Minimalism and Curiosity in A Dark Room

A Dark Room came to me right after last month’s Full Indie, where I discussed with a few people about why I don’t play many text games. As an artist, I am deeply invested in visuals and find it difficult to get into games with poor graphic styles or games that are text-only — not to mention that despite being an average writer myself, I’m harsh on other people’s writing. Well, that was silly. It seems like I was playing all the wrong text games.

The only visuals you’ll find in A Dark Room are very minimal ASCII, in what I assume is a later part of the game. Or is it only the beginning? The appeal of this game lies very much in how much it doesn’t tell you.

There’s no formal tutorial. No guidelines. The only description of the game is that it’s a “minimalist text adventure.” Indeed. The explanations are the most minimal of them all.

I’ve complained many times before about unnecessarily explanation/text-heavy games and what I call “feature dumping”: when a game throws every possible variant, attack, maneuver, option, etc. on you early on, instead of introducing or explaining each thing gradually. It’s one of my worst nightmares as a player, and there are a few games I actually stopped playing mid-tutorial because of it. Why would you put anyone through that kind of torture?

A Dark Room is the opposite. When you start, you get one button; as the game progresses, you get access to more buttons. (Whoo!) Maybe it’s a little slower than you’re used to, but because the game doesn’t initially rely on quick reflexes or deeply involved game rules or stunning visuals, it’s forced to use one of the oldest tactics ever: curiosity.

Curiosity is such a powerful motivator that Peter Molyneux made a whole game of it. The key is to give someone just a taste of information: the less you know, the more your imagination can run wild. This is precisely why I fell in love with A Dark Room. I had no idea what was going on — but I could build myself a story, guessing at how to fill in all those blanks based on what I did know. Each time the game revealed more, the story in my head would adapt to it.

Of course, this means that the story I’ve built around my experience is probably not the same story that others saw. I see this as a bonus. When each player builds a similar but nevertheless different world around a game or story, we create an array of alternate realities — how is that not awesome?!

We’re often warned of the dangers of over-scoping here at VFS, because humans seem to have a natural urge to add more and more. I’m guilty of it too, but from now on I plan to actively deconstruct elaborate ideas into their core, and let players have their own interpretations of whatever happens to be left.

Anna Prein is a VFS Game Design student and a winner of our Women in Games Scholarship