Wot I Think: Deadnaut

There was one very good Alien game this year and in Deadnaut, we almost had another. While Isolation acts as a straight sequel, pitting a Ripley against a familiar creature in a familiar place, Deadnaut is about the horror of the unknown. With no license and no restraints, it is free to populate its derelict vessels with randomised beasties, ranging from the possessed corpses of former crew members (themselves alien) to skittering tentacled terrors. And ghosts. Alien ghosts on dead spaceships.

On one level, yes, Deadnaut captures the feeling of Dallas, Kane and Lambert exploring the Derelict on LV-426. You're cocooned somewhere safe, relaying orders and watching their life signs tremble and shift toward flatline. On another level, Deadnaut is Viscera Cleanup Detail played straight. It's a game about the aftermath of terrible events, but here the aftermath has teeth and claws of its own.

I think it’s fair to describe it as a survival horror game, although certainly not a conventional one. Rather than dropping the player in the thick of the horror, Deadnaut leaves them in the safety of a command capsule, relaying orders to a boarding party who are exploring a haunted wreck. Their mission may be one of salvage or they may have what seems to be a higher purpose, destroying artifacts that produce a malign influence on living things. Sometimes these ships seem to have dropped straight out of the Warp, bringing an unhealthy dose of Chaos into the world.

Deadnaut doesn't throw aliens in your first-person face but it is a first-person game in the sense that you see what your character sees, stationary in a command module, with a data log off-screen to the right, brought into view by turning your head, and the details of your boarding party to the left. On the central screen, which bears an eerie resemblance to a ship's porthole making events seem less than a window's thickness away, a map of the ship you're exploring is revealed, room by room.

Before boarding each ship, you'll receive some advance warning as to what might be waiting on board. A scan tells you how many lifeforms should be expected, and you'll receive data regarding the type of ship (medical, military etc) you're entering, the distribution of energy and the forms of security you're likely to be facing. In an ideal world, all of this information would allow you to plan ahead, adjusting equipment loadouts and crew.

Deadnaut does not take place in an ideal world. Campaigns are short, running across four ships, which makes the game brilliant for short bursts of play and also fits the theme perfectly. There's no way your crew would survive more than four drops – as it is, you're likely to be working with degenerating clones based on the DNA of those who do die during a mission. But the problem with the brevity of the campaigns is that it leaves you victim to chance.

To improve your chances between one mission and the next, you can purchase new equipment using a form of currency that is part reflection of the information you bring back from a ship and part a representation of experience earned by completing objectives. Blueprints found during missions provide access to more specialised or higher tier equipment but because of the randomised layout and contents of each ship, you're not guaranteed any particularly worthwhile bounty. That means there's not always a great deal of space for tactical preparations – you go in with what you've got and do your best to survive.

That said, Deadnaut isn't anywhere near as punishing as first impressions might suggest. Orders are given to units individually or as a group and mostly involve moving from room to room or interacting with hotspots. Those hotspots often indicate an alien corpse, which might contain a log giving some information about the build-up to whatever disaster left everyone in bits. They're almost uniformly brilliant, toying with your knowledge of scifi history – there's talk of strange sounds, of suspected bureaucratic meddling, of the crew behaving erratically since picking up a mysterious load of cargo.

Sometimes you realise you're in the middle of a Dead Space scenario, sometimes it's Event Horizon. All of the information about the threats on a ship and its previous crew is transmitted in text form. You can see threats moving on the map in abstract form – blobs fighting blobs – but every time your deadnauts encounter a specific type of entity, they'll send back information about it. Through stats and descriptions you can build an image of each new threat and learn how best to counter it. If it has a habit of dragging deadnauts to their doom, separating them from their teammates, throwing up defensive fields might help to block its attacks. If it is slow but powerful, it might be possible to use one deadnaut as bait, leading the creature into crossfire.

Security is slightly more predictable, mostly taking the form of sentry turrets and the slightly more enigmatic 'Watchers'. Turrets shoot deadnauts. Watchers attempt to reset the ship to its initial status, locking doors that you've opened and potentially separating the team. To override them, firewalls can be set up by hacking computers.

There are power systems to play with as well, which seem to reroute energy, but even after playing for a few hours I'm not always entirely sure if I'm doing the right thing by powering up a specific room at the expense of another. I think I'm doing what's best for my poor little squad but, then, they do keep dying. But I guess that's kind of expected, given that they're called deadnauts and I keep sending them onto derelict ships that have quite possibly just returned from a vacation in a nearby hell dimension.

The confusion that surrounds certain features is part of Deadnaut's lasting charm as well as its great flaw. When I succeed, I often feel that the random number generator threw an easy ship at me. I rarely get the buzz that comes from hard-earned victory. But if everything was cleanly and clearly explained, the atmosphere would be sucked out the game like it so often is out of a ship that takes too much internal damage during a mission.

The presentation is fantastic and relies, in part, on a hazy understanding of what is actually being portrayed. Occasionally a scene crystallises brilliantly, providing a snapshot that burns into memory. During one mission, the first living thing I encountered was in a medical facility, crawling by a surgical bed, slow and apparently harmless. It was a startling moment, conjuring up images of things that should be dead, writhing and choking, forgotten for centuries in the dark.

A burst of static interrupted the visual feed for a few seconds and I feared the worst, expecting the thing to have lunged, suddenly a monster rather than a misery, but it had barely moved. My deadnauts riddled it with bullets and muttered grimly to one another.

Deadnaut is a deceptively simple game. Move from room to room, use the right skill at the right time, and you'll go far. There are layers of apparent complexity in the form of personalities for the crew and oodles of flavour text describing the origins of a ship, but the former traits tend to cause minor interruptions to missions rather than adding to any roleplaying aspect of the game. The characters need more room to breathe but the game keeps asphyxiating them. The flavour text is wonderful though – Deadnaut creates wonderful procedural and emergent fictions before and during every mission, and I wish I could recommend it on that strength alone.

There's not quite enough to it though. For all the possible variety in the types of creature and ship, missions tend to play out very much alike from one to the next. It's a splendid curiosity but I doubt I'll be playing it by the time 2015 rolls around in a couple of weeks. It has made me far more interested in Screwfly though – with this and Zafehouse Diaries, they've shown an approach to tactical survival storytelling that isn't quite like anything else. There's plenty of evidence in both games to suggest they might be responsible for a future classic at some point down the line.

20 Comments

  1. Hex says:

    This is the game I almost won in an auction.

    :(

    Edit: And to post something more relevant — this game sounds fantastic.

  2. strangeloup says:

    I was curious about this because Zafehouse had some promise, despite being yet another bloody zombie game, but that curiousity evaporated when I tried five times to download the demo from Screwfly’s site, only to have it fail to complete on every occasion.

    Sounds like the same kind of almost-good as their previous title; hopefully they’ll eventually nail it.

  3. ExitDose says:

    I suspect this game’s premise would be served better with some setup instead of just dropping you into the action. Horror doesn’t really work with that approach. Horror works best when it builds atmosphere and tension.

  4. Hex says:

    Ah ha ha ha ha someone mentioned this in a previous article on the game, but yeah — the pictures of the characters are really off-putting. Totally immersion-breaking. Maybe I can just print out this and tape it to my monitor where the faces would otherwise pop up….

    • Snidesworth says:

      You can import pictures if you decide to create custom characters, thankfully. Strangely though you don’t get access to the default ones when doing so, and if you leave the portrait slot blank each character gets randomly assigned one every time you start a campaign. Which becomes incredibly confusing if you decide to recycle Deadnauts.

  5. Snidesworth says:

    I’ve been playing this game for a few hours now and it’s fantastic. I’ve managed to make it through one campaign so far, my success there likely due to going up against enemies that make cautious play even more advisable than usual.

    It’s also worth noting that there’s a whole system of relationships and quirks to your Deadnauts. Each one has a psychological profile and they become increasingly stressed when being forced to deal with things they don’t like. It’s also virtually impossible to create an experienced character without giving them a couple of flaws too, which range from stimulant addiction to the always hilarious selective hearing, which means the Deadnaut will occasionally fail to respond to your orders. To react to an order they think you issued. I’ve become quite fond of jumping in with randomly generated teams and seeing how far I can get before internal bickering and character flaws make something go wrong at the worst possible time.

    As for power, increasing it often increases the vitality of enemies (better life support) but also increases the recharge rate of your Deadnauts’ suits. It also tends to boost the brightness of the lights, which makes (visual) stealth more difficult for both sides. There’s a bunch of other effects too, like how boosting power in one sector drops it in an adjacent one, or how repairing the controls will help scrub a contagion from the air. Not to mention how more power equals more robust security of all types in the area.

    Edit: There’s also a demo on the developer’s website. Feature complete as far as I can tell, but you only get 3 Deadnauts instead of 5.

  6. Kaeoschassis says:

    If nothing else, we need more devs willing to play around with presentation. In most genres it seems to be that, a decade or two ago, someone nailed an interface that works, and in the intervening years those interfaces have been polished and made slicker and more functional, but that’s all. Nobody really experiments with them anymore. Certainly we need games with interfaces that are easy to pick up, instantly provide the information you need and let you focus on the gameplay itself, but well…

    Hm, there are different kinds of immersion, I think. Oh, here’s a good example. Take Cogmind. ( link to gridsagegames.com ) ASCII based mostly-classic roguelike that takes some twists on the genre. One of those twists is that you’re a robot. Another twist is presentation. I never thought a top down grid based rpg with an ASCII interface could be immersive, but when your player character is a machine it makes perfect sense, and the developer takes that basic idea and runs with it and is still running.

    Deadnaut is a game I’ll be picking up at some point, as much to support the team as anything else, because I love that they’re playing with their interface, not just taking the tried and tested one that works, but making it a part of the game, part of the experience, using it for immersion. That is something I definitely want more of in gaming.

    • sinister agent says:

      Definitely. I bounced off Deadnaut but will likely try it again at some point, but a big draw was the potential of that UI, which is basically fairly typical stat/tactical menus but presented in-universe, rather than as some abstract thing you, the disembodied overseeing force, can magically conjure. UI standards are a LOT better than they were even a decade ago (and let’s not even compare to the 90s), but there’s absolutely room for more games that utilise interface in a way that contributes to, rather than just enables, the game.

  7. sinister agent says:

    Tried the demo. Hadn’t squinted fruitlessly at a game’s text so much since Dead Rising.

    I want to like it though, it just felt too awkward and distant to get into. Will try it again someday, I’m sure. In the meantime, there’s always our Smingleigh’s stories.

    • Hex says:

      Ugh, thank you for linking that. I’m not sure why his site isn’t my homepage, yet.

      • Llewyn says:

        More to the point, I’m still not sure why RPS aren’t publishing his writings here yet. I came into these comments with the intent of linking to them, but equally sure that someone else would already have had the sense to do so.

        • Kaeoschassis says:

          Ooo, absolutely this! Why we don’t have the good Lord Custard when RPS has so many other great contributors is beyond me.

    • Anthile says:

      Worse than Darklands?

      • sinister agent says:

        About half the size, on sometimes poorly-contrasting backgrounds, so yeah, actually. I had trouble physically seeing what a lot of the words even were.

        Much more usable in terms of layout and (lack of) repetition, though, so it’d be much easier to improve.

  8. jonfitt says:

    *Turns off lights and stares into mirror*
    Lord Custard Smingleigh, Lord Custard Smingleigh, Lord Custard Smingleigh.

  9. macaddct says:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve played it, but it reminds me of Iron Helix.

    You are a remote controlled robot exploring a derelict space ship where all the crew have been killed. All the while the ship’s own security robot is trying to hunt you down.

    I’m not sure how well it holds up now, but it was terrifying at the time.