Game review: A Dark Room

One of my readers recently contacted me to ask for some advice, and in the course of talking to them, they turned me on to A Dark Room, which is the first rogue-like game that I’ve really liked. (“Rogue-like” is a pretty broad and flexible term, and I’ve played a lot of games before that use a permadeath mechanic, procedurally-generated maps, and ASCII graphics, but despite recognizing that the genre is significant and influential, I’ve never found roguelikes to be my cup of tea.)

It takes a little time to get going, but once you get a glimpse of what’s going on, the game opens up and gives you more new stuff to explore and figure out, and this creates a compelling obsession to continue playing. Fortunately, it’s not a huge game, and has an ending, which I discovered a little before 4AM last night, or else I might still be playing it. You can beat the game in a single evening long playing session, so I wouldn’t call it a long game, but it took a few days for me to figure out all the things that I needed to know in order to get to that point.

There’s so much this game does right that I want to take some time to analyze its design in order to explain why it succeeds so well.

At first, the game is simple. There’s not much going on, and not much to do. You start out with nothing, and after a few clicks and reading some sparse narration, you’re introduced to a new mechanic, and begin building a village in the wilderness. There’s no graphics, just text, and all you do is develop an economy based on gathering wood and trapping for meat and fur. Despite this portion of the game consisting mainly of watching progress bars count down and various resources (hopefully go up, this part of the game had an addictive quality for me; I couldn’t stop myself from building and taking care of my villagers! If I did, the game would make something bad happen to them, and if I tended to them, they flourished. It kept me paying tight attention to ensure that they were safe, that the village was growing, and my stores of resources were increasing.

And then, just when I was starting to wonder if this was all the game had to offer, it opened up yet again, and revealed that I could leave the relative safety of the village and explore a larger world. Suddenly, all the resources my village had been producing had a purpose: to outfit me so I could go explore and adventure. I went out and died a bunch of times, which set me back, but not terribly, and eventually I figured out how to survive most encounters, although if I strayed too far from home, I would encounter enemies I couldn’t defeat, or would run out of food or water.

The overworld map is graphical, but it is rendered in ASCII, but unlike a lot of other ASCII graphic games I found it intuitive and easy to read. Various types of passable terrain are rendered in a light grey text, while points of interest are rendered in black, which helps considerably. You’re a rogue-standard @ symbol, which is easy to remember because that’s where you’re “at”. Other points of interest are represented by easy to remember symbols: V is a caVe, O is a suburb (Outskirts of a larger citY? Y = city.) H is a house, and so on. As you play you are introduced to these symbols gradually, so they are not difficult to learn, and reading the map is easy and intuitive after a short learning curve.

It took me a few excursions to figure out how to survive and make it back t my home villAge. So at first I didn’t realize that by prevailing in a string of encounters, you could clear out a caVe or Outskirts or citY, and turn it into a Pacified wayPoint where you can heal and resupply. Creating a waypoint also creates a path where you can travel safely — you won’t encounter random enemies on a path, and walking on the path consumes less water and food, which allows you to go further.

I also figured out that I could clear out mines and start mining new types of resources, which took me back to the village to juggle my economy and craft more new gear, so I could go out and adventure a bit less fearfully. It was a pleasing cycle. Once I discovered the secret of steelworking, I got to a point where I was pretty confident that I could survive in the wilds, so long as I was cautious and kept a close eye on my vital stats. I found a few more types of resource, which seemed mysterious, and made me wonder what else was out there to be discovered.

Eventually, I made a discovery that put me into the endgame. I won’t spoil it for you, but at that point I felt like I’d accomplished my purpose, and was able to put the game down.

Along the way, I created this spreadsheet to help me plan the village economics and make sure I wasn’t running a deficit on any of the vital resources I needed to make progress and survive. I’ll be direct and say that at least 90% of the enjoyment you will get from the game is through figuring this out on your own, but keeping notes to stay organized once the village economy gets to a certain size and complexity is, perhaps not quite a must, but definitely very helpful. I haven’t given it all away, there’s still a few secrets waiting to be discovered. But if you want spoilers on how to manage your village, the spreadsheet will get you through that phase of the game handily.

A Dark Room Wiki is a guide dedicated to the game, but I didn’t discover it until after I’d beaten the game. It’s also available as a mobile app game on iOS and Android.

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