As someone born in the '80s who was raised on Ian Livingstone books and text adventure computer games, they couldn’t have found a more perfect target market for John Robertson’s Dark Room in me if they’d tried.
The Dark Room started as an interactive YouTube adventure in 2011, using links superimposed on videos to create a novel twist on the text adventure gaming genre, whose popularity thrived in the early '80s. It was a simple idea that was easy to understand regardless of historical context, and largely thanks to John Robertson’s schadenfreude-infused wit went viral in 2012, clocking over four-million views to date.
“You awake to find yourself in a dark room,” shouted John (Paddo Tavern, Brisbane, 3 July), dressed in a pair of spiked shoulder pads infused with LED lighting and otherwise completely black in his leather trousers and corset.
Instead of a microphone, he clutched a small torch pointed at his face, lighting his flowing blonde locks in a way reminiscent of children telling ghost stories to each other around campfires. With a voice as loud as John’s it quickly became apparent why a microphone was unnecessary. To his side, a projector screen displayed four options in each corner for the player to choose from. They covered options from text adventure 101 (“Go North”) to the meta (“Why?”), each one a potentially fatal choice.
It didn’t take long for the crowd to begin shouting along with John’s responses to some of the more commonly navigated paths, with some already knowing the words before we’d even heard them once. By the end, even John wasn’t bothering to narrate the result of “Check Pockets” as we’d seen it chosen so many times. John Robertson's The Dark Room - image © YouTube
Individuals were picked one at a time from the audience to make their attempt at navigating their way out of the dark room. John personally selected each player, coincidentally all named Darren, ranging from the Pokemon/ Power Rangers attired Darren to John’s own second cousin who happened to be in attendance that night.
John seemed to favour the reluctant over the overly eager perhaps as a defence to extroverts who may derail the show by breaking the rules. As the one writing this review, I was personally singled out to play a round, secretly thrilled to have my own five minutes of Darren. I died shortly after selecting “Huzzah For Sex”, which had apparently never been chosen before. As someone born and raised in the UK, with the repression that entails, I have no regrets.
On death, each player was rewarded with items from a table decked in the sorts of things that never usually leave an op shop outside of a bin, from an old Humphrey B. Bear annual to a pair of used thongs. The prize for successfully escaping the Dark Room is a generous £1,000 (roughly $1,777 post Brexit, $2,000 pre Brexit) which is rumoured to have happened at least once before, the winner genuinely receiving their cash prize.
The large reward gives you an idea of how difficult it is to win, considering how many times the game has been played on John’s international tours over the last four years. As us losers like to say, the fun isn’t in the winning, it’s in the taking part.
Each half of the show saw five rounds played by individuals followed by a “democratic” session consisting of the entire crowd shouting their option of choice. Embarrassingly, our group died so quickly that we were granted extra lives in the first half to try and redeem ourselves. Needless to say, the £1,000 didn’t go anywhere that night.
Part of the reason the whole thing works so well is John’s quick wit and ability to think on his feet. I’m sure he’s heard every combination of retort from audiences during his time touring this show and his responses are delivered thick and fast, keeping the crowd under control even as they’re being encouraged to shout like children.
A front table of self-identified '90s kids couldn’t contain themselves, interjecting at numerous points with excited sounds and statements that John leveraged to make things funnier. The inclusive structure created a positive atmosphere that was as exhilarating as it was entertaining. There’s a cathartic joy in shouting “Bullshit you can see!” in unison with a room full of strangers simultaneously pretending to have an antiquated English accent.
It’s no wonder the show has also had success in corporate environments too, as you feel an unspoken bond between yourself and the audience who’ve attempted to escape with you.
Though you think you would know what you’re in for once you understand the core concepts of the show, it was exhilarating on more levels than I was prepared for resulting in a thoroughly entertaining, hilarious and unique experience.
Regardless of whether you think games are a social cornerstone of society or a childish waste of time, there’s something for everyone brave enough to enter The Dark Room.