This is the fifty-eighth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Yet again, the random number generators have plucked an entry from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality for us. It’s The Dark by Eric Koziol, by Eric Koziol. Its tagline in the bundle reads:

What you can’t see will hurt you.

I presume that the attribution to Eric Koziol in the title is a means of differentiating this particular game about unseen dangers from others that share the title “The Dark”.

In The Dark by Eric Koziol, players control a hero sent into a cave to exterminate the monsters there. But an unnatural darkness descends, and the hero is unable to see anything, forced to navigate by sound alone. The game, therefore, has no graphics at all. Just a black screen. Players must use audio cues to find their way.

Movement is grid-based, similar to old role-playing games like Might and Magic or Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei. Well, those are the ones I’ve written about on this blog; a more common touchstone would be Wizardry. The hero moves one square at a time, and turns in 90 degree increments. Despite this, action appears to play out in real time rather than turn based fashion, in the style of Dungeon Master or the more recent Legend of Grimrock. As I stumbled around in the dark, bumping into walls, monsters were happy to take multiple swipes at me while I frantically launched my own flailing attacks. This usually distracted me enough that I’d forget which direction I was facing, and whatever mental image of my surroundings I’d constructed would collapse. Soon I was hopelessly lost, blundering around and retracing my steps until my hero succumbed to the cave’s denizens with an inevitable wail of the Wilhelm Scream.

I made a few attempts to explore the cave this way, but despite clear sounds for marching forwards, colliding with walls, and enemy attacks, I always got disoriented before long. At one point I convinced myself that the water sound effect I’d encountered had actually moved me to a new location. Perhaps I’d stumbled into a subterranean river and the current carried me downstream? Later, I was able to confirm that there is nothing so devious as this. But I couldn’t make any meaningful progress exploring the cave this way. So, I pulled out some graph paper and started drawing a map.

This felt a bit like cheating, since the hero wouldn’t be able to see a map even if they did try to draw one. But it did wonders for my explorations. By methodically bumping into all the walls, I was quickly able to construct a map of the cave, and if a monster got me and I had to start over, I still had my map so I could get back to charting unexplored corridors quickly. Knowing where monsters are did wonders for my survivability too, and I was often able to fell them before they even got an attack in. Although, I’m fairly certain that at least one of the monsters moves around, instead of waiting in its square for the hero to approach. The cave isn’t actually that big, and before long I was able to defeat a particularly tough baddie and was rewarded with a victory screen.

But this only left me with more questions. According to the final screen, I’d missed a bunch of items and some enemies too, even though I thought I’d explored thoroughly. Perhaps those sounds that I’d taken to be passing through a curtain or other entryway actually indicated I was picking up items? Maybe more healing herbs to augment my starting supply? I’m not sure I actually went to every one of those on my final attempt, since I’d already mapped their locations, so that might account for the missed items. But there are other, even more mysterious sounds. I’m guessing that one of the sounds indicates upgrading or replacing my weapon, but others were a complete mystery. A few only appear once. The sound of a latch opening? Does that mean a new passageway opened somewhere? If so, I don’t know where.

There’s also no indication of how much health the hero has, or how many herbs they’re carrying, so I had to guess as to when it was wise to eat one. And, despite my best efforts, I was never able to defeat another particularly difficult monster, even though I must have slashed it a hundred times by rapidly hammering the attack key. Being unable to find anywhere else to explore, however, I was forced to leave this mysterious foe be.

The Dark by Eric Koziol is a brief but interesting experiment in audio-only design. It’s easily explored in a single session, especially if one is drawing a map, but worth checking out if the concept intrigues you. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s available for any price you choose (including free), and comes with Windows, Mac and Linux versions.

That’s 58 down, and only 1683 to go!