You awake to find yourself in a dark room. You have four options. Choose wisely, and you will live to face another set of options, and eventually escape the dark room alive. Choose poorly, and ‘YOU DIE! YOU DIE! YOU DIE!’ This is the world’s only live text adventure game. The ceremony is about to begin.
We all have a yearning for simpler 8-bit times.
Australian comedian John Robertson created The Dark Room as an interactive YouTube series in 2012. Two things happened: the series went viral with 4,000,000 hits and the live version debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe, becoming an instant cult hit. Since then The Dark Room has been touring Fringe and comedy festivals, as well as gaming and sci-fi expos, around the world. In 2014, a Twitch special attracted 250,000 players. There is even a spin-off videogame released in Steam. Now there’s an inspirational tale for all you little YouTubers out there.
How did he do it? I think there are three key components: nostalgia, charisma and ritual. In a world of hyper-realistic video games, we have a yearning for simpler 8-bit times. Even though The Dark Room is a parody of 1980s text adventures, it also resonates with a more primitive part of us. In a world of infinite answers for any given question, fewer options make people happier. However obscure those options might be. You couldn’t sell it better to hipsters than stating that he’s so retro that he’s alive.
The second component is John Robertson himself. Self-described anarchic improviser and insult comic, he is a devil of a man. The two years he spent hosting UK’s videogame TV show Videogame Nation prepared him well for his Mad Max gameshow. Deeply rooted in roast culture, he has a manic flair for improvisation and tongue-in-cheek abuse. His material is edgy, intelligent, but above all incredibly quick-witted.
The third and most important component is ritual. There is no cult following without rituals, be it religion or pop culture. Chanting 'YOU DIE!, YOU DIE!, YOU DIE!' is like an initiation rite for entering a secret society. Think Fight Club. Robertson is perhaps right in saying that he has made the indiest indie game of all time.
The Dark Room has been running consecutively for seven years now. If Robertson ever gets bored of killing people inside his little dark room, he could do anything from becoming a wrestling announcer to being the next Sith Lord. No rush though, the crowd is still enjoying being insulted and exterminated. To my surprise, I also found myself chanting dead-wishes to the undeserving players. Perhaps next time someone asks for my name, I will answer: Darren. I am Reviewer Darren.