Last Updated on November 5, 2020 by Bruno Lauris
Disclaimer. It has been some time since I last posted anything on here. I guess that writing my bachelor’s thesis was not as easy as I thought it would be at first. Not to mention that I still have to present my research findings to a committee. Speaking about future events, moving forward this article is going to be my last one in this series. In the future, I am planning to concentrate more on writing articles about the game that I am designing and recording a podcast that I am working on that will focuses on dealing with depression.
What is “Darkwood“ about?
In “Darkwood” you will be playing as the Stranger, living through his horror-fairy-tale set in the Darkwoods of a Soviet Bloc Poland. In the 1970s or 80s, the Stranger wakes up in a run-down hideout. Alone and stranded, he has no relocation of his past.
Comment. Having amnesia is becoming a thing in horror games. I have to agree, that it does work. Starting a game in-media-res when the protagonist knows less than the player, is a great way to set up a mystery. Providing that there is a mystery to set up. The post-apocalypse setting, dart art-style, not knowing how we got here, where are we, and what is going to happen, are great elements that help to hook the player into the story.
The woods have engulfed everything and are spreading non-stop. They almost seem malevolent and sentient, swallowing everything in their path. They are going to swallow you too if you don’t escape.
Yet, there is still hope, in the form of a picture.
A picture of a road that might lead you home. If the road does exist, then all you have to do is find it.
Better forget about the “road home”, Meat. Around here all the roads lead to nowhere.
— The Wolfman
At day you will have to scavenge for resources to survive. During these scavenges you will meet and engage with the locals. Sadly, a mysterious plague mutated them into uncanny beings. These locals will either contribute or hinder your progress in discovering the secrets of this forest.
At night you will bunker down in your hideout or get murdered by the monsters hiding in the darkness. You will use your scavenged resources to create barricades, hoping that they will hold off the terrors at bay. You will have to use fuel to power up the generator and different light sources, hoping that if there is no darkness, then there is nowhere for the monsters to hide.
Will you be able to survive and find this almost “mythical” road home?
How did my playthrough end?
Disclaimer. If you do not wish to read spoilers about the game’s story, then skip to the next section — “What do you do in the game?”
It is easy to miss important pieces of the puzzle if you are not focused. If you are too scared to get into risky situations. If you “kill” important characters that could have helped you. If you don`t make certain choices, you won’t be able to get the true ending and figure out this madness.
Yet, after dying over and over again, after traveling through the whole forest and exploring every bit and cranny of it. After killing off some characters and letting others live, I got the True Ending.
In my case, I was able to find the “Road to Home”. I saw the Cripple old man trying to follow the road as well. At one point he stopped moving because he got tired of pulling his body along the ground. I wanted to help him, but I couldn’t.
As I walked the road, I passed by rotting corpses of others who also tried to escape the forest but failed.
After some time I got through the forest and ended up in a grass field with no twisted trees. Finally! The first signs of civilization were in my sight. Power lines. I followed them only to end up at an apartment complex.
I finally found some normal people, including my neighbor, who I greeted.
As I was exploring the locale, I started to notice that I always managed to end up in the same places and meet the same people. I was in a twisted “Matrix” loop.
I entered my apartment complex. I found a playing radio there. It seemed alright, playing some random static and then some random music. Then it stopped and someone started speaking on the other side.
— the radio?
The power went out. Trying to get out, I found the same red mushrooms that were all around the cursed forest. The apartment complex is infected as well! It was not safe there anymore, yet, all the exit doors were locked now.
By trying to open random doors, a neighbor opened his door a little bit and yelled at me.
You`re waking my kid! Get the hell away!
When I tried to peek inside the person`s apartment, I saw a living fetus on the ground. The door slammed right in my face when I noticed that.
I continued to my apartment suite. Inside it, I found a note that implied that someone was living there with me. I wanted to search my surroundings to find something that could help me get out. While dragging my furniture, I found tree roots. The same malevolent tree roots of the forest.
Following the roots, I found loose boards. I plied the floorboards all around my apartment, using a screwdriver. The music turned malevolent. Whatever was doing all his Matrix-bullshit knew that I knew that all this was fake. That all this has been designed to put me in a false sense of safety. After peeling all the floorboards, I found a giant hole under my bed.
I dropped down the hole.
I awoke naked on a giant tree`s root. Have I been sleeping here naked for all this time? I looked around to explore, only to find other people like me. Naked in a fetal position, sleeping, but with a smile on their faces. I tried to wake them up, but they kept on sleeping and dreaming about their deepest desires. A woman was carrying her dead child`s carcass, but dreaming that he was alive. Another man was dreaming about spending quality time with his dead wife.
I know only one thing. When I sleep, I know no fear, no, trouble no bliss. Blessing on him who invented sleep… There is only one bad thing about sound sleep. They say it closely resembles death.
― Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris
In the Darkwoods, I already met a Talking Tree. A gross manifestation of many mutated people into a singular, hideous form. Yet, The Talking Tree was not evil. It was a victim like everyone else in the forest, but this was way worse. Here everyone was sleeping and dying of hunger. Left to rot as fertilizer for the giant tree. All this “Road to Home” quest was a ruse from the very start, designed to get me and everyone else here.
I followed the one path that was there, passing by hundreds of sleeping people, only to end up at the very center. There I saw The Being.
The Being flashed a bright light and resembled a huge organ. Inside it, I saw what looked like a distorted face. Upon nearing it, I heard a deep heartbeat. When I touched it, it filled me with a feeling of warmth and happiness. It was trying to trick me into going to sleep, like everyone else.
Trying to find an end to all this, I managed to stumble upon a familiar face. Maciek! Maciek was from my military group “The Outsiders” — who tried to protect everyone from The Being. Thinking back, there was the possibility that we were the ones to blame the fall of this.
Maciek is holding a flamethrower. I forced him to give it to me.
He tried to take it back from me and I had to burn him alive to stop him. As I was burning him, I continued to press the trigger of the flamethrower even harder, burning everything and everyone in sight.
HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AND LET NO ONE BE LEFT BEHIND!
— Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
Human wailing and pleas to stop following. The Being caught fire as well. The flames spread so fast that I also succumbed to the flames and died.
The great fire consumed the Darkwood for many days. Yet, from nowhere the helicopters of the military (or “The Outsiders”) came and restored order to the region.
What do you do in the game?
The game features a top-down perspective and a semi-open world, with the player unlocking new areas of the woods as the plot progresses. It also features a crafting system, a day/night cycle, trading, and uncanny characters. A skill system, combat, as well as choices that will heavily dictate the ending you will get.
Since the game’s elements on their own are not that remarkable, yet, in tandem, they create this well-oiled Swiss clock that can create horrific moments, continuing on I am going to review the noteworthy elements.
1. The Art Style — reminiscent of H.R. Giger:
Horror is an emotion. Thus the function of a horror game is to evoke that emotion. The atmosphere of this game is spot on in inducing these emotions: tension, anxiety, and terror.
For example. At night, while hunkering down in the corner of your hideout, you will hear a closed-door open. Since everything is so dark, there is no knowing what is going on in the dark. Is your mind playing tricks on you? Is there someone there?
After a long silent moment, a mutated dog comes out from the dark and attacks you. You defend yourself from the dog and running go out of the room to close the open door. Then you go back to return to your safe corner, but when you re-enter the room, a stranger is sitting on your bed.
What do you do?
As I said, the game achieves to create moments like this, thanks to a lot of elements working well together at the same time:
- The game is dark — you never know what is out there, lurking.
- Your vision is limited to a cone of light cast by your flashlight — you can never see what is happening around you.
- The top-down perspective means that at any point something can leap out from anywhere.
The game does not have a lot of music. Thus it is easy to notice all the changes in the sounds around you. The game teaches you to pay attention to them early on because all the sounds can give you hints about what is going on outside in the dark.
The worst is that you can never run away from the dark, the sounds, the horror. Sure, you can try and never go out of your hideout. Bunker down for life in it. Yet, someone will notice the lights in your hideout or hear you walking inside, and come for you. The question is when and who?
The designers are very good at pacing all this. They know the exact moment when to make the game silent, when to imply something and when to give you the pay-off.
The lesson. Over and over again atmosphere turns out to be one of the most important elements of a good horror game. “Darkwood” is good at teaching us how to create that atmosphere — use the player`s senses against them.
- Limit their vision — so that they can`t know what is happening around them.
- Use sounds to imply that someone is there with them in the darkness.
- Switch the gameplay between quiet exploration and tense combat scenes.
- When the player tries to approach a character, have them stay still, only to start running towards them at the last moment, attacking frantically.
In short. The goal is to create an atmosphere where the things around the player are unpredictable.
The bad. There are elements in the game that took me out of the atmosphere. For example, when you die you blackout and wake up back in your hideout. Only now you are missing half of your items.
How did this happen? Did the mutants take half of my stuff and hauled me back to my hideout?
The fix. The true ending makes a lot of these disparities make sense. Yet, there are better ways to handle these immersion-shattering moments.
For example, every time you survive a night, a trader visits you. How about this? Whenever we die, there should be a scene in which one of those traders finds us bleeding out on the ground and then drags us back home. That would make more sense, right?
Bonus. I like the map in the game. It is a regular piece of paper with important landmarks on it. The game doesn`t show your exact location on the map. it doesn`t show enemies in your vicinity. It only shows the general location you are at. Not knowing where I was, made me stray from the regular path and get lost. I started to freak out, trying to get back home before night would set in. Yet, I think that the map could have been better if we could put down our markers on the map. To have the ability to scribble on locations of loot you were not able to get or enemy locations would have been useful.
2. The Survival Aspect:
Resource management is the standard of the survival genre. Yet, it needs something more to transit from a survival game to a horror survival game. Scarce resources and a crafting system don’t make a horror game into a survival horror game. Not to mention that the protagonist doesn`t even need to eat, sleep, or drink.
That something missing is disempowerment.
The good. The game`s resource management made me feel vulnerable. I never had the things I needed. To get those things, I had to do risky things. The items I already had would break or be useless in the first place. Also, each resource spent meant that I would not have it later when I needed it the most.
In short. it is not about how many types of resources you have or what you can make out of them. It is about the context of the game`s resource management. In other survival games, having more resources makes you stronger. Yet, in “Darkwood” that is not the case. This is what makes “Darkwood” from a mere survival game to a horror game.
The lesson. Scarce resources mean that you can`t prepare for things to come. Even if you manage to prepare, you don`t know until the very end whether your plans will work or not. Not to mention that your items could break, get destroyed or you could f*** up using them. All this makes the player feel anxious and vulnerable.
Bonus. The fact that you can`t save and load the game at any time makes all the consequences that more prominent.
The bad. Surviving the horrors is not meaningful. If you survive, all you get is some reputation to spend as a currency with the traders. If you die, then you lose half of your items and re-spawn in your hideout.
When I was playing it was not worth it for me to spend all those resources barricading, only to get some reputation. Also, dying wasn`t that scary if you didn`t take a lot of items with you to lose.
Plus, if you are playing on normal difficulty, then you can go to the location you died and get the items back. Dying/surviving is a time-waster. It stops your progress and forces you to re-do the same actions.
Bonus. I should also add that this process of going out, looting, and running back was repetitive. I always had to pass the same looted, empty locations. Spend time traveling the map from one location to the other. It got boring fast. There should have been more interesting events on the way from location to location.
The fix. Beter rewards and more severe penalties. Penalties don’t have to be about losing resources — the standard of horror survival games. A better penalty would be if you would have to experience something grim at some point in the story for failing. Speaking of rewards. Rather than rewarding us with reputation, the rewards could also bee in the form of story events. For example, someone could come to your hideout, asking for protection. If you survive and protect them, then they become indebted to you and come to your rescue in return.
Bonus. When I played the game, at some point I had too many resources. I didn`t even have enough space to store all that stuff. There should have been, for example, an event that gets rid of someone of the resources when you have too many. Nothing severe. Someone could come in your hideout, steal some of the resources, and escape through the window. Thus the player would have to always bee on their guard, knowing that thieves roam the forest.
3. The Characters:
Through the game, you will meet different characters. Some are enemies that you will have to defend against. Others are non-interactable and are there as background characters. The notable characters who matter are quest givers or traders. Without interacting with them you will not be able to progress in the game.
The good. The designers succeeded in making me feel cautious every time I approached any character. Since they all have mutations and uncanny features, I never knew who I was talking to. Are they Savages who wish to kill me or a potential friend.
The lesson. Characters should be dangerous, with the ability to attack the players if they fell like it. Their features should be uncanny and their motives should be hidden. This makes them seem untrustworthy and makes the player keep their guard up when interacting with them.
The bad. The characters are not memorable. They are all fairy tale characters. The Slug, The Tree, The Mirror, and The Chicken lady. Nothing about these characters stuck with me after finishing the game.
It has to be because they are super passive and don`t do or say that much. They are only there for mechanical purposes. Someone needs to be the trader, someone has to give you the quest. That is it.
The only ones who stuck with me were The Wolfman for being a big, fat d***. He has a tragic backstory that explains why he is the way he is, but still. The Musician whose parent you might have to kill to advance the plot. The Doctor was awesome in the “Prologue”, and some of the victims that I felt compassion towards. especially the Pretty Lady and The Talking Tree.
Man was traveling in wolfskin when wolf stopped his way.
“Know from my garb,” said the man, “what I am, what I may.” The wolf first laughed out loud, then grimly said to the man: “I know that you are weak, if you need another’s skin.”
— Man and Wolf, Fables and Parables, Ignacy Krasicki, 1779.
Sure, a lot of interesting, hidden connections are between the characters. Sometimes they say uncanny things that spark my interest. Some of their backstories are tragic and so human. Yet, those moments of great characterization is so rare. You never get to spend enough time with them. Interact enough with them to make them memorable.
The fix. The characters should have been more pro-active. For example, coming to your house and trying to steal from you. Or there should have been random encounters where you could find them doing weird shit while exploring the woods. They shouldn`t be only passive quest-givers. It was hard for me to look at them and see them as something more than a pixelated model.
4. The Random Night Events:
While hunkering down in your hideout, special Night Events will take place. Not to spoil them all, but during the night, someone may start knocking on the front door of your hideout. If you don’t open the door, the knocking becomes more upset. If the door is still not opened, the knocking will change into banging, hard enough to damage or destroy the door. Should you investigate, you will find a helpful item at the doorstep. For example, a bear trap, Molotov cocktails, and different types of pills.
On the first night when the benefactor came, I did not open the door. I was not sure whether someone was trying to get into the house and kill me or hide from the dark. Later in the game, when I got used to the game mechanics, I did take the risk and opened the door, only to find a shiny rock.
The Real Lesson. Open doors to strangers, kids. You will get nice shiny rocks. I learned a lot from this game.
The Lesson. These random events are what spice up the game to the next level. They teach the player that they will never know what might happen in the game. They never will know what to prepare for. All horror games should have random events like these to make the gameplay more unpredictable. Thus even if the game is re-played it is never going to play out the same way.
I also think that there are almost no bad aspects to this mechanic. The only negative thing that I could say is that eventually, I did get used to the fact that bad stuff is going to happen. That all these random events are going to counter all my well-prepared plans. Sometimes I felt like it was a waste of time to even try and protect myself against some of the events. Maybe, the game would be better if more of the negative events would have had counters to negate them.
For the last… I don’t even know how many years… The industry experts keep repeating the same thing (in a scratchy voice): “Horror games should not have weapons. Weapons make the game less scary.” The reason is as follows. If the players have weapons, then they will feel safe and might kill-off the monsters before they can have any effect on the players.
That is only the case if the weapons are badly implemented. That is not the case in “Darkwood”. In “Darkwood”, there are weapons: melee ranged and trowable. The reason why they don’t ruin the game is that they are not reliable and don`t make you safe.
The good. Melee weapons have durability and they can break. Plus, your timing is important. You can`t swing the weapon around left and right since the protagonist can get tired. You have to preserve your strength and time the hits perfectly.
Firearms have limited ammo. It takes time to aim for them. Yet, most of all the noise they make can attract other mutants to your location. Even if you hit, nobody is going to drop down from only one hit. You will have to take more shots. More shots taken mean more chances to miss. More bullets fired mean more noise. More noise means more monsters to fight. How is that supposed to make you feel safe? F*** firearms!
Having weapons in your game also means that the player has the chance to commit immoral actions that they might regret later. For example, I was scavenging a location once. It was dark, but I had my flashlight with me. I opened one of the locked doors. On the other side, right in front of me, I saw someone in the shadows. I freaked out, thinking that it was a Banshee, and slashed at the thing. It dropped down and died. I examined it, only to find out that he was a friendly trader. I regretted that. After consulting the “Darkwood” Wikia, I concluded that the person I killed might have been Piotrek. Since I couldn`t re-load the game, his death is going to hunt me forever.
The lesson. If you don’t have weapons in your game, then the possibility to commit immoral actions disappears. If you don`t have weapons, then the player will be too afraid to go to scary places. Yet, designers should be careful. Don’t give the player a false sense of safety and don’t make them too powerful.
The bad. Some weapons are better than others. You don’t need the firearms to finish the game. An ax and a Molotov cocktail are good enough to survive. Thus there are some balancing issues with the weapons. Not to mention that they are not that fun to use.
Bonus. I also think that we should be able to use our fists in the game. Kinda does not make sense that we can`t do that. You have to agree, that trying to punch out a mutated dog is kinda badass.
The fix. I would have liked it if the game would only have a limited selection of weapons. Like the earlier “Resident Evil” games. In them, for quite a long time, the only weapons the player had were a pistol and a knife. That was good enough. The designers should learn a thing or two from “Resident Evil”.
We live, as we dream — alone. . . .
— Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
This article that I wrote was very rushed. I played the game a good six months ago, but only now I had the “free time” to write this. I might have missed addressing some aspects of the game, that I should have addressed. But, the elements that I did review were the most memorable ones to me. So it balances out.
In short, yes, the game has some nuisances that should not have been there. The game is a bit too long for the amount of content it has. There is some repetition, etc. There is always room to improve and no game is ever perfect.
Yet, I do believe that “Darkwood” is a great case-study for horror game designers to study. Every upcoming horror game designers should play and learn from this game. Especially when you consider that it is an indie game, that was crowdfunded on “Indiegogo” by three guys who did not have a lot of prior knowledge about programming before making this game. That`s impressive.
The game was also fun to play. It did what it set out to do. The game had scary and tense moments all through. Secrets felt like real secrets that needed to be discovered and made me feel great when I did. The game had a nice hook that kept me going on and the pay-off was worth it.
I can`t wait to see what “Acid Wizard Studio” is going to cook up next. 🙂