“It's roughly equivalent to... well, you'd have to imagine momentarily that a bunch of people had been waiting for the rebirth of Jesus Christ and he just happened to be Taylor Swift: people were incredibly pleased and jumping. I crowd-surfed out of the building.” Comedian John Robertson is describing what it was like when somebody finally escaped The Dark Room, his live-action text adventure. He’s been performing the show since 2012, taking it all over the world – from dark basements at the Edinburgh Fringe to stages in Greece, Berlin, and Australia. He’s even taken it to a burger bar in Cambodia – "Did you know they had burger restaurants in Cambodia? I didn’t". And this Friday Robertson is bringing The Dark Room to London’s SOHO Theatre.
The Dark Room parodies the mercilessly cruel text adventure games on the 1980s. The way it works is that a member of the audience is chosen to play the adventure, picking actions from a list projected onto a screen onstage. Many of the choices lead to death, all of them to some cutting remark from Robertson, who acts as the game’s dungeon master. Only two people have ever survived the dungeon and in the last two years no one has made it to the second level.
The whole thing started after a standup gig at an anime convention began to go badly, Robertson tells me. “I was on stage in front of about 3,000 people and I was just starting to get heckled by about 3,000 people. Which is a lot of people to be heckled by.” Remembering a joke he’d made the day before about how cruel text adventures in the ‘80s were, he shouted out to the auditorium 'you awake to find yourself in a dark room’. “The crowd rioted,” he recalls. They immediately got the reference and took it in their stride. “Someone screamed 'I find the light switch, I get out'” but Robertson would reply 'It is a dark room, how can you find the light switch?' They would respond and he would respond. “We got all the lights turned off in this 3,000 seat theatre and for about 45 minutes I just tortured this audience.”
It was a huge success.
Shortly after Robertson made a YouTube version of the adventure. It, too, became a massive hit:
Roberston took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 where it get great reviews and started to draw in larger audiences as word spread. On one night, Robertson remembers, “a silver haired figure” came up to him and said “I invented the thing you’re parodying. It was Ian Livingstone, author and co-creator of the Fighting Fantasy choose your own adventure books, founder of Games Workshop, and life president of Eidos Interactive. He loved the show and told more people, and those people told more people.
Robertson's been touring the show ever since.
Listening to Robertson talk, it's clear that The Dark Room isn't about being cruel and mocking to the audience – well, not entirely. He loves the interaction and the effect evoking these old games has on them. For many people older than 30, the first game they played was a text adventure. It may even have been one of their first experiences of using a computer. Puzzling out how to make the game do what you want is something Robertson is trying to capture.
Granted, while wearing an Xbox controller around his neck and dressed in something that wouldn't look out of place on the Legion of Doom:
“It was one big outpouring of nostalgia,” Robertson tells me, talking about creating the game at the heart of his show. “I didn't need to go back and look at the source material at all. It was all there. The first video game I ever played was when me and my friend Tom found a sort of abandoned computer – it was like the start of an '80s kids show – we found an abandoned computer outside the back of our classroom. We turned it on and managed to get a game running. You were in a cave but it made no sense at all. You would just die if you did anything. You could find a map but when you said 'Pick Up Map' it would say 'You grow weaker'. Everything just killed you. That stayed with me.
“I've taken the nostalgia of our childhood and tried to keep the experience as purely like that as possible. Instead of it being just a cruel text adventure, it's also what it was like to play a text adventure as a child – just bewildering.”
Robertson compares that to a trend in games now that really bothers him: “There was a point where I realised things had changed when I was playing LA Noire and I got to one of the few parts of that game that actually requires manual dexterity. I died three times and this message came up saying 'You seem to be having some difficulty with this bit. Would you like to skip it?'. I thought 'Well, fuck you.' Go back to a text adventure and if you got stuck behind a wall then you were stuck behind that wall until such a time as you figured out what to do, which might have meant reset and start again entirely. Also, how lovely that a part of old school games was drawing your own map while a new school one is I bought the cheat or went online and someone had done the walkthrough. Someone else's map is nothing, doing your own, now that's fun.”
And the game can be won. Though, the two people who won, they came back lots of times to do it. The first guy who won, Brendon, “he'd come to the show 16 times and wrangled his way to playing each time and on the 17th go he won.”
Persistence doesn’t always pay off, Robertson tells me. “There's this one guy, Gareth, who I think has come to the show 30 times and has played about 20 times. Gareth is no closer to the end then he was when he started but he seems to enjoy it.”
Want to try your hand against the Dark Room there are performances this Friday and Saturday.
Top image credit: Bruce Moyle of Joffre St Productions.