I think free browser games are a bit of an unappreciated art form. Just because they don’t have multi million dollar budgets or state of the art 3D graphics doesn’t mean they can’t be an incredibly engaging gameplay experience. But even I was surprised by this game. It’s just called A Dark Room.
This is a game that cannot be explained with words, and you don’t really get the full experience unless you go into it with a completely open mind and no idea of what it is. So before you read on, click the link and play it all the way through.
OK, so if you made it back here, it’s probably MUCH later than when you started, possibly another day. It took me about 10 hours to 100% this game. Pretty long for a browser game, but who really sets the rules for what a browser game can be? It saves its progress in your cookies, so you can come back to it whenever you want if you don’t wanna beat it in one sitting like I did.
What I love most about this game is how it evolves. It teaches you the mechanics gradually, and the gameplay experience is ever-changing. You start with 2 people and 4 pieces of wood, and can end with this massive production infrastructure and a booming village of workers to do your bidding. It brings in more and more things that you wouldn’t think of, and yet would make perfect sense. It gradually takes you from crude, basic cave tools all the way to interstellar technology
I also love how it expresses its narrative. It does so with something I feel has been lost to todays game writers (and writers in most forms of media to be quite honest), and that’s with subtlety. It’s mostly indirect, and requires inference from the player. They provide you with evidence and you as a player need to put the story together yourself, which I feel is one of the more fun ways to tell a story in a game. This is a method that, while not unique to games, seems to work best in games.
It really reminds me of classic text adventure style game design. The mostly black and white simple aesthetic combined with the typefaces it uses reminds me of my old Apple Macintosh I had as a kid. But at the same time, it’s all point and click, using basic buttons to do everything, including it’s really simplistic RPG style battle system which I love. The travel interface has that Oregon Trail-esque quality to it, while still feeling unique in its own way.
What it does well is it uses a few different gameplay paradigms effectively without feeling like a mishmash of genres like so many games feel like today. It feels very thoughtful about its use of different gameplay mechanics and how they complement each other in order to create a meaningful gameplay experience. It doesn’t just throw a bunch of different types of gameplay together just for the sake of throwing them together, or toss a specific type of gameplay into a game because it’s popular (like how everyone and their mother has a crafting mechanic in their games now since Minecraft came out.), it actually builds an experience. You get the feeling that your situation is evolving gradually and naturally rather than feeling like you are getting random challenges thrown at you.
And with no graphics beyond basic ASCII character arrangements, this game was really able to put a picture in my head of a very interesting world. I imagined how all the scenarios looked, what the village looked like, what the world looked like, without needing it to be showed to me.
This is a fascinating challenge to me, because designers can get lazy and rely too much on graphics or dialog to convey everything, and not think of less obvious methods for establishing an atmosphere for their game. Text adventures like this provide an interesting challenge for the designer, because they force you to use more interesting techniques for conveying your story and your world to the player. Namely, they force you to use your game mechanics themselves to expose your story, which is something unique to game design for expressing a story that is not nearly utilized enough.
It is a popular opinion in the game design community that you learn the most about game design from playing crappy games. And while I believe you do learn a lot from what bad games did wrong, I feel it’s also necessary to play great games and learn from what they did right. It’s easy to see what a crappy game did wrong, it sticks out like a sore thumb. To be able to discern the qualities that make a game great is a far more formidable challenge to the untrained eye. This is a skill that must be practiced.
Anyway, I’ve gotten slightly off track. A Dark Room is a great gameplay experience in a place not everyone would expect one. And as a designer, it is an experience one can learn a lot from.