The Game That Can’t Be Discussed

Awake. Head throbbing. Vision blurry. The voices say to survive.

The fire is dead.

The room is freezing.

A Dark Room is… it is something else. First released in March 2013 by Michael Townsend as an open source browser game, it was ported to iOS by the year end and slowly burnt its way to the top of the app store. By June 2014, it featured in The New Yorker. It got there by word of mouth alone, which is especially impressive for a game that no one can talk about.

I think I played it in 2015, it completely enthralled me for an afternoon. A few months later an acquaintance asked if I had played it, I told him I had, but we felt we couldn’t discuss it because the third person present hadn’t played it. This is how I recommended it to a friend who revealed she played mobile games:

I won't explain it, it costs a dollar and can be finishe din 3 hours.
But it can only be experienced once. And you can sorta play it idle as work, coming back every half an hour or so to drag it out.
I’ve covered up a spoiler.

Today I opened the Switch eshop and there it was. I feel compelled to recommend it again. I’ll try to describe it a bit more.

A Dark Room is a genre bending game that starts off like a text adventure, but has elements of clickers, resource management games, and those idle browser games you play in a background tab work. By the end it isn’t an idler either, A Dark Room morphs into another popular video game archetype but even explaining feels like a spoiler. I certainly know I didn’t play it idly. For me the dark room became my own bedroom as the sun went down and I was too enthralled by my phone to turn the lights on. This game takes you places and you don’t even realise you’re there until you reflect back.

A Dark Room’s narrative unfolds from a first person perspective as an inner monologue. There is no dialogue in the game, just reflections on what the player encounters and experiences. As events unfold, the reflections of the player character on the environment begin to change. As you reflect on what you -the player character- do, your own perspective of just what is happening will begin to change too.

Reflect, reflect, reflect.

Like how the gameplay keeps evolving without ever seeming to, the story, the very meaning of the dark room, keeps changing as the narrative unfolds. Even little things, that at first seem like mild inconsistencies, video game logic, become consistent. This slow reveal, a Chinese box narrative, with its foreboding atmosphere is the selling point.

I’ve might’ve said too much. It has to be experienced.

One of the few official screenshots of the Switch version.

You can play it now, in your browser, but it’s different. It’s not the same experience and the pacing is a little off, the dusty road more brutal yet the resources more easily managed. I absolutely recommend it for mobile. I’m not sure I can speak to the Switch version, which is likely a little different again, I’ve heard it contains sounds, and co-operative play. I’ve heard it costs significantly more, but still less than say, a meal out.

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