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A Dark Room (iOS) artwork

A Dark Room (iOS) review

"The problem with A Dark Room is that progress feels inevitable."

By the end of April 2014, A Dark Room had spent 17 days at the top of the US AppStore, amassing around 250,000 downloads in the process. It had already reached these heights in the UK. On one day in March it was downloaded nearly 6000 times. Success brought media attention. Amir Rajan, the game’s creator, was the subject of a New Yorker article that aimed to uncover the secret behind this “improbable best-seller.” It suggested the pleasure of immersion, theorised by the pyschologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as the concept of “flow.” Rajan was less sure: “I have no idea why it happened. All this was an accident.” It seems less accidental and more inevitable when you consider the impact of ‘best-of’ lists on casual purchases. A Dark Room’s financial success came off the back of appearances on best-of-2013 lists from mainstream sites like Forbes and Paste, before trendy gaming sites followed suit. Zoe Quinn gave it a mention for Giant Bomb’s 2013 indie round-up. Even celebrity fan Josh Groban tweeted his approval: “Playing A Dark Room. It reminds me of the game from Big. #MeltIceWizard”

So what type of game could achieve such critical and commerical success? It may come as a surprise to hear that A Dark Room is a text based adventure about managing resources. It was designed by Michael Townsend as a PC browser game inspired by the likes of Candy Box and Cookie Clicker, ‘incremental’ or ‘idle’ games that can be left open on the desktop as a distraction at work. Once you’ve managed your resources and completed certain tasks you can leave the game to run in your absence. However rather than aim for comedy value like Candy Box, A Dark Room opts for a darker tone. I don’t want to spoil too much as the mystery and intrique of uncovering new things is one of the main reasons to continue playing, but imagine a cross between the growth and expansion elements of Civilisation and the hostile world and exploration of Fallout (only with text screens and ASCII maps).

For all its success on the AppStore, Rajan hasn’t added much to Townsend’s core game. Aside from a few narrative details that deepen the sense of mystery, his main input has been in taking a game defined by its status as a PC ‘browser’ game and making it work as an iOS game. The PC original made a point of displaying as much as possible on the screen with little in the way of clutter or boxes to ruin the simple elegance of the interface. The iOS version of A Dark Room maintains this elegance but is forced to throw more screen changes at you. Your inventory is never more than a couple of clicks away though, and most screens feature a scrolling feed at the bottom that updates you on current events.

The goal of A Dark Room is to survive and prosper as the leader of a civilisation. Not that the protagonist has chosen this path, mind you. It just kind of happens. It’s addictive because taking a community from one dark house to a mighty empire is always a compelling journey. You decide where to assign your workers as new priorities and new technologies emerge. Choose whether to spend your resources on short-term benefits or save them for long-term projects. Invest in weapons and armour so that you can reach out and explore the world in search of new resources and opportunities. As soon as things threaten to become familiar, A Dark Room changes and something new reveals itself to you. Most explanations of A Dark Room’s success focus on how addictive it is, but its trick is in the way it keeps you addicted by revealing a little bit more and drawing your further into its world. It’s the ideal mobile time-waster.

The problem with A Dark Room is that progress feels inevitable. You never really have to make any compromises and life never really gets that difficult for you. It only takes a little mental arithmatic to work out how to achieve balanced production of resources and nothing threatens this because your only goal is to improve your armoury. If you had to take care of your workers or consider other priorities and make sacrifices as a result then it might be different, but you can happily stop production of a non-essential or redundant commodity to start producing a high-priority resource without incurring any loss or penalty. Once you've worked out the maths and made slight adjustments, your supplies will just continue to rise. The game does try to make life a little difficult when thieves start popping up to steal from the store house but the the maths are easy here too. The thieves steal 1 food every 1 second. A hunter delivers 1 food every 10 seconds. Time for some more hunters! A Dark Room never presents you with a tricky resource management problem to solve. Perhaps that’s the idea with these so called ‘idle’ games but personally I would prefer a little more challenge.

I enjoyed playing A Dark Room because I like completing resource management games and I like exploring mysterious worlds. The way the game and its world are gradually revealed to the player is clever and helps maintain a sense of mystery. Eventually there’s exploration and world maps and even combat, but it all starts in one dark room with nothing, not even light. It’s worth taking the journey – I just wish the resource management required a bit more thought.

JANUS2's avatar
Community review by JANUS2 (May 26, 2015)

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