John Robertson’s The Dark Room is a bit of a cult smash. For the unenlightened, it’s a unique comedy stage show that harkens back to the glory days of 80’s style videogames. Namely, text based adventures such as Zork or A Mind Forever Voyaging. Best described as an interactive yelling game, The Dark Room is a couple of hours of watching a very talented improv comedian riff on clichés inherent in multiple-path games while taking a pop at the human condition.
The videogame adaptation distils the show down to its raw essence. On the stage production, Robertson’s looming presence in enhanced by an outlandish costume and the fact that he’s the main source of illumination during the show. The game introduces the character of The Guardian in a similar way; a gangly cartoon character who capers and chides you throughout. The player is goaded and harassed as they attempt to navigate their way through a puzzle that doesn’t seem very hard.
The core of the game is this - you are trapped in a dark room. The aim is to find the light switch, find your family, and escape. How hard is it to turn on a light switch, you ask? Well if you’ve ever played an 80’s text adventure, then you’ll know that the answer is “challenging”. The game presents you with fixed options, and The Guardian is quick to narrate the consequences of your actions. These typically lead to some sort of gag and your inevitable demise, at which point you’ll be invited to try again.
And you’re going to die a lot in The Dark Room. It’s one of the game's reoccurring gags and a source of the humour. Yelling at the digital golem on the screen is part of the experience. Checkpoints ensure you’re not constantly re-treading the same scenes, but part of the fun here is knowing that a joke is coming.
Compared to the actual stage show, this adaptation pales somewhat, but it does very well for what it is. Games creators Stirfire Studios have distilled the essence of a unique theatre show into something that isn’t really a game. Much like a Rubik’s Cube, this is a puzzle that serves as a diversion and a way to wake oneself up. Unlike a Rubik’s Cube however, it also regularly insults you and makes you giggle (if you do have a puzzle box that regularly chides you, find an exorcist).
If you’ve spent this winter playing videogames until your thumbs went numb or if you found Netflix’s Bandersnatch a bit too mind-bending, then The Dark Room is the perfect antidote. Sardonic, gleefully cruel and very funny, it's worth the couple of hours' distraction in an amusing if dark sort of way.
THE DARK ROOM / DEVELOPER AND PUBLISHER: STIRFIRE STUDIOS / PLATFORM: PC / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW