On “Darkwood” and Well-Crafted Horror Games

Photo by Kleigh Balugo

By Sydney Stoddard

For those who don’t know, I have a penchant for spoop season. The vibes, the lore, the colors, the merging of mystical and magical and practical- all of it. I can pass on the outright creepy or full-blown candy corn but right in the middle with the floating candles and spooky stories and magical creatures- that’s my favorite spot. 

Halloween’s pretty much the only holiday where I have a plan for how I celebrate it. I’ll put up Halloween cards from Trader Joe’s, throw pumpkins everywhere, pick some horror game Let’s Play videos to chip away at all month, and make sure to check out all the Halloween house decorations at some point (the house off Windmill with floating purple candles in the front yard still wins my prize). 

So, I’ve watched Markiplier’s “Until Dawn” playthrough for about, three years now? And while a solid game, I wanted to mix it up and I stumbled upon his series on “Darkwood.” And. Just. Oof. It’s so good. Halfway through the first episode, I thought maybe it wasn’t interesting enough but I’m so glad I stuck around. 

I’ve watched nearly every episode of Mark’s Let’s Play while I paint. I’m totally planning on watching another person’s playthrough of it as soon as I finish this one. 

“Darkwood” is a top-down RPG-style survival horror game that gives you absolutely nothing other than dark, dismal woods to explore and some tips on how to survive. 

I’ve watched many a horror game Let’s Play in my time. Markiplier’s “Misao” playthrough from ages ago is what got me hooked on Let’s Plays, and basically any not graphically-terrifying horror game Mark’s played, I’ve sat through. So, it’s with some experience that I say “Darkwood” is probably the best horror game I’ve ever watched. It is a pixelated masterpiece in so many ways. 

Horror is a wild and varied genre. From cheap jump scares and needlessly creepy storylines to masterpieces of atmosphere and unsettling storytelling, horror games are eternal in both their popularity and their variety. 

But every now and again there’s an absolute gem in the genre that seamlessly and incredibly combines all the best things of horror and conjures up a truly terrifying yet glorious game. And this, this is what “Darkwood” has to offer. It almost effortlessly dances past all the usual pitfalls of horror- there’s no jump scares, no unnecessary gore, no weirdly creepy plot twist, no overuse of unfair game mechanics. Instead, “Darkwood” invites the player on a 100+ hour mild heart attack as you explore and try to escape the infected woods. 

“Darkwood” is an RPG-style atmospheric horror game that is as vast as it is detailed. The main campaign can take whole days of time, but no part of it should be rushed through. There is tons to find, despise, and fight in the woods, and all of it is worth the exploration. 

The complexity of the world of “Darkwood” is one of its biggest strong suits. The story goes that there’s an infection taking over the woods – polluting the air, overtaking the trees, and causing all life – plant, animal, and human – to become monstrous and infected. The trees grow in seconds, becoming giant, looming, and blocking out the sun and the outside world. People succumb to all kinds of terrifying illnesses ranging from madness to cannibalism to slowly becoming monsters, and even when they die, the forest won’t let them. They’ll come back as other kinds of monsters, merging with the undying forest more and more with time. And truly that’s just the beginning of “Darkwood’s” lore.

But the genius of “Darkwood” is that it never makes a show of how horrifying everything is. Things just exist. You catch on to the story and lore through random accounts from strangers, the details in random houses, or from taking mental notes on how people are trying to survive here. How humans have tried and sacrificed to survive is often just as unsettling as the overarching story and disease. The small storylines and relationships with side characters are where you most realize that the forest has no mercy. It also happened to me hundreds of times where just random yet absolutely terrifying things just exist – a man’s daughters turned to monsters locked up in the basement, groans from a garage, a half-dead man with radio dials for eyes, or a dead son’s lungs hooked up to a machine in hopes they’ll bring clean air. Absolutely none of these will be explained or fleshed out for you – you have to pay enough attention to details and the mechanics of this world to even begin to understand them. 

The design of “Darkwood” is equally a part of its genius. Even though all those scenarios sound grotesque to witness, and they are, the top-down RPG nature of “Darkwood” keeps it from being overly or unnecessarily traumatic. The most unsettling visuals are in the character designs during dialogue, but even then, much of the terror is in the details. Most of the fear factor is found in the atmosphere, as you explore in the darkness with minimal sound and narrow vision. This makes “Darkwood” an accessible horror experience for those that hate gory visuals or first-person jumpscares. 

The design of the gameplay is also integral to the experience. Your character can only see what’s in front of them, and your field of vision is impacted by your surroundings and the time of day. This makes it feel like a first-person playthrough, where your vision is limited and you have to guess what’s around you, without the full intensity of first-person. The controls are also mostly intuitive, but the combat is a bit different to give every action weight and a feeling of importance. You also have some RPG elements like inventory, crafting, choice-based storylines, combat styles, a home base, and the ability to gain special skills with time. All of these are fully fleshed out and detailed, making it almost impossible to fully understand or master “Darkwood.” Small dialogue choices have lingering consequences, you can specialize and upgrade weapons, enemies have distinctive fighting styles, and you always have to manage your home base and worry about how you’ll survive the night. 

However, even with the vastness of Darkwood, it never feels overwhelming. The forest is unforgiving, sure, but it’s not unfair. There’s a trader to help you every morning and you’re encouraged to experiment and pay attention as you discover how to survive, fight, and progress. There are usually multiple ways to solve a problem and even if you die, you come back the next morning just needing to find your stuff again. You will feel terrified, but you won’t feel cheated, even when Darkwood is at its most vicious. It’s a smart game, but it’s not arrogant.

Even as you master certain mechanics, you’ll then move to new parts of the forest or face new enemies. “Darkwood” slowly but surely ramps up the difficulty and intensity, while always being unnerving yet intriguing. Even as you go from being weaponless to carrying multiple guns, the woods are still terrifying as small details like tree density, how many monsters are out, and the variety of monsters keep you on your toes. The maps are also procedurally generated, making every experience different day-to-day and playthrough to playthrough.

If you’re looking for an impactful, harrowing, and well-crafted horror experience, look no further than “Darkwood.” You, and your heart rate, will not be disappointed.

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