Descent Gone Melancholy In Null Operator

Null Operator [official site] caught my eye last year with talk of being a “6-degrees-of-freedom procedural action stealth roguelike” inspired by Descent. “Sure,” I thought, “I’ll follow their dev blog and see where it goes.” Very interesting places indeed, it turns out.

Developers Rust Ltd had a minor crisis over the game’s direction after seeing the Kickstarter for Descent: Underground bore no resemblance to the Descent they loved and remembered. Which set them thinking about what exactly it was they wanted to make. Which lead to a whole new Null Operator that looks fascinating: a melancholy 6DoF game in gorgeous eerie locations. Come see.

This here started out as a tech demo for the Alloy Shader Framework that Rust also make but dev Anton Hand realised it’s what he was looking for in his six-degrees-of-freedom ’em up. It’s an “aesthetic test”, not gameplay and not even the game, but look at how wonderful this is:

Heck yes I want to be in that place. You can download the demo to explore at your own pace too, though be aware it’s unoptimised as it wasn’t originally meant for public consumption.

Hand explained the development crisis in a recent blog post and how he realised he’d found the new direction after adding the searchlight robot.

“It felt sad, wistful, almost gentle to me. This, this was it. This was the feeling I wanted in this space. I didn’t want to fly around shooting it. I wanted to help it. I wanted to know why it was here, what it was looking for. I wanted to ask it where everything else had gone. Without explicitly looking for it, I had found a new sort of tonal center for my explorations.”

He’s still feeling out the shape of the game, but a few central ideas are 6DOF movement, complex physics interaction, procedural animation, robots, and weakness. On that last point he says:

“Totally done with making digital power fantasies. At 31, I’ve just hit tilt on this. I’ve role-played as super-capable fictive characters enough for several life times. We’re all weak. We’re all fairly powerless relative to so many facets of life. We almost never explore this through this medium. We need to grow the fuck up. In the last demo of Null Op, I tried simply making the player frail in combat. Making that engagement as weighty as possible, as consequential as I could. I think my desire to please people, and inflexibility in thinking about a 6dof experience bereft of combat kept me from seeing the obvious for too long. Being weak sometimes means not being able to fight back.”

I have no idea what this game will be but I really dig what I’m reading. Do check out the full blog post for more on its crisis and rebirth, as it’s a good read.


  1. Sam says:

    Like a walking simulator, but with flying so… Oh dear, language has let us down again.

  2. Jamesac68 says:

    That is really nice! I’d like a bit faster flying speed, thanks to years of gaming trimming my patience down to zero, but that’s a rusty, broken world worth exploring.

    You didn’t mention the weird glowy ball-thing in the featured image pulses. I spent a full two minutes watching it move, the lights travel its surface, and positioning to see its internal structure. Really beautiful design.

  3. valrus says:

    Wow. This is now my #1 most-anticipated game.

  4. MartinWisse says:

    It reminds me a bit of Waking Mars; same elegic feeling.

  5. Archangel says:

    Totally done with making digital power fantasies. At 31, I’ve just hit tilt on this. I’ve role-played as super-capable fictive characters enough for several life times. We’re all weak. We’re all fairly powerless relative to so many facets of life. We almost never explore this through this medium. We need to grow up.

    From the bottom of my gamer heart, I thank you, good sir. I despair that gaming is so dominated by power fantasies aimed at teenage boys. Thank goodness for you and other game developers willing to break out of power-fantasy gaming groupthink and explore something new and different. Bravo, and good luck with the game. I am looking forward to it.

    • Xzi says:

      Not like this is the first game to introduce that idea. Roguelikes are huge right now in indie gaming, and the Souls games will certainly put any perceived strength you have to the test.

      Across the rest of the gaming spectrum, you just have to choose to make yourself weaker or your enemies stronger via mods/difficulty settings. Still, this just reiterates my point that anyone looking for that type of experience can find it in plenty of games already. I personally tune every game I play to make sure I fail on a regular basis, but not constantly. After all, is it really a game if there’s no possibility of losing?

      • thedosbox says:

        The difference being that combat is the key mechanic for those games. It doesn’t sound as if combat will play a big part in this one.

    • Unclepauly says:

      If I can’t splode that ball thing with a thermo nuclear detonation I’m gonna lose my shit!

  6. Dilapinated says:

    Wow, that final quote hits so, so hard. The video is also fantastic. I am overall really impressed with this dev’s approach & excited to see the project develop!

  7. Ben King says:

    Even though it was just a tech demo that was definitely one of the eerier environments I’ve interacted with recently… There’s something really disturbing about that little spotlight wielding cylinder skittering around in the broken pipe. Although it’s not really the same thing the Orihaus Cesure environment reminds me of this Remnants tech demo just in terms of sheer alienating abstraction. RPS mentioned them in this article and I find the Noctuelles stuff to be totally fascinating nightmare fuel.
    link to

  8. horrorgasm says:

    Oh good. As an adult, one older than 31, that’s just what I want from a game and a developer, to be told to grow the fuck up for not having fun the way they think I should, which apparently consists of playing games that attempt to simulate the depressing and least fun elements of life, which is just what I want after a hard day of work. Sounds delightful.

    • horrorgasm says:

      On the bright side, I can still always pick up and enjoy one of the hundreds of other non-“power fantasy” games already out there that don’t come with the pretentious down-talking feature.

    • RARARA says:

      I thought that bit was aimed at his fellow developers. And especially not aimed at you if you can “pick up and enjoy one of the hundreds of other non-“power fantasy” games”. Why take it so personally?

    • RaoulDuke says:

      Or maybe, like me [age 28], he wanted to play an excellent, modern-physicsy, shiny version of Descent, but how we can’t have it because, haven’t you heard, being remotely powerful is like, sooo childish. We need to grow up and move glacially slow/not engage in combat/play hide and seek – that’s where the fun is, I’m told. By that guy.

      That’s how it read to me, I think he is just having a third-of-a-life crisis, times are tough for millennials. I can feel mine coming on…

    • Harlander says:

      I don’t need a game to make me feel like my actions have no power to affect anything, I’ve already voted by post.

  9. RARARA says:

    That was gorgeous. I love melancholic, eerie, abandoned industrial aesthetics, and this is right up my alley. The disconcerting skittering robots, the ambient noise of the giant ventilation fan, the mechanical jellyfish – all of it.

  10. LogicalDash says:

    For all that roguelikes enjoy killing the player, those I’ve played did so mainly for comedy and not horror.

    Roguelike Survival Horror needs to be a thing.

    • LogicalDash says:

      uh, Monstrum is that.

      Ok, well, I like “horror” better in the Silent Hill, Fatal Frame sense, where nothing ever jumps out at you, and it’s more your uncertainty about everything that makes it so terrifying.

      • Synesthesia says:

        Man, I still have flashbacks to that fatal frame scene of the kid beside the bed, when you wake up. Fuck that.

  11. Synesthesia says:

    I liked when all the pretties happened.

    Also, I loved his thoughts on power fantasies. Fucking finally! The medium does need to grow up. I hope we get a lot more devs like this.

  12. Messofanego says:

    Any impressions from the demo? Looks lovely.

  13. emertonom says:

    I had a lot of trouble navigating in Descent, because everything looked so similar. This doesn’t look like it’s improved on that much–darkness, fog, repeating textures, perfect circles. There are a few things distinguished by being broken or dripping water, which in descent was done with paint decals or color themes, so I think that’s kind of a lateral move. In the video, there’s just one linear path, but if it becomes mazelike the way Descent did, I worry that it’ll get frustrating rather than fun.

  14. yhancik says:

    It made me think a bit of the Basscadet music video

  15. manny says:

    Eh, why not just set the game inside the human body? And pretend like Ant-man they shrunk a submarine vehicle to microscopic size. That way you can explore inside of the human body which is educational and be given missions such as hunt down a virus, zap some cancer or clear an artery.

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    keithzg says:

    The funny thing is, although I loved the combat in the Descent games, about half of what really stuck with me about the first two games at least was indeed that sense of melancholy and loneliness, flying around in a place where all life has been wiped out save for the machines and you. Okay, the original at least had “hostages” to be picked up, but things quickly got very alien, and especially in the second game you were a long way from any living human civilization, having been informed in the end of the first game that your ship might be infected with the alien computer virus and so you can perhaps never return . . .

    That’s a very specific sort of alien environment exploration, and it’s rather cool to see someone picking up that sort of thread here.