Lighting a Fire: A Dark Room
by Chris Hanson — Syracuse University
April 18, 2017 – 10:47
When teaching games studies classes, I am frequently asked to identify my favorite game. Although never an easy question to answer, A Dark Room (Doublespeak Games, 2013) is often the first one that comes to mind. It is a game which I regularly assign to students, as it is playable in a web browser and requires virtually no prior game experience. The developer describes it as a “minimalist text adventure,” yet the game’s sparse interface belies an evocative and compelling play experience. Students ranging from seasoned game players to those who have hardly played games before speak up after playing A Dark Room to express how they were unable to stop playing after starting, occasionally cursing my name due to lost sleep.
Launching the game places four elements on the screen: two lines of text reading “the fire is dead” and “the room is freezing” along with the game’s title and a single button-like bounded text box labeled “light fire.” Play commences upon pressing this only button, and the text on the left updates to reflect that the fire is now burning. The button text changes to “stoke fire” and becomes a shrinking gray box to suggest that the fire must repeatedly be stoked to keep it alive.
But what ultimately ensues from this initial button press is difficult to describe. New play elements are gradually introduced, and the diegetic world unfolds like a series of nested Matryoshka dolls—albeit it in reverse, as each discovery expands the “minimalist text” in unexpected directions. The play mechanics evolve over the course of a game session, while still adhering to its plain interface. The mode of address also shifts, and a strange reversal occurs during the game wherein its resource management mechanic for the apparent purposes of survival and exploration becomes something far more sinister. While BioShock (Irrational Games, 2010) and other games are rightfully celebrated for their exploration of agency and algorithmic control and their playful "immersiveness," A Dark Room interrogates and calls into question the player’s ludic desires and pleasures by game’s end—all from simply clicking an ordinary button labeled “light fire.”