Happy Fourth of July! To all of those in the United States, anyways. But everyone should have a great Thursday regardless because I’m here to tell you about A Dark Room. So take a break from shooting off your fireworks or watching hockey (that’s what Canada does every day, right?) and get ready to play an ASCII game on the Internet.
Those five words probably sparked something inside of you. If not interest then surely déjà vu. About two months ago, I (and everyone else on the Internet, it seemed) wrote about a game called Candy Box. It was a funny little game from a single Frenchman about candy. It was based entirely in text and featured ASCII art of a farm, a witch, the Devil, and other things. It was really nothing more than a set of buttons made from pipes and hyphens that allowed you to procure more candy so you could go on more quests and get more stuff.
A Dark Room, the first game from the one-man studio Doublespeak Games, is a little bit like that. Okay, it’s a lot like that. It is also entirely based in text and features some choice ASCII art. It primarily uses the same mechanic of waiting while you collect resources so you can spend it on other things, but it definitely goes a lot deeper.
For me, Candy Box was a lot about leaving it be, coming back to a windfall of candies and lollipops, and spending everything in one fell swoop. It was a bite-sized game, for sure, where I would spend five to 10 minutes at a time trying to figure out what would happen next. Then I would realize that it would take a lot more candies or lollipops to do that next thing, so I would just leave the tab open while I did other things. It was the familiar resource collection and spending mechanic stripped bare and laid out before you and it was strangely addicting.
A Dark Room has a lot more going for it besides a seemingly expertly crafted collection and progression mechanic. For one, it turns into not only resource management but personnel management in the vein of an RTS of some sort. As you collect wood, you’ll eventually be able to build a hut (one among many things you can craft) which in turn will evolve into a village which you can populate with families and stragglers looking for somewhere to nest. Each individual person in your village can be assigned to different tasks as they open up, boosting the speed at which they are completed. They start out just collecting wood and then fur and then, well, you’ll see.
There’s actually a lot to see in A Dark Room. Whereas Candy Box was more or less a cobbled together sequence of whimsy and irreverence, A Dark Room manages to imbue mystery where there should be none. Same as its inspiration, it opens with a single line and a single action, but both are infinitely more portentous. It’s laughable to think that someone would yell at you that you have zero candies, but here there are just questions.
the room is cold.
the fire is dead.
Why is the fire dead? Did I let it go out or is this the way I found it? I guess I’d better light it. Now I have to stoke it? Oh, I get it, I’m heating up this apparently frigid room, an enclosure I picture of cobbled floor and poorly assembled rocky walls. A stranger walks in and I’m running out of wood. So I step out into the night.
the sky is grey and the wind blows relentlessly.
dry brush and dead branches litter the forest floor.
As you can see, A Dark Room is much more narratively enigmatic than Candy Box. It plays out a lot like a Dungeons & Dragons session with the DM reading aloud to you what you see and hear. Eventually you’ll open up quests where you gear up with supplies like water and cured meat (different from regular meat) and weapons and armor. You’ll explore and chart the surrounding areas and begin to unravel just what these things are that keep breaking into your store room, killing your villagers, and setting off your traps. Scales? Teeth? This can’t be good.
But do you know what is? A Dark Room. It’s similar to Candy Box but exposes a different mechanical nerve. They serve vastly different purposes with their gameplay even though they’re both about collecting and spending resources, not to mention more fictitiously more cohesive. Aniwey, the man behind Candy Box, even gives his spiritual progeny a healthy Twitter endorsement, and so do I. Now put down those sparklers and get to playing this weird little text game.