Developer: Acid Wizard Studio
Target Audience: Young adults and up
For this Critical Play regarding balance, I decided to write about the game Darkwood, a story-based open-world survival horror game released back in 2014. I feel it is one of the most effective and genuine horror games I have played. Even though it is a purely single-player game, I feel that the balance considerations put into the progression, items, and systems contribute greatly to its immersive atmosphere.
In Darkwood, you start off in control of a protagonist who is trapped in a malicious, warped forest which is filled with various life-threatening threats. The player must navigate using the top-down perspective across the open-world map during the day to both find survival items and progress the story, and retreat to their “safe” shelters during the night (which are invaded by terrifying enemies). The primary types of fun present are challenge (the focus of this writeup), narrative, discovery, and sensation.
The primary kind of balance present is Single-Player Game balance, which “describes whether the challenge level is appropriate to the audience” (Game Design Concepts). In particular, the pacing of the game, resource management systems, and progressively higher challenges all are finely tuned to offer the best experience possible.
As the game starts, you wake in a relatively safe area of the map. The enemies that do exist are generally slow and weak, and your shelter there is both defensible and has few nightly attackers. This area of the game allows players to learn the fighting mechanics and survival loop at their own pace. The protagonist is offered basic versions of weapons that will be seen later in the game, and can meet with only a several few NPCs. At any time, the player can choose to progress to the next area (which is clearly delineated by a scary dense wooded area). This area has the same structure as the first – a shelter, enemies, NPCs, and tasks to do – but increases the complexity in all of these areas. The shelter is tougher to defend, new enemy types will attack in different ways, and the tasks to complete are more complex. These new challenges feel fair however, and well-targeted toward the mature audience that the game was made for.
As a survival-horror game, Darkwood offers a resource management system that must be well-exploited by the player if they wish to live. I found that the items of similar types in this system were generally balanced using a cost curve. Take the weapons in the game, for example. Players can use anywhere between basic long sticks as melee weapons to fire axes, and have several options when it comes to firearms. However, more advanced weapons are gated behind both progression and cost of crafting/maintenance. Is it worth the monetary and material investment to purchase crafting materials for a pistol? What about a shotgun (which of course is significantly more costly than a pistol)? If acquired, these powerful weapons can make short work of enemies, but must be used sparingly. I often found myself opting for fighting in melee with poor weapons purely because I wanted to spare the ammo/condition of my better equipment.
Overall, Darkwood is an incredibly fun and challenging game that is made better through its finely tuned balance. Its progressively more challenging pacing as well as harsh resource management system contribute to the game’s immersion and desperate atmosphere.