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A Dark Room's unique journey from the web to iOS

Leigh Alexander examines the unique, evocative A Dark Room, catching up with its creator -- and the distant collaborator passionate enough about the game's message to undertake its iOS port.

Leigh Alexander

March 6, 2014

9 Min Read

It starts in a single dark room. You light a fire, and the room grows warm. A stranger blunders in, falls unconscious. You gather wood to keep her warm. When she wakes up, she tells you she can build things. You build things. A shelter becomes a shantytown, as you, the builder and a handful of stragglers live off the small animals you trap. Strange noises and unseen beasts come from the shadows that pool around you in the wood, and sometimes they leave their teeth behind. You build. You stoke the fire. And as it grows, and as your village grows, so grows in you a hunger to explore the outside world for its resources, to forage, to dig and mine and burn and be ready to confront the lonesome and forbidding evils that lie outside the places your light reaches. A Dark Room [iOS version here] is a minimalist, text and ASCII-only resource-gathering and adventure game, a grim, meditative collision of Candy Box and Nethack. Creator Michael Townsend played Aniwey's Candy Box for about 10 minutes before the hunger to go further with narrative was stirred. "I’d seen idle games before, but nothing with with the sense of exploration and wonder that Aniwey’s game evoked," he tells Gamasutra. "Right away, I started thinking about how that framework could be applied to a more narrative-focused experience. It seemed like such a natural fit to have the player’s understanding of the world expand along with the game mechanics." Like Candy Box, the gradual evolution of A Dark Room's world surprises and delights the player. A weathered family takes up in one of the huts you built. You learn to turn fur into leather. The incredibly simple interface, dark text on white space, creates a sense of mystery, of frontier spirit. When you realize you can turn leather into armor, build torches from the scraps of cloth you find in your traps, so too comes the revelation there's an entire world outside your tiny encampment. The same compulsion with which you gather resources pushes you to expand into the land around you. A shivering madman charges at you from somewhere inside a house you thought was abandoned. An invisible sniper takes a shot at you from far across the grassland; a scaled monstrosity trundles up from the underground of a ruined metropolis. Although the world of A Dark Room is enormous, freckled and scarred with constant surprises, it feels like spoiling to reveal even this much. The sense of mystery, the sense of what is this and what else, drives the player ever onward as if chasing relief from thirst. The first time I played the game I thought I'd let it idle in a browser like other similar ones while I went about other things.

"My target demographic was the intersection of People Who Like it When Numbers Go Up and People Who Like Exploring the Unknown."

I ended up fixated on it late into the night, alone in the light of my tiny netbook, committing my villagers -- my hunters, my trappers, my gatherers, my tanners -- to more and more work, slightly horrified at my own course but unable to avert it. "My target demographic was the intersection of People Who Like it When Numbers Go Up and People Who Like Exploring the Unknown," says Townsend. "I think those are two pretty fundamental human drives, and they form the foundation of many of the games we create for ourselves." Every confrontation the game gave me made me feel vulnerable, inadequate, afraid. Every one. Adds Townsend, "I’m missing out on People Who Like to Crush Their Enemies, but whatever." Townsend has been building games "for as long as I've been able to use a keyboard," and maintains a long-held fascination with supply chain games and The Settlers. "The 'second act' of A Dark Room was entirely borne from that perverse love," he says. "It never got as maddeningly complex as I wish it could have, but it did the trick." He built the initial browser version of A Dark Room on his own, with narrative input and playtesting from friends and family. After the first release, the game went up on Github and built enough interest to yield a newer version with added content. Hackathon regular and web game builder Amir Rajan fell in love with A Dark Room after discovering it through Twitter. He'd just quit his job to take a sabbatical, and to preserve as much of their savings as possible, he and his wife downsized to a car, a bed, some clothes and only a backpack's worth of worldly possessions. The unspoken question that the game poses to the player -- how much do you really need, how much is enough for you to feel safe and fulfilled? At this time in Rajan's life especially, the game resonated. He decided to reach out to Townsend to see whether the latter would be interested in an iOS port. "I connected with the game, and then simply emailed Michael to see if I could port it over the iOS," Rajan says. Townsend said yes, and sent over a snapshot of the code.

"I was very worried about the 'vengeful 1-star reviews.'"

"A virtual handshake, 70 emails, one video conference and four months later, A Dark Room shipped," says Rajan. "It's crazy to say, but I haven't met Michael in person and have only spoken with him once, for an hour over video conference. Welcome to the future, I guess." Townsend's original game involves hover-states and other elements that made it hard to imagine doing a touchscreen version himself. But just as in A Dark Room, where allies blow in from nowhere and get to work, Townsend trusted Rajan's ideas. "He came back later to show me what he’d built, and I was super impressed. He’d totally redesigned the interface, which I hadn’t expected (though I totally should have), and tweaked a bunch of things to make ADR more conducive to a mobile experience," says Townsend. "I’m thrilled that the two versions of the game support one another rather than compete." In particular, the iOS version of the game as implemented by Rajan features extensive VoiceOver support to be accessible to blind players. "I was asked to do the same with the web version, and I ran away in terror. In retrospect, I wish that I’d had it in mind from the beginning," Townsend says. Implementing the requested accessibility features didn't meaningfully impact the number of downloads on iOS, according to Rajan: "It's just the right thing to do," he says, reflecting on messages of gratitude and connections made with sight-impaired players who appreciated the experience. Rajan had the interesting challenge of not only adapting the browser game for touchscreen play, but also making adaptations and enhancements to Townsend's Cormac McCarthy-inspired world. "Idle web games don't translate as well to mobile devices," he points out. "There was a big risk with pacing," Rajan says. "I wanted to avoid having someone pay money for A Dark Room, open it up and see the single 'stoke fire' button for too long. I was very worried about the 'vengeful-1 star reviews.' I can't count the number of times I mulled over the timing for the first part of the game." He experimented with adding quotations, and trying the game out on friends to see at which point they lost interest. Adding just a few messages at the right times turned out to do the trick, and things grew from there. "I did end up adding a more explicit storyline to the mobile version that were directly inspired by Nietzsche and some of my recent life events," says Rajan. Some players were so affected by some of the story's darker moments that they would restart the entire experience to try to avoid those situations. Townsend's original plot is rooted in the idea of unspooling understanding about the story to the player slowly, as they progress mechanically. "I’ve always found revelatory moments in narrative a lot more fulfilling when they’re not spelled out for me," he reflects. "It makes me feel clever, and I like feeling clever."

"A good story, like a good game, is a co-operative work between the teller and the listener."

"I tried to leave as much of the world up to the imagination as possible," says Townsend. "A good story, like a good game, is a co-operative work between the teller and the listener. Nothing ruins a story for me like an author who refuses to acknowledge that partnership. Filling in all the blanks takes away any potential for mystery or wonder." Rajan loved the fact the game didn't come with instructions, leaving everything up to the player -- and therefore giving players a sense of ownership over everything they achieve. Townsend, who says he prefers "the comfort and philosophy" of developing open applications in Javascript, says 630,000 games have been started in the game's web version, and only 50,000 of those players have completed the game. "The app store is extremely saturated. I can't imagine how difficult it would be for a game to even have a small amount of success," says Rajan. "Before A Dark Room was ported to iOS, it was essentially vetted (and went viral) on the web. So the game had a bit of a following, which helped the iOS version get some initial popularity." Rajan's mobile version was released late in 2013, and has seen about 14,000 downloads -- more than half of them coming from a free two-day promotion in February. It's one of the top 50 RPG games in the App Store, but hasn't yet made it to a top spot in the Games category. If A Dark Room has a message, it might be the hidden cost of watching numbers go up, and of thirsting for more. Its iOS developer has felt some similar stresses on the App Store market:"You have to care about what you're building," Rajan adds. "You need to have unrelenting persistence." "It's extremely difficult waking up every morning and being disappointed with the number of downloads your game gets. So if you're thinking you can make a quick buck off of iOS, you've got another thing coming to you, unfortunately."

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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