Deathtrap Dungeon is One of the Strangest Games I’ve Ever Played

What do you get when you cross a popular 1980s gamebook with what seemed like the cutting edge of video game graphics in the 1990s? You get Deathtrap Dungeon: The Interactive Video Adventure. Released a couple of years ago, the game slid under my radar until recently, when a friend pointed it out and I played through some of it on stream. The concept is simple enough — you’re an adventurer seeking fame and fortune in a dangerous dungeon — but the execution is so bizarre that I can’t stop thinking about it.

First off, Deathtrap Dungeon is a classic gamebook written by Ian Livingstone, co-founder (along with Steve Jackson — no, not that one) of the Fighting Fantasy series as well as one of the founders of Games Workshop. Deathtrap Dungeon was the sixth book in the Fighting Fantasy series and follows the formula of an early Dungeons & Dragons adventure. The player makes their way through traps and monsters with the goal of being the first to survive the labyrinth known as “Fang.” It’s a little more sophisticated than the American choose your own adventure books aimed at kids that were everywhere in the 90s, as your character has some basic stats and battles are resolved with dice rolls.

As a foundational piece of interactive fiction, Deathtrap Dungeon has been adapted in a few different forms — as a now-delisted mobile port, an audio drama, and an upcoming live-action game. But perhaps the strangest is 2020’s The Interactive Video Adventure. Rather than simply show you the art and text from the original book, perhaps with some narration, or show recorded footage of the action, the game opts for a halfway measure — an actor sitting in a chair, slowly narrating your adventure to you. Dice and stats are superimposed onto the screen when necessary, and original art sometimes appears at critical moments, but otherwise, the experience of playing Deathtrap Dungeon is essentially just watching a man tell you what’s happening, as if you’re the only player in an oddly-intimate tabletop roleplaying game.

Deathtrap Dungeon

And who is that actor, you might ask? Well, it’s Eddie Marsan, of course. Known from films like V for Vendetta and Sherlock Holmes, as well as TV appearances on shows like Ray Donovan and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Marsan commits to his role as dungeon master with the energy of a man who is somehow both deeply fascinated by the proceedings and also very sleepy. The cuts, fades (from and then back to Marsan) and occasional shifts in camera angles only add to the strange vibes, and I was laughing pretty much the whole time I was streaming the game. That’s not a knock on the developers or Marsan — it’s just such an odd idea to create a digital version of a single-player roleplaying game in such a literal format.

I’ve only played through a little of Deathtrap Dungeon, but I intend to go back to it. Honestly, I don’t know why this isn’t more of a thing, now that I think about it. Character actors narrating interactive fiction should be an entire genre of video game. We have the technology. Let’s make it happen.

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