A Dark Room belongs to a strange emerging subgenre that has no name. It’s a browser based game that starts with a single activity set on a timer, which you do over and over again until it unlocks new options. Those new options are also on timers, which you do over and over again until more options unlock. Usually, at some point these games become incredibly complicated resource management games, and then often flip sideways by introducing sudden unexpected mechanics and game styles that are out of place with the early gameplay (which you are often still doing) as the game unpacks itself.
Candy Box and Cookie Clicker are the most famous of these, but Michael Townsend’s A Dark Room takes the idea and goes into a unique direction by layering consistent tone on top of that style of game. You start in the dark room, able only to stoke a fire and gather wood from outside. As you do these things the room warms. Suddenly a stranger arrives from the dark and the cold. When she warms, she tells you that she can use the wood you’re gathering for the fire to make things like carts and traps. As you start hunting and gathering, you gain enough to build new houses. Soon the fire is the center of a small village which you assign to gather resources.
It’s an evocative theme for a game like this, the flavor suiting the stark black and white text presentation of the game. It’s unflinchingly bleak: traps break, villagers get eaten by beasts in the wild, and eventually you begin to outfit an adventurer with equipment to brave the wastes. There the game becomes a rogue-like, as you travel an ascii map in short bursts trying to balance gathering new rare supplies with your limited water and food. It’s harrowing, intense, and doesn’t hesitate to wipe out your adventurer if you act foolish.
Unfortunately, it’s also the biggest problem with this style of game. These games a time sinks, huge clockwork machines meant to get you to waste time waiting for cooldown timers so you can click a thing and get more numbers and start the cooldown timer again. That’s already fairly greedy of the player’s time and attention, but add to that the fact that it takes a lot of time and resource management to outfit the very fragile adventurer, and you’re left in a place where you sit and wait for long stretches just to get enough to make a new sword so you can go out and undoubtedly die and lose everything.
Games like these are interesting on some level because of how they use the timer and energy based mechanics of free to play games to explore something stranger, but that interest is more academic than it is useful to the design. A game like Candy Box or A Dark Room is artificially many times larger than it should be because it simply doesn’t respect the time of the player. Nobody should have to sit through hours of resource gathering to get to the next interesting thing. That’s not meaningful as an actual decision, it’s just abusive design that exploits the same compulsive feedback loop of slot machines to drive player interest.
I like everything about A Dark Room except the fact that it’s inherently a bad game, just like any game in this genre. It asks too much and does so for too little reason or reward. These games are destructive games, meant to breed obsession, and no matter how interesting they get they are hard to recommend on that account alone. I spent hours playing A Dark Room, and even enjoyed many of them, but that doesn’t make it a good thing.