The first time I played through A Dark Room (browser version available here), there was a moment early on in the game—the village was still small, I had yet venture onto the dusty path, most everything was still mysterious—where I started to question my own virtue. Not my character’s virtue, but mine.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For those who haven’t played it: A Dark Room is an online/mobile text-based game, published by Doublespeak Games in 2013, which slowly reveals its true nature over the course of play.
You begin, naturally, in a dark room, with only one possible input: “light fire.” But from single point of interaction, the world quickly expands. Quoting from Michael Thomsen’s account of the game in The New Yorker (full article here):
After stoking the fire a few more times, you have a new option: collect wood, which can be used to build a cart. Once a cart is built, you can make traps and set them in the surrounding forest, and soon you’re collecting cloths and furs, which can be used to build more huts to attract others to your small enclave, allowing for the collection of even more fur and meat. You can begin to see a structure emerge from the fragments, but where that structure will lead you remains impossible to predict, and so the compulsion to keep pressing little word buttons becomes stronger.
It’s those “others” Thomsen alludes to here that I’m interested in, the villagers who take refuge in your growing community. The start of A Dark Room feels profoundly lonely. The only company you have is the builder, a stranger who stumbles into your now-lightened room who says that she can, well, build you things. Once she starts erecting huts, though, the town’s population starts to grow. A “stranger” here, a “weathered family” there: it all adds up. You as the player-character can then start assigning those villagers tasks, such as gathering wood or hunting.
When villagers began to appear in my first play-through, I was glad for the presence of extra people, even if those people were, in fact, nothing more than a number and a job description. When a wild beast attacked the village and killed several of them, I felt something resembling guilt. I, the de facto leader of this village, had failed to protect my neighbors, and now there was no evidence they ever existed.
This emotional connection did not last very long.
Around the time my village hit a population of twenty, when I had started assigning villagers to cure meat and tan leather (for reasons I was not yet clear on), another wild beast attacked. Rather than feeling guilty or sad this time, though, I was merely annoyed. The number of gatherers in the village plummeted, meaning it would take so much longer to collect enough wood to build a workshop (for reasons I was also not yet clear on). The only other option would be to re-assign the other workers to gathering, which of course meant a trade-off in resource gathering: more wood at the expense of meat, fur, etc.
Right then, in a brief flash of insight, I realized that I had stopped seeing the villagers as text-based representations of people, and had started seeing them as resources. They were merely means to my own still-unclear ends, sacrifices to some vague notion of “progress.” And then, as if that sudden doubt never occurred, I went back to pressing buttons, back to accumulating resources.
After all, there was so much of this world that had yet to unfold.
This is, I concede, not a grand revelation about the nature of player/non-player character relationships. Games consistently take an instrumentalist approach to NPCs. They are resource gatherers, quest givers, and of course, enemies. That the villagers have no lives and no function beyond their job descriptions is hardly a surprise.
What I do find surprising, though, is that the subtext of “NPCs have only instrumental value”—which is not even a subtext of the game, really, more a convention it happens to use—is brought to the level of text in the mobile version of A Dark Room.
The browser version of the game, as developed by Michael Townsend, does suggest that the player-character is a villain in the narrative of the game. They’re one of the so-called “wanderers” who conquered this world and have left it in ruins. You eventually find a spaceship in the wilderness, your ticket out of this hellscape. It’s been badly damaged, but it could be restored, and you find it fortunate that the “natives,” people like the villagers, haven’t figured out how to yet. One could read a colonialist narrative onto that story, but the game does not directly implicate the player (as opposed to the player-character) in that narrative. It’s just too oblique in its story-telling to do so.
It wasn’t until Amir Rajan adapted A Dark Room for iOS that the game’s critique of the player’s actions became overt. In the early goings—coincidentally, near the point when I had that flash of doubt—the builder begs you to stop overworking the villagers. When you keep pushing them to gather wood anyway, the game overtly relabels them. They are no longer “villagers.” They are “slaves.”
The player’s instrumental approach to the NPCs has consequences, which is certainly uncomfortable, as Rajan notes in an interview with Brian Riggsbee (full interview here):
The web version didn’t have any of the builder commentary or the slave transition…It’s funny actually, someone reached out to me on Twitter about the slaves transition and how “it wasn’t his choice.” He was pretty angry about it. His Twitter profile background was that of Fallout: New Vegas, where you can literally [be] part of a slave-driving army.
It’s all fun and games until the game points out that your progress has come at the expense of someone else’s autonomy.
To include the slaves transition was an editorial decision on Rajan’s part, an act of interpretation as well as adaptation. But does it pull the adaptation too far from the source material? Hardly. If anything, it simply reinforces the in-game narrative. Just as the wanderer uses the people they conquered to serve their own ends, the players use the NPCs to gradually satisfy their curiosity.
After all, how else can this story unfold?