THE DARK IS RISING
Matt Thrower speaks to Themeborne’s Thomas Pike and discovers the freaky inspiration behind their Escape The Dark games...
Thomas Pike, the designer at Themeborne Games, was a bored child during the eighties. ‘We had no choice but to really savour the few interesting things we happened to come across,’ he recalls. ‘Without access to endless images, games and video content online you would really just pore over one book over and over.’ And what he liked best to pore over were gamebooks. ‘The Fighting Fantasy series of course,’ he says. ‘And lesser-known ones too like the Battle Quest books which came with special dice and some acetate overlays to put on the page.’
His modern-day homage to them are Escape the Dark Castle and Escape the Dark Sector. In these solo or co-operative games, players build their own “book” out of a deck of possible encounter cards. Then they flip them one by one, fighting foes, discovering traps and gaining items, trying to survive until they can meet a final boss. With page-sized cards and striking black and white illustrations, the desire to recreate the sense of playing a gamebook is clear.
‘The whole idea for the Escape the Dark series came from those books,’ Pike admits. ‘It’s about the experience of turning a page and being confronted with a sketchy piece of freaky artwork.’
“Freaky” might suggest to you that these games are quite dark in tone, and you’d be right. ‘We use horror to raise the atmosphere and tension a notch or two,’ Pike explains. But it’s also another throwback to the golden era of gamebooks. ‘There was darkness in the mood of the country,’ he remembers. ‘That led to a tinge of darkness in our art and culture.’
“There was darkness in the mood of the country. That led to a tinge of darkness in our art and culture”
But he also saw it as an opportunity to make the series stand out. ‘It seems wrong for western medieval fantasy games to be unrealistically glamorous or heroic,’ he tells me.
‘What we latched on to with our project was perhaps the vein of seriousness to it, which no-one seemed to be doing any more. There is something appealing about grim characters struggling with inadequate items to overcome a seemingly impossible situation.’
Then he laughs, remembering the attitudes of the time: ‘did I just describe the British public of the eighties?’
Britishness is, in an odd way, something that pervades the Escape the Dark games, which Pike readily acknowledges.
‘I think what we do is very British, we can’t really help it,’ he says. ‘In fact, I think that is a large part of why we’ve been successful. It seems that everything has been styled to be bright, colourful, wacky, and often slightly amine in many cases,’ he complains. ‘And really that isn’t very British.’
Pike designed both games in the series more to generate stories than to challenge the players with strategy. Yet that doesn’t mean that the designs got thrown together at random. ‘It’s easy to think it’s all just luck,’ Pike tells me. ‘But I can’t tell you how many games come down to the very last roll of the die. That kind of thing doesn’t ‘just happen’, it’s the result of a lot of thoughtful design, hard work, play-testing, and endless fine-tuning.’
He's also quite evangelical about how those stories can suck in even the most cynical of puzzle fans. ‘There’s a card where you pass through a chamber which serves as a cesspit below the castle privies,’ he explains.
‘In that room, as you pick your way through the filth, something catches your eye and you draw an item card to see what you find. Well, if that item turns out to be one of the many food items in the game, which it will a decent amount of the time, you can well imagine it is just perfect. It brings out a natural propensity for role-playing in the most unlikely of people.’
For all the many things that unite both games, there are also some notable differences. The most obvious is the addition of ranged combat in Escape the Dark Sector. This gives players some limited tactical choices at the cost of a fair few new rules. When it comes to whether it’s a worthwhile payoff, Pike is once again focussed on the theme.
‘We couldn’t have a space game without ray guns to shoot,’ he laughs. ‘And if you’re playing as spacefaring people then you’re likely to have some training and teamwork skills to draw on.’
You also can’t play Escape the Dark Sector without noticing a lot of nods to classic science fiction. Even the dot system to sort the encounter cards into increasing difficulty recalls the motion tracker of the Alien franchise.
‘With Castle, we actually consciously avoided a lot of the deeply classic and overdone stuff,’ Pike explains. ‘There is nothing directly from Cthulhu in there, for example, and no vampires, no werewolves. With Sector, it seems more fitting somehow to do more direct homages.’
He's keen, though, to showcase how the game can create its own stories. ‘In one card, you see someone strangely familiar being dissected,’ he tells me. ‘In another, you black out and awake strapped to a metal table under blinding lights as a figure looms over you with sharp implements. Was it yourself you saw on that table?’
Castle, of course, also has its own particular tone, all the more distinctive because it passes on common fantasy tropes. ‘It’s a horror game,’ Pike enthuses. ‘That even extends to the items you find. They are rotten, decayed, don’t work properly, and in some cases might actually hurt you if you try to use them.’
But he and the team worked hard to ensure it retained a classic feel. ‘We wanted the Castle to be populated with monsters, traps and so on which are recognisably retro and will strike the right kind of emotional chord with players. That was quite a creative challenge actually, and I do like to think there are plenty of original takes on tropes in there.’
For all the throwbacks to the eighties, Themeborne is a modern company with plenty of plans for the future. ‘Next up we have a range of expansions for Escape the Dark Sector,’ he enthuses. ‘After that, honestly, we might put the series on pause. We’ll have been working on it for five years, and you can understand creatively we’re itching to do something different.’
But that doesn’t mean they won’t be returning to the grim settings of Escape the Dark. ‘I think that tone and style is still totally relevant today. It’s timeless, really.’
Whatever worries we might have for the future Pike’s keen to stress that his games can also help us rediscover a magic from the past we might have lost. ‘It may have been grim on the outside,’ he muses. ‘But there were wonderful things happening in our imaginations during that period. Things which would go on to inspire and inform what we do for a living all these years later.’
He ends with some hopeful questions to ponder: ‘What seeds are we sowing in kids’ imaginations now? How might those manifest?’
Both Escape The Dark games are out now at Themeborne.com
This feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1, Issue 1