Shedding light: The making of A Dark Room

You don't always need pictures to tell a story

Shedding light: The making of  A Dark Room

In an industry infatuated with flashy visuals and polygon-fueled emotion, it's easy to forget how powerful the written word is.

Strip back everything and, like a good book, a game can wrap the player in their own thoughts, leaving them with just their imagination and the words.

Words can hurt. Words can change the world. David Cage believes emotional response will be more powerful as graphical fidelity improves - David Cage is wrong. The mind can paint the most lucid pictures.


A Dark Room  is a text-based hybrid of resource management, story and exploration. There's no sound, no pictures, just text, discovery and progress bars.

Michael Townsend created the first version in a few months using HTML and Javascript, and put it on the web for people to play as an idle game to click away at. Another incremental game, called Candy Box, inspired A Dark Room's  creation.

Amir Rajan, creator of the iOS version - which was developed in RubyMotion - stumbled upon it by chance.

"I came across the game via a tweet and immediately fell in love with its presentation and gameplay," Rajan recalls. "I saw it wasn't mobile compatible, so I reached out to Michael about doing an iOS port of the game. Five months later, A Dark Room  for iOS released."

At this time, Rajan was on a "learning sabbatical". He feels he's somewhat addicted to building and coding things and decided to quit his day job to pursue his passion.

Amir Rajan

"My primary motivation was to learn something new - never would I have imagined the success A Dark Room  has had," says Rajan. "Before A Dark Room,  I'd never done any App Store-worthy iOS development, and out of sheer dumb luck, decided to use A Dark Room  to get more familiar with the platform."

Rajan didn't just do a straight port of Townsend's game, however. The iOS version contains more content and a fair few platform-specific changes. Rajan tried to give the post-apocalyptic world Townsend created a more meaningful story.

The wanderer

"I owe a lot to Michael," admits Rajan. "The web version of the game provided me a canvas to tell an evocative story.

"The iOS version of A Dark Room  has an explicit, unsettling storyline that isn't available anywhere else. Michael's post-apocalyptic world provided the general mood. I also found a lot of inspiration in the writings of Frederick Nietzsche."

Rajan was careful to mostly add things to the game, rather than changing the experience completely. Townsend and Rajan didn't want to lose the spirit of the game in the transition.

"The most radical change that was made was the addition of the alternate ending," Rajan reveals. "But you only get hints on how to unlock it after you've beaten the game once the ‘regular' way."

Porting A Dark Room  is like translating poetry from one language to another.
Amir Rajan

The trick was in knowing what to add, as not to bloat the experience. Townsend had a similar issue creating the original version, which was planned to be much more grandiose in the randomly generated exploration part of the game, titled "The Dusty Path".

"Michael was itching to create a larger, more intricate world to explore," says Rajan. "It's a fine balance between shipping something ‘complete' and never shipping at all."

The biggest challenge Rajan faced was in tweaking the pacing to suit a mobile audience. "If the pacing wasn't perfect, gamers would lose interest and delete the app," he says. "I playtested the game, over, and over again. I was painfully critical about the lulls in the gameplay and thought hard about what parts of the game needed to change to keep the player curious.

"It's hard to describe the small metaphorical 'carrots' I placed to keep them playing, but it looks like I succeeded, for the most part. Those that have experienced the game don't even realise how much time has passed until they've completed it, and realise it's three in the morning.

"It was all about taking an idle web-based game and converting it to a game you can play in one sitting. Porting A Dark Room  is like translating poetry from one language to another. I know a lot of this sounds pretentious, but we really do care about this world we created, and want people to enjoy it and make it their own.

"As for the web version, all I can say is that Michael is brilliant. I'm standing on the shoulders of a giant. I jokingly call him the silent mastermind."

Kindle the flame

When Rajan says "for the most part", he's referring to the one-star App Store reviews left by disgruntled customers who gave up before the game opens up.

The game starts simply, with the only aim to stoke a fire until the flame is burning bright, and a stranger stumbles into the room. The game then gives the player the option to build and, once they obtain a compass, the exploration opens up. A small portion of players don't understand that it's about discovery and give up before the fire illuminates the dark room.

"People expect instant gratification when it comes to apps in the App Store," says Rajan. "A Dark Room  is all about slow reveals - it lets the player form a world in the mind's eye, and right when the player thinks [they've] got it all figured out, the game throws [them] a curveball.

"Many people connected to this, but some completely rejected it. They were infuriated and called the game a scam, thinking that the entire game was what they currently saw. The first time I saw those one-star reviews it really hurt, but you get used to it and accept that this game isn't for everyone."

It's a game about slow reveals, discovery, and minimalism. It's easy to see why a frustrated player expecting a quickfire blast on the morning commute might see it as something else. That minimalism, however, is core to the game's magic.

"Only using words is a wonderful constraint," admits Rajan. "I wish more creators would place emphasis on content. I can't count the number of websites I go to that flood the view with images, animations, and photos when they should be putting emphasis on the written word.

"Given that A Dark Room is completely text based, putting lipstick on a pig by placing flashy graphics, explosions, or sound effects wasn't an option. The constraint removed the ‘noise' giving Michael and I clarity, and as a byproduct, the game and player received clarity too."

The lack of audio wasn't really an intentional design decision, though. Although the game is purposefully barebones, the lack of sound is down to the duo's lack of ability to produce it to the quality they'd have wanted. "Frankly, we both are terrible at creating sound bites," admits Rajan. "No deeper meaning here, just a couple of amateurs."

As well as the lack of sound, the game has no pictures - even The Dusty Path is made up of letters and keyboard symbols, yet it all makes sense after a very short time. The only visual cues are the aforementioned progress bars, words and the device's screen dimming as the fire goes out - stoking the fire brings the brightness back up, and saves the game.

"The glow of a small screen is something we all can relate too," says Rajan. "Many go to sleep and wake up to our devices. The device has become an escape for us when we are bored. It just felt right to play with that mechanic in the game. It's also an elegant way to remind the player to save."

Dark compulsion

Although it is simple, even outside of the exploration, there's something compelling about tapping away at progress bars and watching numbers tick up. Rajan believes it's down to that word: progress.

"Visual progress and feedback is [addictive] and rewarding to us," he explains. "Every new reveal, every increase in a number, every progress bar at 100 percent reminds us that we are making forward moving progress. It connects with us on an almost instinctual level."

There's more to the story than watching numbers tick up, though, and that's what keeps the player driving forward. There's The Dusty Road, which turns the game into a randomly generated exploration game with light RPG elements and combat, but the main hook is that story, with its dark tones and subtle - but mind-bending - twist towards its climax.

"It's crazy," admits Rajan. "In games like Grand Theft Auto,  we steal cars and murder people without thinking twice. In Call of Duty, we man aerial drones and shoot missiles, killing hundreds of soldiers. But for some reason, the darker moments in A Dark Room  cause a much more visceral reaction. I guess it's because your imagination is completely engaged, there are no visual elements, so the gamer is forced to create [their] own."

I played the game eight hours a day for two weeks before releasing.
Amir Rajan

One of the things Rajan added to the game was a narrative justification for death, in the hope of further immersing the player in the narrative.

"It was a minor pet peeve of mine," admits Rajan. "The game had a sense of realism, and I wanted to maintain that. So I had to think of some way to explain how you die and come back to life, I didn't want A Dark Room  to feel like just another game that has infinite retries. I built a bit of mystery around characters in the game to help explain the death and resurrection and by doing so, I deepened the connection the player has with other characters - at least I hope I did."

Getting honest feedback has been tough for Rajan. Playtesting the game was a constant challenge.

"My wife and I played the crap out of the game," recalls Rajan. "Literally a hundred-plus hours of playtesting. I played the game eight hours a day for two weeks before releasing - plus the play testing my wife and I did throughout the development process.

"I tried showing the game to fresh eyes, but it wasn't complete. The constant feedback I got was 'it needs pictures' - that just went against the grain of what A Dark Room  was. So it didn't turn out as well as I would have liked."

One thing that did turn out well was the game's natural fit for blind accessibility. The game wasn't created with this in mind, but the simplicity lent itself to translation across the senses. People from the blind community reached out to Rajan on Twitter, and he obliged.

"How could I say no?" asks Rajan. "There are gamers out there, seeing and blind. And A Dark Room  is a unique game that can actually provide entertainment to both, because its text based How lucky is that?

"I learned that some things you do just because it's right. You don't do it because it'll make you money, you don't do it because it benefits you directly. You do it because it impacts other people's lives."

Rajan never signed up for the port to make money, he wanted to see the game hit iOS, and he wanted the achievement of having put it there. He succeeded, and now the game is available to buy for pence.

"Michael and I have wondered what would happen if we increased the price of A Dark Room,  but have decided against it," says Rajan. "Other games have precedence on other platforms are celebrity backed, or have been around a long time. They show everything they have to offer, invest a lot in marketing, and ask for a fair price up front. A Dark Room  has no official media coverage, says nothing in the description, looks absolutely ridiculous with its single screen shot, and asks for $0.99.

"It's a roller coaster. There are days that I feel A Dark Room  has staying power and will make a permanent mark in the App Store. And there are days where I feel it'll just disappear and be forgotten.

"Currently, A Dark Room  hovers around 1,000 downloads a day, but it continues to drop. There are games out there that have literally 10 people on a team that barely make the top ranks. Michael and I are lucky that it's just the two of us. Bottom line, having only one asset in the App Store simply isn't enough to bet your future on."

And that future is where the pair have their eyes firmly set. "Both of us have unique game ideas in the works," reveals Rajan. "We bounce ideas off of each other to see what will work and what won't. If all goes well, they will hit the App Store late summer - at least we hope so. We are also working on an Android port of A Dark Room."

A Dark Room  proves that you don't need to be 1080p, 60fps powerhouses with guns and dubstep to be marketable. There's a market there for people who want unique experiences, and games can be compelling with the bare minimum of features, providing what is there sparks the imagination. There's power in words, most videogames have just forgotten how to use them.

Contributing Writer

Kirk is a writer of many words and grower of many hairs. He manages to juggle family life with his passion for video games and writing. From the mobile indie scene to triple-A blockbusters, his life ambition is to play ALL the games. Yes, all of them.