THE DARK ROOM
Written and performed by John Robertson
“You awake to find yourself in a dark room!” So goes the simple premise for the world’s only live text based adventure game. The show began four years ago, as a YouTube hit. Now 4 million hits later, and it’s on the road. Written, created and performed by loud-mouthed Aussie comedian John Robertson, The Dark Room is an equally funny and infuriating nostalgia trip back to a time before hi-definition graphics and 3D environments. Rather, this represents a period when video games amounted to little more than choosing one of a few colourful options from the screen over and over again.
Naturally, a lot of people may not be old enough to remember the advent of modern games, and those that are may have long ago forgotten it (I do thanks to my primary school having boring educational versions). As such, our chaotic host (dressed like a reject from Tron) spends the opening 15 minutes bellowing at/ with the audience to find out who they are and what they know about gaming. This part of the evening went very well, with John showing an interesting mix of warmth and sweary mock-contempt for the crowd – especially those born post 1989. In a split second he could go from a menacing glare to a contagious wide-mouthed smile. After this he introduces the shoddy prize table (this time including a Goosebumps book, a late-career Morrissey CD and a box of “possibly meat”) and explains the fairly basic rules. Then with that, we’re off.
Audience members have six lives between them, and around an hour to complete three tasks: turn on the light, find their family and escape. Along the way there are a few different modes and twists in the tale. Sounds easy enough, right? But it’s quite the opposite. As Robertson wrote himself in a Vice article, games have become too easy now, with games being used to generous portions of hand holding and hints. Consequently, he’s created one that’s fiendishly tricky, deeply unfair and often completely illogical. But, most importantly though, it’s one that manages to be rather enjoyable and strangely addictive to spectate. Which is quite an achievement, as under normal circumstances I can’t think of a duller way to pass time than watching other people play. As the talking head, Robertson prowls the stage before handpicking his contestants from a keen crowd intent on completing their quest. Supposedly it can and has been done. But alas, at my performance the players didn’t get far, finding themselves in maddening loops or dead ends. So it’s impossible for me to say just how deep the game goes. Yet oddly, I doubt it really matters, since after a while it provided a fairly loose premise for off the cuff patter and audience interaction. Obviously, as per any show dependent on improvisation, it can only be as good as the people at it – and luckily in my case it was a strong one who were happy to join in from the loading screen. It also had a suitable demographic range including a hipster, two teenage girls and a man who looked ‘just like the internet’.
However, I get the feeling that even with a bad room Robertson has the banter to pull off a decent night’s entertainment. He delivers quick-fire quips by the dozen, regardless of how much or how little he’s given to work with, touching on subjects from presidential assassinations to Mary Poppins and Joy Division. Crucially, even during the loudest parts his aggression stays fairly controlled. Any cruelty is undercut by the geeky obsession that forms the basis of his in-group. As such he comes across less like a bully and more like a goading mad hatter, pushing people to want to win even more. This last part matters a lot since, no matter how difficult they are, above all else games are supposed to be fun.
The dark room is touring: dates and tickets can be found here.