The Dark Room is playing at The Underbelly, Cowgate until August 25th at 20:40 each day. More info.
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You awake to find yourself in a dark room.
It's dark and roomy and the hangover from the night before is only just starting to wear off and you're somewhere deep in the bowels of Edinburgh and a gurning illuminated head is shouting at you in a deep and booming voice.
"How will you find the light switch?" the head intones. "Can you see?"
"I can see," I reply.
"Bullshit you can see! You're in a dark room!"
This little exchange will no doubt be familiar to many who discovered John Robertson's The Dark Room floating around YouTube back in the early part of 2012, the comedic homage to the impossibly fiendish, acerbic text-based adventure games of yesteryear, many of which seemed to make no sense and took an all-too evident delight in bullying players. Now it's returned for another month to the Edinburgh Fringe for a riotous, sell-out run as a live-action, interactive text-adventure (it's on throughout this month, go and see it! - Ed.) , helmed by a wild Australian and his sinister, omnipotent alter-ego.
"The Dark Room is bastard hard," Robertson will tell me the day after I witness his performance as the Floating Head who serves as The Dark Room's dungeon master of sorts. "And it's deliberately designed to be so."
At the start of the show Robertson introduces himself, clad in leather trousers, a corset surrounding his midriff, and with a shock of blonde hair that makes it look like he just put his finger into an electrical socket. As himself, he's a wild bundle of comedic energy, so much so that it's almost exhausting. He talks rapidly, rising and falling in volume dramatically.
"I see we've got some children here this evening," he says, scouring his audience. "This changes NOTHING!"
He slips a harness over his head, affixes an Xbox 360 controller to his chest, the lights go out, and a pipe torch flicks on, illuminating Robertson's face which has contorted into the grinning rictus of a madman. Then, in a deep, booming, rather more clipped Anglicised voice than his usual Antipodean drawl, Richardson bellows, "You awake to find yourself in a dark room!" Behind him on a large screen, a handful of hearts and four distinct options appear: Sleep, Go North, Turn on light switch, Why? There are five lives, five chances to tackle this live-text-based-adventure, interspersed with hilarious commentary from Robertson as the Floating Head. Freed from the limitations of pre-recorded video, The Dark Room becomes part-interactive comedy, part-gameshow, with Robertson evoking memories of Patrick Moore (another fine floating head) and Richard O'Brien. It makes perfect sense, perhaps because it actually started out as a live event, albeit one that was pretty much invented on the fly.
"For many many years I was the cosplay host at Waicon, this anime convention in Western Australia," Robertson tells me over a pint the day after I see the show. "It's big, but it's very very far away from anywhere else. And on a Saturday night they'd wan't something scheduled that could fill the 2000-seat theatre and I managed to convince them that me doing stand-up would do the trick. It didn't, we got about 1500 which was still pretty good, but I was in there one night in the process of getting heckled by 1500 people, and I'm telling a story which can pretty much be summarised by, 'Oh, so you guys like video games and anime? Let me tell you about the time I was at a party and almost punched a guy in the head!' That's pretty much it – it's basically me leading up to a moment when I tried to shoryuken a guy at a BBQ and sadly missed. It's a fine story, but these people were losing their minds, basically just shouting out the first thing that came into their heads. It all got a bit much and eventually, I just thought to myself, 'This is about to die, why don't I do that stuff I came up with the other day about text adventures?' So I broke out in this booming voice with, 'You awake to find yourself in a dark room!' And the minute I did that, the whole crowd starts screaming with things like 'No!' and 'I get out!' or 'I dig!' and we get them to turn out the lights and the whole place just erupted.
"So we just started playing this game on the fly, and for about 20 minutes this million dollar theatre was in total darkness with me just doing this routine. And it was great. The next morning, when I woke up, some kid had drawn a webcomic of it; I was getting people sending me pictures of me, shadowed out, in The Dark Room; and a guy called Bob Slayer, who's a fantastic absurdist comedian whose premier ability is to convince you that it's perfectly reasonable that he's naked and licking you, he turns to me and says, 'Oh John, you really ought to do something with that.' So we made the web series, and that really took off, and then we figured we might be able to do it as a live show, and that's been really warmly received too."
The Dark Room has been touring for about a year, on and off. Robertson brought the show to the 2012 Fringe in Edinburgh last year and then it had something of a triumphant return to Waicon, "the place that had created it...through heckling," as Robertson tells it. "There's something incredible about being able to tell them to turn off all of the tech in this multi-million dollar theatre and it's just you with a stupid little torch lighting your face, it's fucking hysterical, and two thousand people are shouting at you and you're shouting right back. So the we did Melbourne Comedy Fest and then Perth and the London, and now we're back in Edinburgh. It's still a new show."
There's already quite a following for the show, though, part of which is down to the fact that, like the games from which it takes its inspiration, The Dark Room as an adventure is pretty damn difficult to work out. It's a show for people who grew up on the likes of Zork and Fighting Fantasy books and those Choose Your Own Adventure novels. It's frequently left-field, enormously obscure at times, with a contrary logic to it that brings hundreds of memories of hurling controllers across the room in frustration to mind.
But, as Robertson says, that's part of its charm.
"Online there've been five winners," he states proudly. "Three million players, five have won. Bless 'em, they've done well. They were sent a limited edition dog-tags. Live? Two people have won. One of them is the fantastic comedian Brendon Burns who is a beautiful genius and a wonderful friend. I sent him The Dark Room on YouTube and he thought it was hysterical, and then he came to see the show. And then came back sixteen times to try to win! His friend Stuart Goldsmith came along a few times as well and then he won too, and it was lovely, a really happy ending. But no-one has won since. No-one has come close to winning.
"There are 384 separate and distinct screens in The Dark Room. A lot of them kill you. I don't know how many ways there are to die. To be honest, I am moderately disappointed that my favourite death type hasn't come up yet . Back in Australia, you couldn't avoid it. No matter who was playing, someone would eventually get to the option 'a puppy' and would go, 'I want a puppy,' just completely forgetting the nature of the game and the tone of everything that's come before. And what happens then is great, and I don't do any of it; the game does it all. I won't spoil it here, but it's brutal, it's a lot of fun. You've never seen people care so much about words on a screen."
In our show, someone manages to navigate their way through to a choice simply worded 'Baby'. They choose it. The player pokes a baby. Where the baby came from we have no idea. It explodes in a shower of milk. The player dies. You awake to find yourself...
"As a kid, I loved this game called The Journeyman Project: Turbo," Robertson recalls. "It was fantastic, a brilliant game. My mate Tom used to come over and we'd just start playing through it together and we'd make it to the part where you get to the office, and it would say something like, 'Agent Seven, your fourth late arrival has been catalogued and noted.' I remember Tom nudging me and saying, 'John, how many times have you fucked this up?' even though it's part of the story. You're then supposed to put in a serial number from the manual. The game didn't come with a manual. We spent two and a half hours pressing buttons, working out the sequence with a notepad, reloading every time we screwed up, and this was on Win95 on a Pentium 1, so it took a really long time. But in the end it was worth it, just one of the most satisfying games I ever played.
"But more recently I was playing L.A. Noire, having a great time with this hybrid, modern point-and-click adventure, getting all of the clues and solving cases, it was great. But there's a point during the car chase, and the game came up with this option that said,' It looks as if you're having trouble with this part, would you like to skip it?' and I just thought, 'This is horseshit!' Me and my mate Tom at the age of thirteen found nothing more entertaining than trying to decode a goddamn door for hours that we reasonably shouldn't have been able to get through, how dare you turn round and go, 'Pardon me, you don't appear to be able to play this game well enough at this time. Would you like to skip it?' No! I don't want to skip it! That's not what games are meant to do! A game should teach you how to play. That's the whole point. You learn how to play, you gradually get better, you feel a sense of accomplishment, and that's why the hard challenges are always at the end. To say, 'Let's skip over this!' just sounds like poor design. And what comes afterwards? Is it even hard? How much am I skipping? Why have you put in a process that encourages players to literally stop playing your game? I guess that The Dark Room is really a tongue-in-cheek response to that as well."
I ask Robertson if he feels that there's been a change in attitudes and whether that's down to the players or the games themselves. There are fewer games that demand players learn their ways and seek to improve. This is the age of regenerating health, auto-saves and numerous checkpoints, and plenty of failsafe guards. The barrier of entry has been lowered by design.
"I think it all started around the time that people began to use the word 'grinding' as a negative term," he muses. "When it comes to my entertainment, I don't mind if there's a bit of work involved, it's what makes payoffs so satisfying and funny. Anyone who grew up gaming in the 80s and 90s is used to being bullied by a game, it's hilarious, it's brilliant, and it makes for a real feeling of satisfaction. You feel like you accomplished something and then you can go off to school and brag about it. I remember playing William Shatner's TekWar, and I never installed the sound drivers correctly so I had no idea what William Shatner was saying to me, but you'd be walking around in the Doom engine, and sometimes you'd accidentally shoot the wrong person and William Shatner would appear in this FMV video and just scream at you and the game is over. And I never knew what the problem was. I never knew at the time that I was shooting the wrong person, I just found it really funny. I love punishment systems."
He tells me that he did have a soft spot for Injustice, that after getting over the initial shock of not having to input sixteen button commands for a Fatality he enjoyed the spectacle of it, but that this is one of the few good examples he can think of.
"I totally agree with you," he concludes. "There's definitely been a shift from games that will beat you until you beat them to, 'Hey! Come here. Let me take you by the hand and guide you through this game and not let you think for yourself.'"
I offer up Dark Souls as an example of a modern game that delights in punishing players for making mistakes, but it strikes me that the only way that game has really succeeded is by feeding off of this desire of ours for something challenging, something brutal. Something akin to the games by which we were measured in the playground in our younger days.
It's not just the difficulty and the offbeat nostalgia that makes The Dark Room such an attractive proposition, particularly if you grew up in the 80s and 90s, but there's a multiplayer element to the whole show that you just don't get with the YouTube version. Four of the five lives are gifted to single audience members. I'm wearing a subtle Pokemon shirt and look like "Rasta Hagrid," as Robertson brands me. I get to be one of the four. But even without the direct influence over the action, the Dark Room is phenomenally engrossing. Part of it is down to Robertson himself. A brilliant host, he's proves incredibly engaging to an audience of all ages and backgrounds, even managing to keep the younger children down the front entertained. He breaks character only once, to point out that the four year old girl down the front is having the time of her life playing with the bubbly bath mat he's dished out as a prize. The rest of the time, he prowls the space as the Floating Head, peppering he moments in between screens with comic asides, little anecdotes and invented myths about The Dark Room, and berating select audience members with amateur shadow puppetry.
"Back in the day it didn't matter if a game was multiplayer or not," Robertson says. "You'd play through singleplayer stuff and take it in turns."
He's not wrong. When we were kids, my sister used to come in and watch me play Ocarina of Time and help out in the dungeons with pathfinding and enemy alerts. Whenever a group of my mates got together when GTA first came out, it was always a case of passing the controller if you died or got busted. I remember being a backseat gamer as this teenage family friend of ours played Monkey Island for hours, and I loved it, chipping in with a solution ideas and helping out where I could.
"It's sad that these experiences are going away, that the internet has brought us closer together, but also walled us off. I can be playing a game of something with sixteen or thirty-two other players in it, but we're all just sat in our separate houses or flats, surrounded by four walls. It's amazing that I can play with someone living in, like, Peru or something, but online gaming will never hold as much fun for me, as you say, as getting a few mates around, getting the pizzas and the beers in, and playing WWE All-Stars until the early hours of the morning."
I strikes me that it's this, more so than anything else, that sits at the heart of The Dark Room, and why it's best enjoyed as the live-show as its origins suggest rather than the YouTube series that a moment of impromptu genius spawned. Hundreds, thousands of people sat together in a dark room, all complicit, all along for the ride. It's a nice touch that at the end of the show, Robertson gives the last life to the floor, allowing his show to be steered by those who bellow loudest. We're all in it together, all of us up against the maniacal, Machiavellian Floating Head. We laugh as one, we gasp as one, and in the end we choose as one.
"Do you want to play again tomorrow," a friend of mine asks as we file out with wide grins on our faces. Not "watch", but "play".
"It's interesting when that happen; it's a new thing, and I love it," Robertson says, noting the difference. "I'm seeing more and more people with really thoughtful expressions on their faces when they're watching the show and it's because they're trying to work it out, work out the progressions. Especially at something like the Fringe, which runs for a month, I know I'll be seeing them in a few days as they come back to try and play again and get further. And it's great. You get people going back to the YouTube version to see if there are parallels, but a number of the routes and screens have been changed around and mixed up and there are new ones in the live show. But they get to test themselves against the logic of the show, and I'm not going to stop them!"
Robertson himself has recently moved across to the UK to test the comedy waters here on a more consistent basis. "In Australia, they couldn't handle the fact that John didn't fit into an easily identifiable box," his wife Jo tells us. "But over here, it's like an attraction. 'Oh, we can't seem to fit you into a prescribed box. That's great! That means you've got something no-one else has!'" And the UK has a growing expo scene into which Robertson could easily slip very nicely indeed. Eurogamer, Play, and GEEK -- we're looking at you. I say that because he's a man with a fantastic talent and a wonderfully unique show. I say that because The Dark Room was one of the finest things I saw (or played) out of the 20 or so I witnessed up at the Fringe this year. I say it because Robertson deserves to be playing to thousands week in and week out, and we have a market for that here. But I'm also saying it as a gamer, a fan of text-based adventure titles, an addict who's hooked, and a man who wants one more crack at the Floating Head to see if I can find my way out of The Dark Room.