I see hatred and fear in their eyes. As if I was responsible for the spreading disease. As if I were the source of all the misery plaguing this land. I have nowhere to hide from them, nowhere to run. The woods have closed us off from the outside world.
The ultimatum to these chilling opening words is “We are all doomed”. Coupled with faint and horrific images, this narration is the dream sequence at the start of the prologue of Darkwood, a top-down survival horror title by Acid Wizard Studios. What it tells the player about the dreaming character is significant to the plot, but ultimately most vital to the world. When the man awakes, the player assumes control of him, though this is not the protagonist. He is a doctor, evidently of some importance to what has happened in these woods. For the first half of the prologue, the player follows the doctor, unaware of the fact that he is not the main playable character. However, this twist is used to great effect as a tutorial and to set up the world of the game.
The doctor is a character with some importance to the plot (I’ll refrain from any major spoilers past the prologue), but the finer qualities of his character and his subtle attributes are of none. The game doesn’t dwindle on the personal lives of any characters, nor often give them names more personal than “Doctor” or “Musician”. Of all the denizens of these cursed woods, he is the most important and the only identifying mark of that fact is how heavily he features in the prologue. The player having control of him sets him apart from all the other NPCs even after the player assumes control of the protagonist. This distinction is significant in the creation of the world of the game through his dream experience and the highlighting of him as a relevant member.
But this only scratches the surface of what Darkwood achieves in its opening minutes. The player takes control of the doctor without knowing very much about him as a character, because that’s not what’s important. Here, his lack of character is shows how he is any character, all characters, just another survivor. He is a man, driven by one sole objective: to survive. We can view him as any other trapped soul trying to stay alive in these haunted woods. When the player leaves his house to look for some gasoline, they come across a dog, tied up and dying. The next thing to be found is an axe. The player has an implicit choice, kill the dog or walk away. One may feel like there is no choice, as often most players are compelled to ‘end the dog’s suffering’.
This simple ploy allows the developers to show the player what kind of world this is. Killing the dog has no grand consequence other than a small dialogue change, which still isn’t concerned with character. Instead, the focus is on the man and the dog and their part in the world, not their relationship to each other. The game encourages you to consider the kind of world where a man has to put down a dog that has been ravished by monsters in the night, not to question the tied-up dog’s relationship to the man. Equally intriguing lines of inquisition, but predominantly a means to build the world.
The player is complicit with this man’s daily strife and his brutal conciseness and becomes acquainted with the harsh demands of the world very quickly. When finally the player comes across the protagonist, they have no clue who he is and only see him through the eyes of the doctor, who sees him as a means of escape. The protagonist is met in such an impersonal manner, unconscious and unidentified, first sighted alongside the doctor’s words “He’s unconscious. I’ve never seen him around here before”. No interest in the character, third-person pronouns in narration used to refer to him, the doctor is only concerned with the man’s relevance to the world. He notes that he has “never seen him around here before” because the setting, the world, is what’s most important. In the end, the doctor is only interested in the man and his key and the fact that he might know a way out. Again, the world is at the forefront.
So the doctor takes the protagonist to his home, the only building the player has yet seen, and ties him to a chair, ready to drug, torture and interrogate him. Then, in a shocking twist, the doctor walks out of the room, out of sight. In a single moment, this man that the player has been rooting for, been complicit in his violent and unethical behavior, has stepped into the darkness and the player assumes control of the man tied to the chair, the real player character. Now, the doctor is the villain, as foreshadowed in his own dream sequence at the start of the game, and this house is suddenly a place of danger and uncertainty.
Following a day in the life of the doctor allows the player a chance to become accustomed with the world of the game, while alienated from the character they control. This prologue acts as a tutorial and an introduction to the world, hardly the people in it. As the shift from the doctor to the protagonist suggests, the player could be anyone. That is to say, the game could revolve around any character within these woods and the struggle, the objective, would still be the same: to survive. Moreover, the game allows the player the chance to start this survival horror game afresh from scratch after the tutorial as the doctor in the more relatable shoes of the protagonist after having already set up the world of Darkwood and foreshadowing what it demands of the protagonist, and everyone in it, and thus the player.