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An Interview with Michael Townsend, creator of “A Dark Room”.

After playing through ‘A Dark Room‘ twice a handful of days ago, I decided to contact the creator, Michael Townsend, and ask him a few questions about the development of the game and his personal background. His answers and our questions contain FAIRLY LARGE SPOILERS for A Dark Room, so if you care at all about that then please direct your mouse pointer to the above link.

Certain Age Gamer: First off, tell me a bit about yourself. Just a bit about who you are beyond what we already know.

         Michael Townsend: Mild-mannered software consultant by day, masked champion of minimalist web gaming by night! Really, though, I’m just your typical 29-year-old keyboard jockey. I work a 9-5 to pay the bills, and write/play games in my spare time. I hail from Ottawa, Canada (where it is currently pouring rain) and I’m probably a bit too obsessive about coffee.
 
CAG: How long did you work on creating A Dark Room?
             Michael Townsend: I started work on A Dark Room in early May, and finished it in early June. It ate up most of my free time during that period. I’m still working on it on and off, though, so it’s hard to say that it only took a month.
 
CAG: What kind of games have you been playing recently?
            Michael Townsend: Recently? Not much, to be honest. I tend to swing between playing games and writing games, and I’ve (obviously) been on the writing side recently. I have put some time into Gunpoint, though, and I always have time to run around in World of Warcraft. I actually got this email while deep into The Last Of Us…
 
CAG: You make it clear that Candy Box was an inspiration for this game, any others?
             Michael Townsend: The Settlers and the Anno games made up the framework for resource and production management. I’ve always loved “supply chain” games. I have no idea why. Rogue likes also influenced the design, both graphically and philosophically. When death has consequences, some really fun risk/reward decisions tend to emerge.
 
CAG: Did the storyline come first or the game mechanics?
            Michael Townsend: I’d say it was probably theme, then mechanics, then storyline.  I knew I wanted to use the general feel of idle games like Candy Box, but I wondered if I could use that framework to deliver narrative with a consistent theme. Bleak post-apocalyptic landscapes felt like an easy match to the minimalist interface, so I ran with that. The details of the narrative just sort of came out during development.
 
CAG: Will you be revisiting this world or are you interested in new, different experiences?
            Michael Townsend: I won’t say that I’m totally done with A Dark Room, but I wouldn’t expect any major additions at this point. I’ve been tweaking it pretty constantly over the last week, based on feedback I’ve read on forums and social media. My next project, if I ever get around to it, will likely not be related to ADR (Editor: A Dark Room). I have some other interesting ideas already, and it’d be a shame to ignore them.
 
CAG: How long have you been a gamer?
            Michael Townsend: As far back as I can remember, man. My first memory of gaming is when dad brought home an Apple II from work. Dark Castle and Winter Games. My parents flat-out refused to buy me a console, though, so gaming throughout my childhood was all done on the family 386. Good times.
 
CAG: Are you surprised by the attention “A Dark Room” has been getting?
            Michael Townsend: Yes and no. I mean, I was definitely hoping that it would catch the interest of the Internet. That said, I am constantly amazed checking my Google Analytics and seeing visitors from all over the world playing. It’s honestly a huge relief to see that I can make games that I like, and that other people will like them too.
 
CAG: Do the charms have only one function or are they used for more than one thing?
            Michael Townsend: Just the one. I actually added the charm at the very beginning of development with no use in mind at all. I just figured that I should have some sort of super-rare item come from the traps. It was only at the very end of development that I found a use for it. That’s not saying that I won’t add more uses later, though…
 
CAG: Is the assumption that the main character is an alien correct?
            Michael Townsend: Hey, I’m glad you caught that! That story point was significantly more subtle back in development, but none of my play testers figured it out. I actually went through three iterations on how to do that reveal, but I was still worried that it wasn’t obvious enough.

CAG: Have you worked on any other games?
            Michael Townsend: Oh, so many. This is probably the first one I’ve finished, though. I love to program, and the stuff I do for my day job just isn’t fulfilling on a personal level. Games are the result. Usually, I’m too ambitious in my scope, and lose interest when it takes too long for things to come together. ADR was my first attempt at trying to break that cycle.

Thank you for your time Michael! If you guys want any additional information, feel free to leave some questions in the comments section and we’ll see what we can do to get those questions answered.  No promises.

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A dark room, a story to unravel.

Twice I’ve played a browser game I’m having trouble describing.

From this point on there will be spoilers.  Mild ones.  I’ll let you know when it’s safe to read again.

Here how it starts, nice and simple.

Here’s how it starts, nice and simple.

A dark room” is like dwarf fortress meets asteroid meets…time managment…meets text adventure.  The game evolves as you play, it’s certainly not one thing or another.  It starts with just a room but before you know it:  People arrive.  Things happen and choices appear.  What happened to this world?  Who are you?  Why are you here?  Okay, one of these questions isn’t answered.

I’ll give you pro-tip:  Make fur, you need it.

Spoilers completed, continue reading.

It’s a thoroughly thought provoking game, beautiful in its simplicity.  Uncommon in its mechanics.  It’s like Candy Box, but not like Candy Box.  I have no idea who made it, part of me believes it sprung fully formed onto the internet. [Turns out it was Michael Townsend and was Inspired by Candy Box. Had to look in the page source to find this info.]

Usually when I think browser game I think Kongregate. Mecca of independent game developers and corporate cash cow of Gamestop alike.  Micro transactions add up.

But…

A dark room, it’s everything a browser game can be in a simple addictive package.  Keep coming back and clicking those buttons.  Figure out the mystery, or at least as much of it as there is to be solved.

Sacrifice your time on this altar of simplicity, and gain some reflection, some amusement, and a healthy dose of sadness that there aren’t more games like this out there.

Pro-tip:  This game saves your progress, so don’t feel like you can’t close the tab if you need to.