Premature Evaluation: Duskers

Duskers’ premise has the player investigating the disappearance of human life from the known universe. Hulks float through the emptiness of space with only the garbled fragments of old log entries as evidence for the existence of their crew. The game puts forward a few different possibilities for you to look into and eliminate, and these suggest an action that humankind takes which inadvertently precipitates its destruction: a nanotechnological experiment gone wrong, creating a grey goo that atomically disassembles human matter, or simply the use of a super weapon so devastating that the resultant chaos causes the rapid decline and extinction of the entire species. But, assuming that humanity survives to become a space-faring people at all, perhaps the larger existential threat is inaction.

Each week Marsh Davies pulls apart the fritzing hulks he discovers drifting through the lifeless void of Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find and/or accidentally flushes himself out of an airlock. This week he’s been tentatively probing Duskers, a space-set roguelike in which you remotely operate a crew of drones as they strip derelicts of resources and attempt to uncover the reason for the dramatic depopulation of the galaxy.

Duskers uses a command line interface. This is how I know it’s a really good game: I would normally hate that. As regular readers will know, having nostalgia for inefficient game control schemes of yore makes as much sense to me personally as having nostalgia for rickets or open sewers. I accept that I may be in the minority here but, in any case, Duskers’ command line interface isn’t laying claim to some misty-eyed notion of The Good Old Days; its inarticulacy and inefficiency are part of the game’s expert orchestration of tension. For the most part, the game is intently methodical – a sort of poised, precise sloth that feeds the fantasy of this remote and lonely operation as you coax your four rapidly-deteriorating drones through the clutter of equally rapidly-deteriorating space-stations, hoping to recover enough fuel to make the next jump.

But then the screws tighten.

Where are all the aliens? That’s the question at the heart of the Fermi paradox, the observation by physicist Enrico Fermi that the apparent probability of advanced intelligent life was contradicted by the lack of evidence for them. This has always seemed a little premature to me, given that we’ve only been listening for extraterrestrial life since the invention of the radio telescope, and not even terribly effectively at that. That’s a pitiful 78 years in which to stumble across a transmission that we could even discern as actual communication, let alone interpret. But this is by-the-by: the Fermi paradox has at least got us thinking about the kind of existential crises that a space-faring species - like we soon hope to be - might encounter. Do suitably advanced species invariably destroy themselves? Do they destroy each other? Or do they just abandon the physical world altogether?

Several unprofitable salvage operations in a row and the fuel tanks are looking pretty parched. You simply lose the luxury of turning back, even as the derelict station rocks from asteroid impacts, even as radiation leaks through its hull, even as your drones’ motion detectors give out and their cameras gutter into blackness. On the other side of a door might be the haul your survival demands, or it might be something with an awful lot of teeth. And suddenly – very, very suddenly – the game becomes one of recalling and executing recherche syntax under pressure, as you send your drones into flight, slamming doors to cover their exit, flushing rooms into the vacuum or activating sentries in a flurry of fat-fingered keyboard hammering. Maybe you’ll do better, but the deformed hooves I call hands would reduce Mavis Beacon to plangent weeping. I probably mistyped half the words in that sentence, even. Under the threat of Space Peril, I am likely a dead man.

Luckily, you do get direct control over your drones, too. The game is divided between a schematic mode solely operated by the command line, and direct WASD control of individual drones from a top-down view, rendered as it’s seen through your drone’s fuzzy optical sensors. Or, sometimes, as it’s not seen: if your drone’s camera signal is lost, even temporarily, you have little choice but to flit over to the schematic mode. Given that you can only control one drone directly at a time, it’s sometimes more efficient to tap out “navigate 1 2 3 4 r1” to get your entire crew heading back to the airlock in Room 1, switching to the overhead view to unhitch stragglers from obstructions, and generally trying not to panic as radiation billows in from a nearby hull-breach.

One longstanding theory - currently doing the pop-sci rounds again thanks to the upcoming release of virtual reality consumer gadgetry - is that any species would ultimately favour existing in a virtual world of endless possibility over which they have total control than kicking around in a highly-lethal physical one which is inconveniently restricted by physics. It takes bloody ages to get anywhere, which is a problem if you have a body prone to decay. And if you’ve divested yourself of biology and uploaded your brain to a metal box capable of entertaining itself during the countless centuries of interstellar travel then why bother doing the travel part at all? Why not just plug yourself into a world of boundless entertainment instead?

It’s not just the two methods of control that require negotiation but the individual skills of your drones, too. Each has four slots for such upgrades, allowing you to specialise or build in redundancy as you see fit. Jon, my number one drone, who responds to commands with a prissy-sounding biddly-beep, is my scout – an essential role given the unknowable horrors that might lurk the other side of any given door. When stationary, he can sweep adjacent rooms for movement and has a number of sensors that can be plonked down to continually detect motion in a single room. Then there’s the tension of waiting. Duskers is a surprisingly potent aesthetic experience: the low moan of ship mechanisms, the whirrs and clicks of your drones, the static buzz of the interface – all create a pregnant, lonely quiet which is then suddenly punctured by a shrill alarm as the green sweeping sensors turn red.

Hostile lifeforms will attack and disable drones in short order, so it’s necessary to avoid, trap or dispatch them by cunningly manipulating the ship’s systems. Hailey, my number two drone, who says hello with a shrill brrrrp, is equipped with a generator. Once a power inlet is located, Hailey can plug herself in to power whatever doors and systems are associated with it. Typing the name of a powered door will now open or shut it, and, with a judicious use of Jon’s sensors and deployable lures, it’s possible to usher the creature into an empty cupboard, or better still, into a room with an active sentry turret in there. That’s (ble-boop) Abby’s job: she has an Interface upgrade that allows her to access ship control panels and turn on the powered defence systems. A last resort is to flush the creature into the vacuum by opening an airlock, but this has the side effect of contaminating the ship interior with radiation that will quickly damage the drones and spread between open rooms.

While this is a fun theory, I don’t think it goes far enough in recognising the sort of crisis of philosophy that transhumanism may invite. In the coming century, I suspect humankind will abandon many of the biological imperatives which fundamentally define its psychology: if we defeat death by some means of technology, will we remove our desire to procreate by traditional means? Will we see sexual impulse as an archaism? I would suggest that mere sentience necessitates no innate sense of self-preservation - that the very affection we have for our own existence is strongly tied to our need to propagate DNA, living only long enough to bang out a few kids. Perhaps, shed of physical form, we would come to see that as a Darwinian barbarism. Perhaps the rejection of human desire, in all its grubby, squishy biological detail, would actual engender wholesale nihilism. Perhaps there are no advanced aliens, because advancement itself permits the recognition that preservation of sentience is a bestial irrationality in a completely uncaring, purposeless universe. Perhaps an advanced species would see no meaningful difference between it and a heap of rocks, and happily revert to that state.

I found my fourth drone, Tommy (bad-da-le-beep), during a salvage operation: he was disabled, so I had to use Abby’s Tow upgrade to haul him back to the airlock. After repairing him, I switched around some of the skills among my existing drones to make Tommy a dedicated resource gatherer – the only upgrade so fundamental that you can craft a drone with it pre-fitted from the get-go, assuming you have already gathered the requisite amount of scrap. You’ll also need scrap for repairs: drones’ upgrades fail the longer they are in the field and many of these skills, like sensors, lures and even uses of the motion detector, are consumable items that need to be replenished by snaffling up scrap as well. You’ll need fuel, too, for propulsion between derelict vessels within a given star system, and j-fuel for making the longer jumps around the galaxy. There’s also a universe map, but I haven’t yet got far enough to see its purpose.

As you go, you’ll begin to piece together the reasons for humanity’s apparent demise from ship logs, and gain new pointers for where to head next. Could the advancement of nanotechnology have led to the accidental molecular reassembly of humankind? Could a catastrophic war have precipitated an avalanche of other crises that eventually extinguished all life? These questions were far from answered on my first playthrough, and I was initially worried that the cruel roguelike structure of the game would be in contradiction to the rather slow process of unravelling the game’s mystery. It’s a tough game – and perhaps not entirely gratifyingly so in its current Early Access build. Calamities accelerate the further you get in, and, while sudden threats initially force improvisation, their accumulation quickly begins to shut down your choices, sending your mission into a lengthy but entirely inescapable death spiral.

Or maybe not! Point is, I suspect there is no mind on earth sufficiently objective enough to anticipate the behaviour of a mind unhitched from biology - as invariably, for the convenience of space travel alone, we can imagine that any space-faring species would be. Science fiction struggles with this: even the hardest of hard sci-fi puts humans, largely as we recognise them today, at the centre. I’m reading Asimov’s Foundation series at the moment and, fun books though they are, it’s hard to see them as anything other than the most naive projection in this regard: like the cast of Mad Men, chainsmoking their way into space. Certainly, some sci-fi books propose exotic new genders, or the happy abandonment thereof, but fundamentally we see ourselves in the stars - and that is probably a mistake. Whatever challenges we will face in the process of becoming a space-faring people, the first aliens we will need to deal with will almost certainly be ourselves.

On my drones’ final fateful expedition, the teleporter bays I’d used to board the ship lost signal, leaving me only one route of escape at the far side of the derelict. Inconveniently, this was now being pounded by an asteroid storm, leaving many of the vital thoroughfares full of holes. Jon’s motion detector’s conked out, forcing me to move forward blindly. Consequently, Tommy got eaten, and, along with him, any possibility of gathering the fuel I needed to make a further jump. Even if I could have safely reached him, Abby’s tow upgrade had broken. Further exploration revealed no way to power the doors which barred my drones from escape – perhaps a glitch of the procedural generation or an intentionally cruel circumstance. Radiation began to seep through the hull.

This certain doom, the seeds of which were sewn across the previous hours of procedurally generated but unavoidable misfortune, would be aggravating if it meant recovering all the evidence I had so far accumulated from scratch. Instead, Duskers allows you to reset in the face of oblivion and yet still import all your existing knowledge, starting again with a new set of drones and, seemingly, an equivalent difficulty level to that reached in your abandoned game. I will shed a tear for my biddly-beeping pals, but I’m no less eager to see how Ian, Vinnie and Kyle fare in the face of interstellar peril with their very different set of skills.

Duskers plans to be in Early Access for another three-to-six months, during which time the storylines will be completed, and extra upgrades and modifications added. I think it’s about as exciting a game as I’ve played for this column, by turns offering measured, ruminative strategy and then exhilarating panic. New drone builds should provide added richness to the strategy, and, hopefully, offer more opportunity for you to successfully improvise your way out of catastrophe, but even in its half-complete state, Duskers offers quite a voyage indeed.

Duskers is available from Steam for £15. I played the version with the Build ID 741957 on 21/08/2015.

35 Comments

Top comments

  1. JustAPigeon says:

    You can also buy a Steam key direct from their website (I assume they get more money this way): http://duskers.misfits-attic.com/

    I love this game already, great atmosphere, very Alien. I'm terrible at it or it's very hard (probably both). Opening a door with no motion-scanner data of what is beyond is quite scary. Often results in death. Fucking brilliant game.
  1. Talos says:

    Came for the report on Duskers, stayed for the musings on the future state of humanity.

    • WHS says:

      I always feel as if the thing people miss about the Fermi paradox is that it’s about the tendency of self-replicating organisms to fill every available niche. So just saying “Well all the aliens are floating in VR pods” doesn’t cut it. The whole point is that the building blocks for life are EVERYWHERE, and assuming we’re not some galactic aberration (a reasonable if currently unfalsifiable assumption) there ought to be life cropping up many, many places. And the whole thing about life is that it’s self-propagating, that’s what makes it life. And past that it’s just a matter of statistical inevitability: if you get enough life growing in enough places, eventually it finds its way into EVERy place.

      It’s easy to imagine a dead earth with no life on it. And we have our current Earth, where life is everywhere, from the depths of the sea out into the most frozen arctic wastes. But it’s hard to imagine an earth in which life only exists in tiny pockets, never spreading. And yet if you look at the broader universe that’s what the evidence suggests exists: pockets of life (maybe even just ours), but absolutely nothing to suggest the kind of ubiquity you’d expect. Next to that, the idea that the solution is simply “everyone does X thing or Y thing once they reach a certain point” seems absurd, it’s like saying all fish should have crawled back into the sea.

      • Premium User Badge

        Wisq says:

        The problem with that line of reasoning, I think, is that the jump from e.g. the oceans to the land is nowhere near as hard as the jump from planet to planet, or from planet to living in outer space, or from outer space to reaching other stars, etc etc.

        Not only does that act require a certain degree of intelligence and determination, but (in our experience so far) it also requires the creation of technology to assist in these efforts. And our technology so far is telling us that it’s far, far easier to send unmanned probes everywhere than it is to send actual people there. I mean, even getting people to Mars would likely involve a bunch of unmanned cargo runs beforehand to support them once they got there.

        So unless someone decides that human space colonisation should be a priority and makes that happen, we run a real risk of stagnating as a single-planet species — content to just gaze rather than visit — until such time as some unforeseen future event wipes us out.

        Even so, I don’t think I entirely agree with that vision of the future. Even if human spaceflight to other planets and stars ends up being prohibitively difficult, I would be surprised if we don’t end up uploading into (or creating) some form of digital intelligence, and that’s the real point at which space travel becomes easy (due to no life support) and risk-free (due to copies/backups).

        It’s hard to imagine us not travelling to the stars at that point. It’s just a question of whether we survive that long.

        • Shaftoe says:

          “And our technology so far is telling us that it’s far, far easier to send unmanned probes everywhere than it is to send actual people there. ”

          Yes, but see – you answered yourself. Von Neumann machines. Noone ever said the universe has to be filled up with meatbags full of water, so inconveniently low in intelligence vs. mass and so difficult to move around. But we could build probes, and they could build probes, and infinitum. Which brings us back to WHSs post. Where are they all?

          • Geebs says:

            To be fair, we don’t know they’re not out there. All we know is that they’re not talking

          • LennyLeonardo says:

            Also, someone has to be first; why couldn’t it be us? Just because we aren’t constantly tripping over alien probes and spaceport germs, doesn’t mean we won’t be later.

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            keithzg says:

            I think this is the point where as a Canadian fan of science fiction I am obligated to point to Peter Watt’s novel Blindsight: link to rifters.com

            They clenched around the world like a fist, each black as the inside of an event horizon until those last bright moments when they all burned together. They screamed as they died. Every radio up to geostat groaned in unison, every infrared telescope went briefly
            snowblind. Ashes stained the sky for weeks afterwards; mesospheric clouds, high above the jet stream, turned to glowing rust with every sunrise. The objects, apparently, consisted largely of iron. Nobody ever knew what to make of that.

            For perhaps the first time in history, the world knew before being told: if you’d seen the sky, you had the scoop. The usual arbiters of newsworthiness, stripped of their accustomed role in filtering reality, had to be content with merely labeling it. It
            took them ninety minutes to agree on Fireflies. A half hour after that, the first Fourier transforms appeared in the noosphere; to no one’s great surprise, the Fireflies had not wasted their dying breaths on static. There was pattern embedded in that terminal chorus, some cryptic intelligence that resisted all earthly analysis. The experts, rigorously empirical, refused to speculate: they only admitted that the Fireflies had said something. They didn’t know what.

        • aleander says:

          You’re mostly right, with the exception being that a sizeable chunk of a typical Mars lander mission is making sure we’re not sending a bunch of microbes out there — there are some remarkably hardy species that could survive all the way to the surface. Not sure if they would stand a chance of getting active, and even if we placed them somewhere relatively nice we’d be talking about a couple of billion years of evolution before anything noteworthy would come out of it, but we do spread “life” around.

          Still, I do agree that it’s most likely the great filter is in our future, not past.

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        Bluerps says:

        Maybe the universe is not old enough for life to have spread everywhere. Maybe not enough time has passed.

        Earth was a lifeless ball of hot minerals once. Later, there was life everywhere. Between those two points in time there was a time period in which life existed somewhere on Earth, but not everywhere. The spread of life is not instantaneous.

        Maybe that is the state the universe is currently in – life has developed in some places and has started to spread, but for it to reach everywhere, more time is needed.

        • Colthor says:

          With technology not that much more advanced than ours it would be possible to build self-replicating robots that could visit everywhere in our galaxy over about ten million years. Which is a tiny fraction of the age of the sun; had it formed a blink earlier we might have already done it.

      • Malibu Stacey says:

        The whole point is that the building blocks for life are EVERYWHERE

        The building blocks for life may be everywhere but the evolution of sentience has, as far as we know, only happened once on this planet & even that came pretty close to being eradicated by events beyond our control.

        We’re able to detect exoplanets now & have even found some which are “earth similar” but even if every one of those planets has as much free surface water as our planet does, that’s no guarantee that complex life has existed for long enough or with similar selection pressures that cause sentience to emerge.

        Then again, we could be wrong about what it takes for life/sentience to emerge. After all, we’re working with a dataset of 1. Who knows what we’ll find when we start looking more closely at places like Venus or Jupiter/Saturn, their moons & all the billions of exoplanets in our galaxy.

  2. JustAPigeon says:

    You can also buy a Steam key direct from their website (I assume they get more money this way): link to duskers.misfits-attic.com

    I love this game already, great atmosphere, very Alien. I’m terrible at it or it’s very hard (probably both). Opening a door with no motion-scanner data of what is beyond is quite scary. Often results in death. Fucking brilliant game.

  3. caff says:

    Epic alt text on those screenies ;D

  4. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    I have very much enjoyed watching Duskers from prototype to Early Access. I’ve spent many evenings delving too deep into wrecks and shrieking at my cat as my precious droneses get eaten.

    • Geebs says:

      If there’s anything movies have taught me, it’s this: when delving around in a massive spaceship trying to avoid terrifying alien monsters, cats are a definite liability.

  5. kulik says:

    I have been waiting for a game like this for a very long time, hope it will end up great.

  6. Henas says:

    How does this compare to that other similar game I believe was called ‘Deadnaughts’?

    You had a team of humans with personality traits in lieu of robotic drones, but otherwise seems similar bar the command line control method.

    • kulik says:

      Deadnaut was about facing and killing aliens. Duskers is about avoiding them, luring them into traps reactivated ship defenses and mines, and flushing them into space by opening airlocks. The moment you see an alien in Duskers it is usually too late. There is a gatling drone upgrade, but it is not 100% reliable.
      Plus, the command line interface is really immersive.

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      Wisq says:

      I’m liking Duskers a lot more than Deadnaut so far. The strategy’s deeper, the world’s bigger, and while I liked the immersive Deadnaut UI, the Duskers one is immersive in its own way (more digital, less analog) and offers a lot more feedback.

      I also like that it’s a lot “flatter”, in terms of progression. With Deadnaut, each game had you start from scratch with a basic crew (their stats vary but they aren’t going to make the game drastically different), and it was going to take a couple of (simple, early) missions before you had the cash to buy anything particularly interesting.

      Duskers starts you out mostly where you left off, with three drones with semi-random upgrades. Right off the bat, those random upgrades are going to change how you play the game. And when you find a disabled/destroyed drone somewhere with more upgrades, they could be absolutely anything. You might get your personal “perfect” combination of upgrades on your very first mission — and you might lose them all on the next one, and have to adapt and change up your style.

      Also, while “death” in either game is certainly a major setback and may send a game into a tailspin, it’s also much more recoverable in Duskers. Retreat is not an option in Deadnaut, and losing a couple of your ‘nauts in the same mission (or having your team cut off from the exit points) can often spell the end of your entire playthrough. With Duskers, no matter how much you’ve bodged up the current mission, you just need to get one drone back in the ship and GTFO to lick your wounds.

  7. משוגע־סאָפֿע says:

    tim KEENAN talks w/ tom TOWERS about ‘duskers’
    in the latest episode of game under podcast
    link to traffic.libsyn.com

  8. Al Bobo says:

    This game makes me tense. Like it’s not enough that my motion detectors can deteriorate and start to show false readings, there are also things that can burrow through doors, use air vents or can be seen only on manual mode. And these are only the monsters that I know of. I also didn’t know that doors get jammed, if you kill enemies between the doors. I should have known…

  9. malkav11 says:

    Duskers looks fantastic. Gotta maintain my no-early-access standards, though. Gonna be a long six months.

  10. ShrikeMalakim says:

    There is an interesting pair of decent hardish sci-fi novels that actively do not put humans at the center of them, though humans are a plot point. Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children (albeit it’s a bit of a late Heinlein homage, so somewhat less hard -ahem- than most) and Neptune’s Children (a significantly better novel, and a lot more intriguing in its posthumanism).

    • ShrikeMalakim says:

      wtb Edit. That’s Saturn’s Children and Neptune’s Brood.

      • Marsh Davies says:

        Thanks! I will check these out.

        • Risingson says:

          About the Von Neumann nightmares, apart from a series of fairly recent books that I won’t mention because it is actually a spoiler of the first one, I remember the Galactic Center series by Gregory Benford as being quite enjoyable, even when it was crowded with heterosexual middle aged divorced white male fantasies. I mean, the author himself, something very common in the Benford books.

          But these ones are full of wonderful and horrific ideas. I really recommend them.

          • Jurple says:

            Also relevant regarding Von Neumann devices is David Brin’s Existence (9780765342621), and/or his original short-story treatment of the idea, Lungfish.

            (I hope that’s not the one Risingson refers to!)

        • Imposter says:

          While Stross is excellent, I’d actually recommend the works of Greg Egan if you’re looking for hard science fiction that doesn’t have humans at the heart of it. His Orthogonal Trilogy is as much about the physics of his world as it is about the characters, but those are characters distinctly alien while still being in some ways entirely relatable. Transhumanism turns out to be just as fascinating when both the start and the endpoint are entirely foreign and strange.

          • Premium User Badge

            Wisq says:

            Seconded. Thoroughly enjoyed that series.

            As far as Von Neumann stuff (and the Fermi Paradox), Alastair Reynolds’ “Revelation Space” series has a lot going for it in this department. Sticking to sublight travel — and featuring an interesting take on how relativistic pursuit and combat might look — it tells the tale of humanity encountering a von-Neumann-style “superpredator” designed to snuff out life once they reach a certain development level, with humanity being the new target. And even once that threat is dealt with, they eventually find themselves abandoning the galaxy due to an out-of-control self-replicating “Dyson swarm” stellar terraforming tool of their own creation.

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      phuzz says:

      Learning the World by Ken MacLeod is half about humans, and half about an alien race (as in, alternating chapters from each viewpoint) and the book doesn’t really place one above the other in any way.

  11. blind_boy_grunt says:

    Because i am just reading the Blindsight from Peter Watts:
    In the novel earth basically stopped exploring because there was no reason for it, with a post-scarcity industry and vr/digitalization able to simulate everything without the drawbacks. So when aliens show up one question is what made them go on where humans just got complacent. If they never got to that point where they were allowed to be complacent although they have technology far superior to anything on earth, how hellish does their home look like?

    At least that is how one theory in the novel goes: If there are any spacefaring extraterrestrials, they’re not just going to be smart. They’re going to be mean. What are tools for? Tools existed for only one reason: to force the universe into unnatural shapes. A rebellion against the way things were. It never thrived in any culture gripped by belief in natural harmony. Technology implies belligerence.

    • aleander says:

      So when aliens show up one question is what made them go on where humans just got complacent.

      Do finish the book. It answers the question. It’s not a nice answer, and the only thing I’ll spoil (I guess this is a spoiler, though enigmatic enough) is that it’s not that humans didn’t reach far enough, they reached too far. And without even trying.

  12. Premium User Badge

    timzania says:

    What’s so great about Duskers and the way it uses the command line is the way it plays in multiple scopes. One minute you’re completely engaged with just one drone, carefully exploring an unknown room under stealth, watching for any potentially threatening movement. Then you’re completely zoomed out from that, thinking about how to reposition for continued power and terminal access while the threat of an asteroid impact complicates the map. The command line isn’t just for tension (and it’s as helpful as it can be with regard to auto-completion etc); the game just has so many verbs, especially with all the upgrades that you may or may not have. It’s also that, in a complex situation, you often want to activate an upgrade without searching around for exactly where that particular drone is (which may not be pertinent information at that moment).

    Also the game’s sense of timing is great in the way where you almost feel relaxed but never quite.

  13. Wowbagger says:

    I for one, vote for infinite fun space as soon as I can shed my meat bag and ascend to computer heaven.