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For a recent assignment in my “Theories of Serious Games” course I was tasked with examining the narrative of any game (not just serious ones). So I decided to unpack the fascinating storyline in one of my favorite iOS games of the past year, “A Dark Room”. In addition to giving me the excuse to play it again, I really enjoyed applying the theories I have learned to this game to examine just why I found it so fascinating.

The intrinsic motivation hits the player right from the App Store page by creating curiosity. Why is there only one screenshot? And as you start to play that curiosity unfolds into a puzzle. What exactly is the main character searching for? Intrinsic motivation continues as you gain control of a village of workers. You can have up to 80 of them completing various tasks for you at one time. This mechanic, managing resources, is a main element of gameplay. And of course like in many RPGs you also have control of your inventory. You can upgrade your weapons from a Bone Spear all the way to the Rifle and Carbine.

The game does an excellent job never taking you out of the flow, using the non-player character the Builder as a “pedagogical agent”, teaching you about how to utilize new resources and buildings. As you venture out into the world, the enemies you encounter are initially not as challenging as those further away from the village, thus providing a scaffolding to enable success and again keep the player immersed.

But the strength of A Dark Room is the narrative. It’s a straightforward linear plot, about a hero on a journey from humble beginnings to being in command of a raucous village, and more. Nothing you do has much effect on the plot…at least, it seems that way, up until the end. And that straightforward plot…well…even mentioning that there is a twist is a form of a spoiler. After playing the game you fully understand why Amir Rajan, the creator of the game for iOS, has such a sparse description on the App Store: “Awake. Head throbbing. Vision blurry. Come light the fire.”

So go play it. It’s free at the time of posting!

After you play, if you want to discover more about the learning theories that explain why the game is such a success, check out the attached file to read my assignment. Narrative Expedition Final Online