I awake to find myself in a dark room. Well, not awake so much as come round, groggily, after a long day at uni (thinking can be tiring, shut up!). But the room is dark. It’s screen two at Broadway Cinema. I’m already pretty familiar with the Dark Room, Mr John Roberston’s* highly inventive interactive videogame. It may seem strange to bother calling a videogame interactive, but Mr John Robertson’s game is, as I said, inventive, and so the term is apt. I’ve played the YouTube version:
I’ve watched abridged live versions, also via YouTube, and I’m well-versed in Mr Robertson’s other work such as his stand-up and his presenting on Videogame Nation. And it was precisely because of this depth of knowledge (and my own introverted, anxious nature) that I was terrified.
It’s my intention that the opening line of The Dark Room will be the opening line of my PhD thesis because it embodies everything I think good games, good writing, should be. (I have other intelligent, intellectual, thematic reasons too, just in case anyone is reading this and eyerolling. Also, fuck off.) It’s funny, unpredictable and builds a raport between creator and audience that results in a unique experience. Being an occasional writer of interactive things I’m as in awe of The Dark Room as a piece of work as I was frightened to find myself in it. As if writing a branching story doesn’t cause enough headaches, Mr Robertson performs it too, reeling off the 300+ options** in whatever order his player arrives at them.
My experience was in no way marred by being more familiar with the material, although I did envy the two girls I overhead in the toilets before the show saying: “I think he’s some kind of comedian and it’s something to do with videogames.” as I’m sure they got far more than they bargained for. Rocky Horror references were made, and there’s definitely something of that in there, with the audience positively encouraged to shout the show’s catchphrases throughout.
What I wasn’t expecting (and what any YouTube videos of The Dark Room cannot convey) was the atmosphere. As Mr John Robertson leapt around the audience like Bruce Dickinson wrapped in fairy tree lights, the mood shifted from fear at being selected to play, to relief that someone else was going to be ‘Darren’ (the player-character) followed by hilarity and/or frustration as Darren fumbled through the dark to their almost inevitable death. Only two people have ever survived The Dark Room, and our Darrens were not among them. In Mr Robertson’s ever-shifting parameters of player selection, there was one truly terrifying moment where he decided to choose via people’s shadows and as I was scrunched against the wall and therefore casting a weird shadow, I felt sure my number was up. Thankfully, I was saved as the roving light moved past to some other poor sod nearer the front.
This morning I feel like I went to a rock concert. I’m tired and my ears keep popping and I’m still sort of oddly high on endorphins and all of that arose from being shouted at for ninety minutes by a man in lit-up shoulder pads. He’s a Treguard for the 21st Century. Or perhaps he’s the voice in Treguard’s head personified, the one that always wanted to shout: “What are you doing you fucking idiot? Did you learn nothing from everyone else’s attempts?!” but couldn’t due to the restrictions of a children’s TV show format.
My favourite part of the experience was being in such a gamey audience. (I mean, an audience familiar with videogames, not one that smelled of pheasant.) To have someone shout out that his favourite game was “Eco. It’s spelled Ico, but pronounced Eco.” and have the audience roar with laughter at Mr John Robertson’s later callbacks to this rather niche bit of pretentiousness did my heart good.
What I’m trying to say is, if there’s a show near you go and see it. While I can’t promise you such a delightfully game-savvy audience (Nottingham, you did me proud!) I can promise an amazing experience. The Dark Room is fun, exhilarating, alarming and might force you to admit you murdered four children. See it, and then see it again and make better choices.***
*I don’t know what to call him, okay? ‘John’ seems too informal and ‘Robertson’ makes him sound like a PE teacher. I’ve been reading a lot of Dickens, so I’m just going with Mr John Robertson, which is also the name of his YouTube channel, so. There.
**There are 300 screens, each with an average of 3 choices, most of which have unique dialogue associated with them, so I guess it’s around 900 or something? Maths is not my strong point.
***Like not sitting in an aisle seat unless you want to be Darren.