Progress Is Power in ‘A Dark Room’

This post contains spoilers for A Dark Room.

A Dark Room is a difficult game to summarize in genre terms. It’s an iOS game that is part RPG, part strategy game, open world text adventure — or something like that. It is Candy Box, but far less upbeat. What it “is,” however, is less important than what it is about.

A Dark Room is about the relentless pursuit of progress, that continual self-improvement that so many games are structured around. I love progress in whatever form it takes in a game whether it be an expanding world or new abilities or new tools. That progress is compelling when it works, and addictive at its best, but there’s a much darker side to that progress and A Dark Room revels in the disturbing intersection between obsession and improvement.

a ragged stranger stumbles through the door and collapses in the corner.

she’s woken up. says she can build things. she’s a friend.

You start in the titular dark room, where you “stoke the fire” to save the game. With the fire started, you encounter a mysterious woman, a builder, who offers to build things for you. This drives you to collect wood, which you have to do manually every 20 seconds or so, until you have enough wood for a hut. This is the start of your village. As you build more huts, you attract more workers who you can assign to jobs. Each job brings in a certain amount of resources and uses a certain amount of resources, so the trick is finding a balance. As your village grows, the number of jobs grow, and this little city sim gets more complicated.

In addition to city building you can venture out into the world via a retro ASCII art map. Out here you’ll find caves, cities, mines, houses, and other stranger locations. You’ll encounter beasts and other survivors, which you fight in real-time, menu-based combat. With combat, comes weapons, and with weapons, come armor — more things to upgrade in addition to your city.

This is the general loop of gameplay: Growth begets more growth, progress leads to more progress, and you build huts to attract workers to gather resources to build better tools to assist in further exploration. What begins as a small fire in a single room becomes an expansive world of interconnected systems. It is surprising and exciting to discover how much more there is to the game, and it is that promise of new systems that you don’t even know exist that drives you to explore deeper and deeper into the world.

the thirst to explore is unbearable.

the worry in her eyes grows.

As you play, the game periodically flashes messages to you: descriptions of your village or criticisms from the builder. This is where the game starts to reveal its (and your own) dark undertones. Your village is not a happy place, and your workers are not happy people. Their backs ache from the work they do, their eyes are dead, and the builder begs you to let them rest. But you can’t do that. You can only make them work more. Soon the game stops calling them “workers” and calls them what they really are: slaves.

This is when the game becomes disturbing, but also more compelling. You can’t continue exploring without embracing your role as slave driver. In order to get steel swords, convoys, rifles, or grenades, you have to expand your community to attract more unwitting victims and work them relentlessly until a beast or thief kills them in the night. The only way to survive in the brutal world outside is to empower yourself at the expense of your slaves. This is the cost of progress. They work, but the rewards are entirely yours.

back breaking labor. no rest for the villagers.

make them work. day and night.

Many games emphasize progress. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare changed multiplayer gaming by making progress a central tangible reward for playtime. Progress feels good because it implies power. To progress in something is to overcome a challenge and to overcome a challenge is to imply that we are stronger than whatever challenged us. But that power to overcome has to come from somewhere, and often games often ignore the source of power to focus purely on its rewards. We don’t ever stop to think that the new abilities that we get in God of War come from another god giving something up. We are blindingly self-involved. We don’t notice how the world has to be sacrificed for our progress.

The real horror of progress in A Dark Room is that even when we see the truth — that our progress and our power come from a relentlessly efficient system of resource management that turns allies into sacrificial slaves — we don’t stop it. We can, the “restart game” button is always right there on the main menu that acts as our hub, tempting us, but the pursuit of progress is even more temping. We progress not simply to beat the game, but to conquer it. To see every corner of the map. To loot every abandoned city. To find a use for that “special” alloy. The sense of wonder and discovery from earlier in the game fuels our obsessive exploration. You play A Dark Room until you’ve done and seen everything that you can, and then it resets on its own. Because it knows you want to do it all again. Because conquering is exciting, conquering is progress, and progress is fun.

unfathomable destruction to fuel wanderer hungers.

The final twist, which you might not even realize upon finishing the game, reveals the truth behind all of this. You were never a savior or a protector. From the very beginning, you were a being that brought destruction.

Yet there is hope. The developer commentary (unlocked after finishing the game the first time) encourages us to try and end the game without building any huts, which would mean not using any workers and not making any slaves. Our progress would still imply power, and we’d still be conquering the world one cave at a time. However, it would be a slightly less destructive form of conquest.

I’ve tried this, so I can speak from experience. Simply put, it’s fucking hard and slow as hell. I eventually gave up, built huts, made slaves, and within minutes, I had weapons and armor and wagons and other resources that had previously seemed out of reach. My progress was immediate, and it was oh so deliciously empowering.

Progress is power in games. We can deny it for ourselves out of moral protest, but that also denies us a special kind of dark satisfaction. The builder has hope for us in the beginning. She wants to help us to grow and to guide our growth by building the things we need, but it’s hard to stay true to her lofty view of us. It’s so much easier to use both her and 80 slaves to grow our village. She offers progress, but the slaves offer faster progress.

she weeps. but the thirst to conquer is unrelenting.