Published under the aegis of Black Library’s Warhammer Horror line, Six Doors to Darkness is a bizarre hybrid of storytelling and random determinism. Combining flash fiction and micro-game, it is paradoxically both and neither.
Although written in second-person perspective, it’s not a choose-your-own-adventure because the player has no actual choice beside playing or not. For the same reason, it’s not a solo crawl because it involves no skill and no agency beyond throwing a d6. It’s simply a short, brutal narrative of chance.
Five out of six times, you’ll only take one turn. That sixth time, you’ll get to make a second roll with another 1-in-6 chance of getting a third. Thus, the game will either immediately end or else become immediately redundant—and then end.
This malformed little warp-spawn falls short of being meaningful as a game or a story. But how it falls short is 700 words’ worth of interesting.
The game begins in a rotunda with six doors, and the player rolls a d6 to decide which door their character enters. A result of 1 to 5 leads to a gruesome end: eternally impaled and dying on a hook, eaten by carnivorous architecture, subsumed by predatory cysts, dissolved into void, or suicide by doppelganger.
A 6 sees you back in the rotunda (echoing the uncanny recognition behind the fifth door) and presents the player with a truncated recapitulation of the introductory text. This time, there is one key difference: instead of blood pooling inexplicably around you, it now pours from your wounded gut. The bloody paths to the doors, which initially foreshadowed violence and horror, now recall the five gruesome ends found behind the first five doors.
But because you rolled a 6, none of those events have happened—or more accurately, they still haven’t happened yet.
The sixth door’s prose is written to be climactic, but it’s only climactic in the context of reading the text linearly. It’s impossible for it to be climactic in the context of gameplay because it will never be preceded by the events that would build to that climax; all of them end with irreversible fates.
As a document, Six Doors is an exploded, abstracted table. The cells containing door/die result are designed to visually represent the fate awaiting (literally) within: hooks, teeth, seething flesh, flaying hands, and swords. The design of the sixth cell is a lightly transformed version of the initial one, visually emphasizing the “return” to the rotunda. And hidden amongst these stylized articulations, leading from cell to cell, is a visible trail that subtly but definitively guides the reader through the rooms one after the other.
In short, the layout and visual gestalt emphasize the linear experience of reading rather than the random experience of playing. But although the design establishes continuity among non-contiguous events, the game’s final presentation in paginated form re-fractures this continuity; the total design cannot be viewed simultaneously. (I spliced the pages together in the header image for the purposes of illustration.) This incidental material feature reintroduces the conditions of imperfect knowledge and discontinuity upon which Six Doors depends but which its own textual and visual construction consistently thwart.
Six Doors is caught between being a story and being a game, and—because it works against itself at every turn—between being both and neither.
It isn’t a game because the lack of choice makes it an abbreviated simulation. Remove that last tortured shred of player agency and it becomes non-interactive fiction. But it likewise isn’t a story because the events can’t coalesce into a coherent plot. They don’t lead to the climax that ironically presupposes at least one of the “preceding” disconnected events while simultaneously excluding them all.
Six Doors is an impossible object, an M.C. Escher design wrapped in prose and game mechanics. It succeeds in achieving a fair level of weirdness—and perhaps even horror. It just doesn’t achieve them in the way that was probably intended.
Six Doors to Darkness was published in White Dwarf October 2019. If you want to add it to your collection, you’ll have to buy a copy of the magazine—which you still can. At full price. Because Games Workshop.
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A summary & discussion of my paper about RPGs and art