Red Stewart reviews the indie horror game Dark Room….
When I was in high school, I was determined to be the smartest person in English class. Every time we got an opportunity to do some type of creative writing exercise, I took it as my chance to come-up with something so unique and out-of-the-blue that the teacher would recognize it as a masterpiece and hold it as a standard to measure the rest of the students up to.
In particular, I recall this one tale I wrote about a soldier who travels to an island with his platoon. Slowly, yet steadily, every member of his team disappears, leaving him alone when he confronts the evil scientist who is behind all the craziness: only, the scientist tells him that he doesn’t understand what he is talking about, and when the soldier turns around, he sees that the island has turned into a metropolis.
….I have no idea what I was trying to say in that story. I was so determined to outsmart the rest of my classmates that I forewent logical storytelling in favor of an incoherent, shock value plot. If I were to revisit it today, there’s no doubt in my mind that it would be rewritten from the beginning.
I bring all this up because I couldn’t help but feel that Dark Room could have done with a similar rewrite. Developed and published by Lexip Games, Dark Room features an age old tale popularized in suspense fiction since the days of Edgar Allan Poe: a man is trapped in a desolate building and must find a way out. Nothing wrong with reusing a narrative template, especially when we’re talking about a point-and-click title, but the question is does Lexip Games do anything significantly different with it that would warrant one checking this entry out? The short answer is it’s half-and-half, but for the longer answer read on!
We must begin with the story because the story is everything when dealing with limited gameplay systems in this day and age. Point-and-click games can offer unique puzzles (and Dark Room, to its credits, incorporates some- more on that later), but for the most part they deliberately limit themselves to a simple prompt interface. Part of this has to do with budgetary constraints, but part of this also has to do with the shovelware aspect of these computer titles. I spoke about this at length in my review of Reversion: Chapter 3, but it’s an unfortunate reality of the indie market: make these things easy enough to produce, and you’ll get a lot of developers trying to churn them out quickly for a fast buck.
I won’t accuse Lexip of this tactic because there was considerable effort put into aspects of Dark Room, one of those being the narrative. As I mentioned above, you play as a man who awakens in a room of a seemingly-haunted manor. After a superb tutorial that is brisk and terse, you quickly realize your goal is to search for an escape route all while finding out what transpired here.
This information is revealed through collectible diary entries of various patients and doctors: participants in an experimental procedure involving an alternate dimension. I wish I could claim that I can’t say anymore for fear of spoiling the mysteries of the game, but it is here that I must bring back the point I was making in my introduction: that the writers went too far in trying to be uncommon.
When it comes to standing apart from the crowd, there are two methods a scriptwriter can employ: one, subvert expectations through anti-archetypal story beats and/or plot twists, and two, be vague.
Regarding the former, this is a task that can be hard to pull-off if you don’t outline properly (or let your ego dictate your view of your audience): M. Night Shyamalan’s entire career is a testament to its successes and failures, while my aforementioned essay is an example of something starting off interesting before devolving into a mash-up of incoherent globbery courtesy of poor planning.
Still, it is significantly easier to accomplish compared to the latter, which deliberately involves withholding information from viewers in the hopes of keeping them constantly invested. Horror, in particular, has employed the “vague” trope because it hits three positives: it builds-up apprehension, makes the mystery more enticing, and keeps the budget low. Of course, all but the latter are pure conjecture and based on execution, but you can see why it has massive allure amongst prospective horror entrepreneurs.
Dark Room, as you can guess, is vague to a fault, though I’m not referring to the backstory of the place. That is divulged through recordings that automatically play when you pass unseen checkpoints in the game: one of the head scientists reflects about the experiments, the Russian Government’s role in them, and ultimately what their findings were. Personally, I wasn’t the biggest fan of this for a few reasons: one, their appearance made no sense from a storytelling perspective (why were they suddenly materializing?); two, their mass expositions ruined the piecemeal rewards that should have been granted via exploration, and three, I didn’t understand why the writers felt it was more important for me to know what was going over the protagonist- in a mystery game you need to keep BOTH in the dark, otherwise the dissonance can lead to irritation with the playable character.
No, when I talk about vagueness, I’m referring to all the other narrative threads. The journal pages you find rarely relate to the location, with them instead often describing isolated incidents that occurred years apart; a note from the early 2000s jabbers excitedly about meeting the doctors compared to one from the late-2000s, which is a series of morose ramblings about strange dreams. Whenever I read these, not once did I ever feel like I was slowly uncovering any relevant answers. Other components in the game like human skulls, ensanguined furniture, and creepy messages scrawled onto the surfaces try to give off a sense of tormented history but end up feeling more like haphazard details with no connection to the overarching plot (why would someone be tortured if the scientists were trying to bring them back from the other zone?).
On top of this, the writers are annoyingly-equivocal about the supernatural. Let’s be clear- you are NOT alone. Knocking, screaming, fresh coffee, and bloody hands pounding on glass are all experienced by one sense or the other. There is someone or someones wherever you are, but whether it’s spectral or grounded is unclear from the get-go.
Why is this an issue? Because when we’re talking about being terrorized, there has to be consistency to that terror: that’s where the emotional crux is formed, whether it’s fear, hate, sympathy, or a mix of all three. When we watch a slasher film, the masked villain has a tangible factor to them; when we see people being plagued by an occult monstrosity, there’s a mythology or ritual behind it all. Horror can’t just be a greatest hits of anything that can scare a human being- you do that, you end up with trash like the Final Destination franchise wherein you’re more interested in being a mishmash of torture porn and fourth wall angst: you can’t be mad at the characters for acting like idiots because the circumstances surrounding them prevent them from doing anything intelligent.
Let me put it this way- the worst parts of Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street are the endings since they betray what was set-up before, but since they’re only present at the very end, it’s forgivable. You have to have constancy in your threat and atmospheric dread because it’s what guides the actions of everyone involved. If there is no chance of me being able to beat this menace, then I have to run (ex. slasher movies, running simulators); if there is a chance, then I’m going to take a strategic stand against them (ex. The Lost Boys, Resident Evil).
Because the danger in Dark Room is deliberately nebulous, I can’t feel anything. For example, there’s a part in the game where you’re greeted with a maniacal, off-screen laugh while you hear someone else hammering on a door as the lights coincidentally flicker: if it’s supernatural, why is a simple door stopping it? If it’s a person or persons, why are they letting me live? What’s the point in trying to scare the heebie-jeebies out of the protagonist when they have the ability to move through and influence the environment freely? And if they are evil in nature, why am I bothering creating access ways for them to get to me WITHOUT preparing myself to fight them?
I’m not saying they had to spoil the big bad or give them a corporeal appearance, but there’s no indication that there is even something well thought-out here. Lexip spent a lot of time crafting a Gothic setting, then decided to waste all that effort by filling it with some generic “godlike” entity that can subtly manipulate the environment, but only in such a limited way as to produce cheap jump scares. There’s no mystic logic, no palpability, just a bland antagonist(s).
Now, I could very well be wrong about them not having a clear idea. Lexip may have decided to withhold information for the sake of providing their hopeful sequels with revelations that will fit all the puzzle pieces together, but this itself is flawed because the basics of your lore should not be left hole-ridden for a sequel to fix; they should have a concrete basis that can be believably built on to a horrifying unveiling. For a great instance of this, look at The X-Files: the writers had a lot of secrets about the truth that they kept hidden, but the first few episodes still laid the groundwork- that it was extraterrestrial in scope and the government was doing everything it could to make it a conspiracy.
I had my problems with the execution of the backstory of Dark Room, but I acknowledge it had a good idea that gave a decent framework for something compelling to be constructed on. Yet, that does not happen, and so you’re left with tension-less acts interrupted by “gotcha” moments.
It’s truly disappointing because, as I said, there was effort put into creating something special, and there is no ego present. But the way they went about carrying out everything borders the line of hackery. All the subjects you read about come off like morons who were high on something, the scientists don’t have any impetus or Hippocratic characterizations to them, and the Russian state involvement feels like an outdated Cold War stereotype shoehorned to give the narrative an”evil bureaucracy” flavor (made all the more strange considering Dark Room’s timeline is set, at latest, in the 1990s, well past the height of the Soviet Union).
The playable protagonist isn’t much better. Revealed at the end to be called Martin, he does exhibit genuine human reactions to the stimuli around him, making him potentially relatable. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of these dialogues in the game, resulting in Martin’s responses being too sporadic to have significant weight. There definitely is something to expand upon in a theoretical follow-up, but for this part he just wasn’t where he needed to be as a character.
And that’s really the silver lining to all these narrative shortcomings: that they are amendable. Should a game, even an episodic one, have to be reliant on sequels? Of course not- Life is Strange and most of the TellTale releases are proof that individual entries are capable of standing on their own. But the best part about failing with a vague set-up is that you can fill in the blanks to give renewed purpose, and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t any promise. Compare this to say something like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom wherein I don’t see how how the upcoming Dominion could possibly salvage what it left off.
Now, there is a possible counterargument in that this is a game that is meant to be played multiple times. Seriously, there are three difficulties, but the harder ones are locked away unless you complete the preceding one first. Completing easy unlocks what you could call “normal,” and doing that will unveil the “hard” one. Lexip set this up because they want you to revisit the campaign with the knowledge you gathered before, thereby giving the story more clarity whilst providing you with extra objectives to complete (ex. new files are available to view on a computer you login on).
The problem is, due to the aforestated problems, Dark Room isn’t so fun that it would warrant you wanting to beat it a second, let alone a third time. Of course, this is purely subjective, but even if you did enjoy it, there’s another issue- the “new game pluses” if you were, don’t offer a significantly different experience. The puzzles are barely changed-up, the cinematic set-pieces occur at the exact same time in the exact same manner (robbing them of their surprise), and the extra information you do get isn’t radical enough that you’ll have a “eureka” moment.
At least, this is all true for the second “normal” mode difficulty as that was the only one I did. If the third, “hard” mode significantly changes the gameplay experience, then I’ll concede that maybe it is worth it. However, not only do I doubt that it will do that, but even if it did, I don’t see the excursion being rewarding based on my level of enjoyment of the first two.
Graphics are up next, and it is here that I can be a lot nicer as this is a very beautiful game. We’ve all see haunted aesthetics before, and there’s admittedly only so much you can do: cobwebs, graying wallpaper, eerie portraiture, random bloodstains, it’s all been there, done that. But that does not mean revisiting all these with a fresh coat of paint is lazy- different artists add their own spin to common tropes and elements all the time, embedding them in pop culture for good.
Dark Room operates via an interesting art style that borders the line between photorealism and pencilling. Seriously, every single item, with the exception of preexisting paintings, looks like it was drawn by a talented sketch artist translating photographs into a pencilled form. Small details like the brownish rust of metal, breaks on a rotting table, the pepperjack tinge of an old suitcase, the yellow fade of a book’s pages, mold on a wall, and dust bunnies gathered up in corners is perfectly depicted in the game as though these were real rooms in a rundown building that someone decided to replicate to a tee.
On top of this, you have two other feats that deserve a lot of credit: the conveyance of depth perception and lighting through color. Regarding the former, all the vistas you transition between are framed on a rectilinear grid that does a great job at conveying 3D spacing on a 2D paradigm. This is a visual factor that many of these kinds of computer titles deliberately skimp on due to it requiring true artistic virtuosity, resulting in a number of them often looking blatantly flat. For all my problems with Lexip Games’s writing, it’s evident that they have fantastic artists working for them.
This is especially seen with the latter category of colored lighting. When I say colored lighting, I don’t mean it in the conventional sense wherein you have a light source with multiple hues: PnC titles usually don’t have the luxury of incorporating that kind of illumination. Instead, they rely on a painting technique known as chiaroscuro wherein you use contrasting shades of light and dark pigments to convey glows and shadows.
It would have been very easy to put the desolate dwelling of Dark Room under a pure desaturated aesthetic. After all, spiderwebs, grime, lint, wax, and dried gore all lend themselves to an ashen schema. However, courtesy of sources like candles, lanterns, and even LED lamps, there are a number of bright(er) locations that required some type of radiant distinction, and that was achieved through chiaroscuro. Just as the relativistic Doppler effect depicts light waves slowly dissipating as they move further from their origin, so too have the artisans at Lexip created a realistic-looking optical light illusion through subtly darkening shades: the part of the wall furthest from the beacon is blacker than the part closest. It’s an amazing feat that is consistently done in every location you enter.
Sound is next, and there’s unfortunately not much going on here. Though their accents are a little thick (a look at the cast shows that they weren’t Russian), the voice acting is excellent, with the performers for Martin and Professor Stewart standing out. I said before that the dialogue for Martin features rational reactions to the foreboding nature of his predicament, and we get that from his voice, particularly when he briefly hyperventilates upon witnessing something scary. It’s a shame that there wasn’t more for him to say as he is talented.
SFX is next, and it’s pretty standard. The stock noises they have for things like thunder crashing, footsteps, and thudding work well enough, but they are hurt by the backtracking: having to hear the exact same “stair climb” going up and down a level, for example, is a little disappointing, but it’s countered enough by the short length of Dark Room.
Lastly, we have music, credited to Alexandr Zhelanov, and there are honestly only three tracks that play in the entire game. One is your general exploration tune, the second occurs during the introduction and flashbacks, and the last one is during the finale.
The first one has good and bad traits. As you can imagine, having one composition play on repeat for more than an hour does get repetitive, but it’s never grating, instead maintaining a consistent tone created by what sounds like some stringed instruments (possibly cellos). Despite not being inherently irate, it did trigger my OCD through the fact that it often sounds like it’s building up to something only to then loop back to the start of said build-up. Think of it like listening to John William’s iconic Star Wars overture, and instead of going into the main beat it continues to repeat that same trumpet fanfare. That’s what I got from Dark Room’s primary theme, with it occasionally being broken up by this beautiful piano chord that does not play enough.
The other flashback track is quite wonderful, conveying that somber elegance expected from a scientific discovery gone horribly wrong. It’s a shame we didn’t get more of the latter as Zhelanov is definitely a proficient musician and deserved an opportunity to bring his skills to the forefront.
The final one is more of an unwavering synth that hardly constitutes as a song, being more akin to an ambient track. It’s good, but hardly substantial.
Moving onto the gameplay, there isn’t too much to talk about. PnC means just that- move the cursor onto an interactable object and click it to either get an action or examination response. If it is the former you have the ability to continue forward with a deeper introspection or to utilize one of your tools in the hopes of achieving some kind of gameplay synthesis.
Items that serve their use disappear from your inventory, and all menus are quick to access. It’s a well-crafted system that achieves the baseline points required from a PnC. The question is, does it do anything more than that? Well, the answer is an assortment of parts. Throughout Dark Room, you encounter puzzles that change-up the gameplay, from connecting batteries to get the power up-and-running to a minigame that’s a carbon copy of a level from Unblock Me. Even if they were technically a little gimmicky, I did appreciate them and actually wanted a lot more due to them changing up the pace of things.
That’s with the exception of one, that being a sliding tile puzzle. My goodness did this drive me bonkers. I understand these appeal to certain fans, but for me personally it left me aggravated, and was the main reason I was reluctant to do a replay of the game.
The other riddles you’re required to solve for progression are reasonable enough. I did find there was a lot of pointless writing and numbers strewn throughout the world that had nothing to do with these conundrums, but that minutiae is ignorable enough, and tools are used reasonably well so that you aren’t as reliant on them as you may think.
My last point of contrition when it comes to gameplay has to be how consistently inconsistent the scene transitions are when moving from one screen to another. Sometimes it’s instantaneous, other times it takes a few noticeable seconds, but what’s interesting is that it always took the same amount of time, indicating it wasn’t a loading issue but a design feature. Definitely interesting.
So in the end, what do you get from Dark Room? You get a point-and-click title that’s not only far more polished than most of its contemporaries in the genre, but much more alluring. Someone in the Lexip Games team has to be an aspiring Renaissance Man as the combination of geometry and art in the game’s layout was excellent, and something other games should take note of.
Sadly, these creative efforts are countered by a deliberately amorphous story, a soundscape lacking in two of its three auralities, and horror that gets most of its spookiness from cheap scares.
It took me about 2 hours to beat Dark Room on my first playthrough, and then an additional hour for the second normal mode. I assume it would have been the same case for the hardest mode, making the game’s total runtime around 4 hours. But even if you don’t want to count those “new game pluses,” 2 hours more than suffices my $1 : 30 minutes ratio that the $3.00 asking price warrants.
However, I need to stress that just because something is inexpensive, doesn’t make it worthwhile. The reality is, similar to the Reversion trilogy, PnC games are mass produced to render production costs low and enable them to be sold at low price points. And considering the many flaws present here, I don’t know if I can recommend someone playing Dark Room, even if a sequel somehow turns things upside down.
+ Gorgeous layouts and art style
+ Minimal, yet solid voice acting
+ Decent minigames
– Milquetoast horror
– Lackluster story
– Near non-existent sound
– Slide puzzle
Rating – 5/10