as a rebuff to efforts of dismissal of dangerous games when convenient.

On Gamespot, Josiah Renaudin** discussed the humanity and maturation of the character of Squall, Final Fantasy VIII‘s protagonist, especially how he found some of himself in the same journey.

The week before last, C.Y Reid wrote about movement, flow and horror in Doom for Midnight Resistance.

From last May there’s this video critique of BioShock Infinite by Matthewmatosis.** It’s a pretty level take-down of the game that’s now making a load of Best Of lists, but it also includes a very clever contrast of Infinite with Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Also it might be of benefit to Irrational Games to hear what an Irish accent sounds like.

And last week, I spilled my heart on the sole good moment of BioShock Infinite.**