The Dungeon Experience is a videogame about a theme park dungeon held together by strings. The theme park, I mean, not the videogame. It's got an uncanny animatronic barbarian and cardboard cutout monsters, the Lake of Pain is an inflatable kiddie pool, and the host is a mudcrab. Co-creator Jacob Janerka tells me he's workshopping a pitch to sum up this unusual concept. "The Dungeon Experience is like The Stanley Parable," he says, "but the narrator is a talking crab who reads self-help books and has a hundred-dollar budget."
That's a pretty good pitch. A walking simulator with minigames, The Dungeon Experience is a parody of RPGs where you experience one from the warped point of view of the creature you'd normally be fighting around the same time you tackle your first slime. "We wanted a Dungeon Master," Janerka says, "but if it's just a regular guy, why don't we do something more interesting? We're making a videogame, you might as well take advantage of the medium."
Janerka and his co-developer Simon Boxer, who was previously responsible for roguelike card game Ring of Pain, started by coming up with a list of low-level monsters who might make an interesting DM. "We had goblins, rats, whatever. Crab was much more endearing, especially in Bethesda games and stuff like that. The talking mudcrab from Morrowind was definitely a big inspiration."
The concept of The Dungeon Experience arrived spontaneously while Janerka was in the middle of a game of Dungeons & Dragons. "It came from playing D&D for the first time when I was making the previous game," he says, referring to his point-and-click adventure, Paradigm. "Our Dungeon Master was quite good, but I always found it really funny—the idea of someone who is very endearing and really into D&D making this world for you, and making it on a shoestring budget. That was the seed of the idea. It would be really funny if you were entering a Dungeons & Dragons fantasy world, but everything is made by hand."
There's definitely something inherently goofy about running a game of D&D. You're inviting a group of people into your homegrown imagination, sitting them down at the table and saying, "Welcome to my magical realm, here is what I think a cool wizard would look like." No wonder we make jokes so much of the time.
There's more to The Dungeon Experience than just walking past some jokes, however. "The story was really bland," Janerka says of the initial idea. "It was just like, you go to a shitty theme park and it's a shitty theme park. You go around and experience the bad theme park. It doesn't hold the player, it's like a one-note gag. Then I created this world where these theme parks are based on a multilevel marketing scheme to sell you essential oil candles."
It turns out the villain of The Dungeon Experience isn't a crab with big dreams and a small budget. It's an MLM cult, complete with a mysterious leader, out to rule the world via pyramid scheme. Janerka was inspired by reality. "I read this book called Merchants of Deception," he says, "which is by a guy who was in Amway in the '80s and '90s, who got really high up in the company and talked about how it ruined his life. It's just a wild story, I'd recommend it."
An evil pyramid scheme feels a touch more relevant today than another fantasy villain who wants to create eternal winter or bury the land under shadow or whatever. To go any further into it would risk spoilers, however. Australians will have a chance to check The Dungeon Experience out for themselves at PAX Australia, where Janerka will be demoing it in the PAX Rising area, where all the cool indie games hang out, from Friday October 6 to Sunday October 8.