Duskers

I love games that make me type.  If the central conceit of your game is that my computer is an actual computer I’m supposed to be using in the game, you really should make me type out commands in a terminal.  It’s incredibly immersive as a mechanic, basically for free and automatically.  This was previously used to great effect in Hacknet, a wonderful game about hacking the Gibson and/or the planet that used Unix terminal commands to drive what you’re doing.  Because the overall tone of Hacknet was one of excitement, tension, and ticking clocks, having to type everything out jacks all that up to 11.  In Duskers, however, the tone is one of slow-burning horror.  And this is one incredibly scary game.

When you start it up, the game shows you a POST sequence as if you’re booting up a computer.  It claims to be a system by which you’ll be interfacing with special drones, and nothing inside the game betrays that conceit.  With my lights turned off and headphones on, I’m completely ready to believe that I’m aboard a clunky salvage vessel, low on fuel, with nothing but a few inches of pressed scrap metal between me and the void of space.

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The sound design helps greatly with this.  Ships groan and settle, doors squeal and boom open and closed, and everything echoes in the stillness in just the right way.  There’s no music, and most of what you’ll be hearing are the sounds of your own typing, the beeps and blips of the computer, and the whirring of your drones.  Which makes it all the more terrifying when other notes creep into the near-silence.  Buzzing, clanking, pitter-pattering.  There’s something just out of sight, just behind the next hatch.  And these ships are falling apart.  Radiation leaks, malfunctioning doors, sudden hull breaches, all complicate things and put a timer on your exploration.  Will you keep going for one more bit of scrap, a tantalizing piece of equipment, or a new drone to tow back and repair?  Or will you get out before you potentially lose everything, but risk losing in the long run due to a lack of supplies?

Further enhancing the atmosphere is a look reminiscent of the technology found in the Alien movies.  Everything is scan lines and low-res CRTs and blocky fonts, kind of a “70’s mainframe” look, but you’re in deep space.  Your drones scoot slowly around on what I can only assume are ancient tank-style treads.  Their cameras are glitchy, vague, and full of static, prone to shutting off just when you need them, and never giving you a clear picture of what lurks in the dark.

And things do lurk in there.  Though at first it seems you’re the only survivor in a dead universe, there is life out there among the derelicts you’ll be exploring.  Unfriendly, hungry life.  The bulk of the game is spent figuring out how to deal with the inhuman  residents of these derelict ships as you explore.  You’ll be luring them from room to room, trying to keep them contained, never sure exactly what you’re dealing with, but knowing that exposure means destruction for your fragile little drones.  Swift and mysterious destruction, flashes of movement at the edge of your extremely limited vision, then the sad beep of a lost signal.  The abstraction lets your mind run wild with possibilities and speculation that’s far scarier than anything the game could have actually depicted.

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The reason you’ll want to explore instead of curling up into a ball is twofold: you’ll want to find out what happened, and you need supplies in order to do that.

You need fuel both to move from derelict to derelict, and also to jump to new star systems.  Your equipment is constantly degrading, and repairs take a lot of scrap.  Trying to rely on the same favorite strategy for too long will quickly turn into an impossible and dangerously expensive proposition.  Even your ship is slowly falling apart.  Much better to find new gear, new drones, maybe even a new ship.

Learning what happened is a process of narrowing down the truth from several possibilities.  Was it out-of-control nanomachines, a “gray goo” scenario?  Perhaps an extra-dimensional invasion?  A final war to end all wars?  Something else?  Exploring different kinds of ships and stations yields drips and drabs of what may have occurred, in the form of tantalizing log snippets that are well-written and serve to paint a picture of the game’s world in convincing fashion.  Again, nothing breaks the core conceit of the game.  Even when you eventually fail, run out of fuel or drones and can’t do anything but wait to die, starting a new “run” has an in-universe explanation with some chilling implications.

As you claw your way forward bit by bit, slapping new parts and strategies together, you gradually come to terms with the rules of survival in this hostile and near-empty world.  You learn the various types of lurking enemy by their behavior and the way you have to manipulate them.  You learn new commands, even some basic scripting to make your life easier as you go.  You learn the rhythm of when it’s productive to keep exploring a wreck versus when you should pull out and cut your losses.  You gradually piece together a kind of picture of what may have happened, and you find yourself wanting to go just a little bit further, take one more roll of the dice, one more risk.  One more ship.  One more room.

Something else that needs mentioning, but I don’t know where to put it, is that the game lets you name your drones.  This is such a small thing, but it has big implications for immersion and gamefeel.  Because your drones are both your only means of interacting with the world, and also a bit unreliable and finicky at times, they seem to have personalities.  By leaning into that human tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, by letting you commit to that and go all the way with it and give the drones names, it opens up the door for emergent storytelling in a really interesting and backdoor sort of way.  Procedurally-generated games in general have this emergent tendency, but when you name a drone with a glitch-prone camera after your nearsighted friend from work, or what-have-you, your brain starts to take that and run with it.  Soon you’re reading all kinds of personality into these little hunks of metal.  Not even hunks of actual metal, but just blips on your screen, really.  It’s amazing how much work this one little detail does for the game’s immersive quality.

Duskers deserves huge praise for its atmosphere of slow-burning dread, supported by its sound design, its commitment to its conceit, its visual design, and its overall gamefeel.  It is an incredibly immersive experience, and one that is at once terrifying and compelling.  This is fear that’s meant to be overcome, not to overwhelm, and that’s no easy feat to design.

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