Wot I Think: Duskers

After nine months in the womb of early access, Duskers has finally been born. Out it comes, snarling and writhing like the science fiction nightmare it is, covered in slime and engine oil. Congratulations, game developers! It’s beautiful. No, really, it is. And here’s Brendan to tell you why.

Have you seen Alien? Who am I kidding, of course you’ve seen Alien. If you haven’t seen Alien, it’s probably because you are an Alien, and you live millions of light-years away, and you’re made of moss and haven’t developed eyes yet, or cinema. No, you’ve seen Alien because it’s essential. Well, I’m here to tell you that, as much as Alien is essential to any lover of sci-fi movies, Duskers is just as essential to any lover of sci-fi games. We’ve been looking for the Citizen Kane of videogames all these years, when really we should have been looking for the Ellen Ripley of videogames. Anyway, don’t worry, we’ve found her.

Here’s the skinny: you’re You. You’re on a ship all by yourself, floating through space. The only thing keeping you company is your computer screen and a small posse of remote-controlled drones. Something has happened, something bad, to everyone, everywhere. But it isn’t clear exactly what. You’re simply floating from derelict ship to derelict ship, trying to find out what’s gone wrong. Why are there so many shipwrecks? What’s with these corrupted logs? And why are there no survivors like you?

Your computer is an 1980s vision of the future – a command-driven box full of blinking green cursors and vector lines and old-school terminal typefaces. Even the pause menu gets in on the act. Will you LOOK at this pause menu.

Beautiful.

Anyway, you’re confronted firstly with a map screen – I’ll talk more about this overview later. It’s what you’ll be fiddling with in your downtime. Most of the time, however, you’ll be getting your hands dirty scavenging. And by “getting your hands dirty” of course I mean “getting your drones eaten by unknown horrors”. You see, when you board a derelict vessel, you’re brought to a blueprint screen like this.

You can’t see the whole ship, usually. You have to go in and look around, guiding your robot chums around the randomly-generated innards of these dead ships, looking for scrap, spare drones and (most elusively) information. You can take direct control of each drone by hitting ‘1’ or ‘2’ or whatever the bot’s number is, then drive it about with the arrow keys. But often you’ll be typing commands and simply watching as the little machines carry out their tasks.

This sounds daunting. Command-line interfaces are dead for a reason (i.e. they are bonkers), and here is a game that does not even entertain a mouse, not even in its main menu. WHAT WERE THE DEVELOPERS THINKING? But Duskers goes out of its way to make things simple. For example, all your drones start in a little docking pod. To get out, you type “a1” to unlock ‘airlock 1’ then, for instance, “navigate 1 2 3 r3” to move all three of your starting drones to ‘room 3’. I have just described about a third of the commands you will type. Opening doors, closing doors and saying “move drone X to room X” is pretty much the game. That’s very limiting, you might say. But you’re a damned fool.

Drones do come with upgrades, allowing you to type other commands. “Gather” picks up scrap and fuel. “Tow” connects your bot to a disabled drone and carries it along behind. And “generator” plugs a drone into a power source and supplies juice to doors and airlocks. This is just the start. You can get upgrades to “interface” with shipboard computers, or “pry” jammed doors open, or detect “motion” in adjacent rooms. This last one is very important. You are going to detect a lot of motion.

This is the game’s beating, leaping heart. You are not alone on any of these ships. Behind any of these doors might be some thing waiting to lunge at your drones and tear them asunder. And the loss of a single drone (and therefore any upgrades it has installed) is devastating. You have to work hard to keep your drones in good shape. You invest in them, you repair them with scrap, you trust them with expensive upgrades. You even rename them, say, after your colleagues.

Because of this, losing a drone is often a head-in-your-hands moment. It can be as demoralising as losing any XCOM major, as distressing as your Minecraft cabin catching on fire. You can turn off the permadeath in the difficulty options but both the developers and myself would recommend you to stay far away from that button. Watching a drone succumb to the mysterious terrors of these shipwrecks is not the essence of this game but recovering from that loss is. Or, in many cases, the attempt to recover.

Here’s an example. I put together a plan to “herd” a monster (I don’t know what kind) through a series of rooms and flush it out an airlock. Naturally, it all went horribly wrong. The drone I was using to power the doors (poor Alec) was attacked. And now a radiation leak was filling the ship room by room. During this ruckus, the aforementioned monster had somehow gotten into my docking vessel where it promptly trashed another two drones after I accidentally locked it inside with them in a panic. The whole thing was a disaster.

Three of my robots were now dead or disabled – Alec, Jim and Graham. But a single drone had survived. It was Alice. She had been sheltered in the one nook of the derelict that was safe from radiation. But how was I supposed to get her back on board the docking pod and safely home – the alien was inside. I couldn’t dock the shuttle somewhere else and open it, to cast the alien back onto the ship, because that would fill my shuttle with radiation. The only safe docking point was the A4 airlock – exactly where Alice was. I had to come up with a plan.

Luckily, Alice found a disabled drone in her room and stripped its corpse, finding a “lure” upgrade. Together with a mine we created an impromptu trap that would entice the alien away from Alice. I tucked her into a corner of the room, opened the airlock and prayed.

It worked. Not only did the monster go for the trap, giving Alice her chance to sneak back onto the shuttle, but she also towed that busted drone back with her. I slammed the airlock closed with “a4” and typed “exit”. I lost Alec that day – my hardworking generator bot. But, thanks to Alice, I saved the others. We even gained a ‘Pip’.

A playthrough of Duskers is full of small tales like this. One time, John, my point-bot, was killed by some kind of… swarm – all because I forgot to turn his shiny new turret on. Another time, I accidentally flushed my gathering drone Quintin out of an airlock, because I had hastily typed “a1” instead of “dock a1”. In that instance, I laughed my ass off. But afterwards I was obviously devastated.

My point is: while all this is happening, it feels fantastic. Fantastic and frenetic. On a ship marked “stable” you can afford to take your time but a “volatile” ship will have radiation leaks, or incoming asteroids, or malfunctioning doors, or punctured hulls. All of which threaten to upend your plans and force you to rethink, react or retreat, quickly, back to the nearest room with a stable airlock.

And the way it all looks. It’s one thing to make a game look like this, hooking into everyone’s current lust for “retro-futurism” or whatever it is we’re calling nostalgia now, but it’s another thing for the feel, atmosphere and mechanics of your game to perfectly match that style. This is something Duskers does unnaturally well. It is a claustrophobic, tense recreation of all the sci-fi horror you love. It’s a game of desperately trying to come up with solutions with almost no resources. Imagine someone has handed you a toolbox and told you to build a fridge, then you open said toolbox only to find some sellotape, a pair of nail clippers and a single permanent marker. How the fuck are you going to make a fridge out of that? You have no idea, but damned if you won’t come up with something. It’s a tense, worrisome survival horror about making do.

Even the overview screen, outside of the scavenging sojourns, is all about making the best of what you’ve got. Your ship can move between derelicts – government ships, space stations, fuel depots, military vessels, auto-trading hubs, and so on. And this meandering uses one type of fuel (propulsion). Another type of fuel (jump fuel) lets you hop to a new system entirely, where you’ll find a fresh collection of derelicts. On and on you go, roguelike style, until you hit a stargate taking you to the galaxy next door. It’s the most noticeable glimpse of FTL’s genetic footprint – the need for fuel, the struggle to keep going.

Yet there’s much more to consider. Other screens show your drones’ loadouts, your ship’s configuration and a kind of scrap workshop. All the resources gathered during your frightful boarding parties goes here and trust me when I say you will never have enough to do everything you want to do. For example, your ship’s “remote power” ability is likely to break beyond repair during the next mission due to overuse. But so is the upgrade on one of your drones that lets you detect motion. And you only have enough scrap to fix one of them. What do you do? This exact dilemma harassed me on more than one occasion. The scavenging sections may force you to make quick and panicked decisions, but the ‘downtime’ confronts you with choices that are just as difficult, just as important. This is what real survival horror plays like. The entire game reeks of consequence.

Again, there are difficulty options for you to toggle (and impressively detailed options at that) but to enjoy the pressure and desperation to its fullest I recommend playing it without alterations. It is an unforgiving game at first, as you come to learn the commands (and the inevitable joy of the “alias” file) but the learning curve is smooth and every death to the cold of space is a little red thread in a horrible, sublime tapestry, full of desperate scenes. Once, I had to use the staticky feed of a disabled drone to check to see if an alien was still in a room. Another time, I commandeered a huge barge, with enough room to store 100 pieces of scrap, despite only having 6 pieces to house. This is what you have waiting for you: a ridiculous and  pointless horror story, and a slow death. It’s wonderful.

I began this review with a comparison to Alien, the nostalgia for which has been thoroughly mined in recent years within the games industry, in good ways and bad. This is saying a lot – because I enjoyed Alien: Isolation immensely – but I don’t think any Alien games have come as close as this has to recreating the same feeling as the original movie – panic, claustrophobia, distrust of machines, and a gut fear of the unknown.

Duskers is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam, GOG and Humble.

From this site

41 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    AutonomyLost says:

    Great review; it sounds very interesting. I’ll be putting this on my Wishlist. Thanks!

  2. QSpec says:

    >Command-line interfaces are dead for a reason

    Um… what? Linux and Mac would like to have a word with you.

    • Aerothorn says:

      I am quite confident that OS X uses a GUI and is accessed entirely this way by 99.9% of its users.

      • Anti-Skub says:

        Same is true of Windows and the vast majority of Linux iterations.

      • QSpec says:

        But it is hardly dead… especially with the proliferation of OSX as a development environment.

      • Unsheep says:

        It depends on the use. For a home computer the GUI is convenient and accessible even for most Linux users, but with servers and other specialized applications it’s more or less a waste.

        It would also be very difficult, if not impossible, to get a job as a Linux administrator without being proficient with the command line.

        In any case, every Linux user I know still uses the command line for maintenance rather than the GUI, which they mainly use for accessing the browser, games, music, videos and so on.

        So it’s hardly dead as a tool.

    • Brendan Caldwell says:

      Ah. Good point well made.

    • leeder krenon says:

      As would anyone supporting Microsoft Office 365 via Powershell :)

    • Ansob says:

      Last I checked, neither Linux nor Powershell are video games. :v

      • QSpec says:

        He didn’t mention that CLI in games is dead (did they ever really get to live?)…

      • April March says:

        Yeah, he was referring to text adventures, and older 90’s stuff that had pictures but still behaved like text adventures while also not demanding you move your character close enough to stuff to pick it up. He mans stuff like

        > TURN ON COMPUTER
        The computer refuses your sexual advances.

        • Unsheep says:

          Yeah I got that too, but those games were fun though, like the early Zork games. All of which I played for the very first time just a few years ago. Putting on some ambient music in the background, that suits the theme and mood, and using your imagination to fill in the visual gaps as you interact with what is essentially a multi-branched book.

          It’s a niche that I think needs a revival, as Indie gaming is getting increasingly diversified.

          • parkourhobo says:

            I know I’m waaaaay late. But in case you get this, have you played Anchorhead yet? It’s excellent, and I don’t think it gets enough attention since it’s a text adventure game. You would probably appreciate it though :)

  3. obowersa says:

    Without ruining the sense of discovery. That moment when I had locked my drones in a safe room and discovered my definition of safe up to that point was fataly flawed stands put as one of the most panicked gaming moments for me.

    One out of four survived.

    • DarkFenix says:

      And the tension that occurs once you start encountering a certain enemy, along with the realisation that there is no longer such thing as a safe room and all your previous precautions are now useless… Holy shit.

      • obowersa says:

        Yes! That point where you go from feeling in vague control to realising that the rules never really applied to /them/. You just thought they did.

  4. manio22 says:

    Feels like muds are back on the menu, boys!

  5. Alice O'Connor says:

    Flexed my guns all the way through reading this, Brendan.

  6. Shazbut says:

    It’s wonderful to come across stuff like this. A unique game I’ve never heard of that is apparently brilliant. What an age we live in, etc.

    Good voice acting in the trailer too

    • Unsheep says:

      You should probably play it for yourself before judging it ‘brilliant’. Media has a tendency to over-hype games that offer a new mechanic, even though the fun of the game might actually be short-lived. I mean, how many people are still playing Devil Daggers or Superhot ? Still, watch some videos before buying.

  7. Leucine says:

    This comment will contain some hefty spoilers about the doings on in Duskers so avoid if you’d like to find that out for yourself.

    I have been utterly loving Duskers lately. When I first saw it, the whole package of scavenging from ships, trying to make do with the paltry little you have, and the wonderful, wonderful means of control looked to be exactly what I’d enjoy.

    More clearly than usual, I can also see my progress as I learn more about the game and what I should be doing. As the objectives across various entries start to pile up, you’re forced to push yourself further and develop novel means of accomplishing them.

    To give an example of the kind of hectic gameplay Brendan mentions – the third objective of the Pandemic entry requires the player to board a quarantined vessel and lure a creature from it back to their ship, so it can be scanned.

    To make a long story short, it took me to six systems across two galaxies to get the necessary supplies and the upgrade to do it.

    So finally the time had come, I had the right ship lined up, had a stun trap, lures, scanners, even a teleport. There was just one small problem: the ship in question was volatile. Still, that shouldn’t have posed too much of a problem, right? I could just get in, herd the creature to my ship and be done quick enough to be back for some space tea and space biscuits.

    Oh but that’s where things become so very interesting in Duskers, isn’t it?

    My most hated infestation is that green plant-like (so I call it) thing that grows towards one’s drones. It can be spaced, sure, but if there’s any left anywhere on the ship it’ll just regrow. Oh and it can grow through walls and doors.

    So I was under pressure to get my work done before that crud reached me. Which would’ve been easier if the creature in question was feeling more cooperative. Unfortunately I had to leave a sort of breadcrumb-trail of lures to get it to move into the right rooms. It was, of course, towards the rear of the ship and I couldn’t get to an airlock nearer it.

    Now, remember that the ship is volatile? Well while I was putting my plan into action, I received a warning that an asteroid strike was on the way and one of the rooms I needed access to was going to be hit. It was going to be hit before I thought I’d be finished in it. Which caused a mad dash to get things done as quickly as I could.

    And much like Brendan, I wound up sequestering my drones in one room, that wasn’t far from the green plant infestation. So that was a constant worry in my mind. Oh and the stun trap apparently either doesn’t work on this particular creature or stuns it for a few seconds. Bah.

    Well, I did eventually manage to get it back off my ship and dock it to the room my drones were in (adjacent to the other airlock). And for all that trouble? I have to now trawl through communications on other ships in the hopes of finding one that matches an ID number I have. I was somewhat ambivalent – it’s a bit of a downer to go to all that trouble, only to be told to just keep going but I also can’t wait to set off out to do it!

    That’s one of the wonderful little things about Duskers – while you must start afresh after each wipeout, your progress with the objectives is saved. Which is good because I left my last ship with (I think) not enough jump fuel to get back to the stargate and I’ve nearly depleted this universe’s resources.

    Even in the midst of victory, failure continues to snap at your heels like a rabid animal slowly catching up to you.

    But I love it. I love persisting when all I have left is one disabled drone and a handful of scrap. It’s so tempting in other games to give up at that point but more than once in Duskers I’ve pulled myself back from failure and kept going.

    I love the little things like moving a drone up to the door and carefully listening for sounds of enemies (the swarm Brendan mentioned makes a distinctive sound). And the sounds! A generator making the most terrifying roaring noise as it comes online, the hull of the ship creaking and groaning, electrics fizzling, hydraulics still in action, and all against the loveliest filter that makes it really sound like you’re listening to it all through a simple drone’s microphone.

    I would urge anyone who thinks they might like it based on what Brendan’s written to take the plunge.

    • Dinger says:

      I picked this up on the chatter over the weekend. It’s cool and all. I think there was some sort of a bug whereby the first game was a savegame already in progress. Started out in a system with no P-fuel, no tooltips, and all the ships had higher-level infestations. Needless to say, it was rather tricky trying to figure out what to do.
      Installed it on another device, and it behaved properly, though.

      Most embarassing moment was setting the trap, and then typing ‘d8’ instead of ‘d9’. Wrong door opens, team wipe.

  8. Spacewalk says:

    Stealth RPS recruitment article.

  9. vegeta1998 says:

    this looks like shit

    • Premium User Badge

      Benratha says:

      Well I, for one, am glad of your in depth review….
      Can we at least agree that it looks ‘different’?

    • slerbal says:

      Of your shit is looking like that, you might want to get checked out by a doctor.

    • thelastpointer says:

      You meant to post this under the Doom multiplayer article, didn’t you?

  10. Premium User Badge

    cpt_freakout says:

    When I started reading the game description at GOG I thought “THIS GAME IS FOR ME!!” in a very high-pitched voice, and then I saw the part about programming and thought “oh”, in an averagely-pitched voice. I suck at that kind of thing, so thanks for giving me hope that I won’t be completely useless because I can’t figure out programmer logic.

    • dethtoll says:

      My experience with the game has mostly been typing in a few basic commands. I’ve yet to try anything more serious. I’m not even sure how.

      • mike2R says:

        There seems to be a good explanation of the alias/macro system in the second post here:
        link to steamcommunity.com

        Looks completely optional for people who don’t like programming, and not especially complex (no loops, conditions, branches etc.) – just a way of making your own compound commands to save on having to type things out longhand.

        Bought the game this morning and played a little before work. Lesson learned so far: if you activate a defense turret to kill an enemy in a room, its a really good idea to deactivate it again, before going in to scavenge the remains.

    • Unsheep says:

      Don’t worry, the commands are basically: object action target. For example ‘robot1 interact box’ and the robot will open the box, or ‘robot2 move roomA’ and the robot will move to room A. That sort of thing, I don’t remember the exact commands. The rest is just using the keyboard and mouse.

  11. slerbal says:

    I bought Duskers in Early Access to support development but held off playing until release. I look forward to playing this in the dark with headphones on. I’m a sucker for retrofuturism.

  12. Premium User Badge

    Marclev says:

    Has this game got a defined End, or is it one of those were you just keep playing until you die, over and over again?

    • Unsheep says:

      Considering it’s a rogue-like I would not expect it to have a conclusive end, not judging by the “playthroughs” I’ve seen at least.

      • Premium User Badge

        Harlander says:

        Whadda ya mean, roguelikes don’t end?

        Tell that to the text file of my Nethack ascension that I kept with me forever ;)

  13. Unsheep says:

    Duskers has very little to do with Alien. The only thing they both have in common is being Sci-fi. The Deadnaut game had more to do with Alien than Duskers.

    In Duskers you are just sending robots in to do your dirty work, robots that can be replaceable, and there is no actual risk to the player himself.

    This is contrary to Alien at the very core, where the human gamble and sacrifice was an essential part of the movie’s depth and tension. You cared about each of the characters.

    It’s an asurd comparison if you ask me, just saying.

    • GrandBadger says:

      Visually the two are very similar I’m sure you’d agree, functional interfaces with roots in the past. Whilst human sacrifice may not be present, the sense of the unknown is, as well as the danger it represents to the drones that translates to risk to the player. Each loss deepens the tension and desperation more and more, just as each dismembered crew member caused those that remained distress in the film.

      Also (Spoilers for Alien: probably unnecessary warning!) the part where they’re tracking Dallas through the tunnels as he tries to lure the Alien, the helplessness felt as they attempt to communicate what’s on the screen to their doomed friend, frantic and sick with fear at the unknown represented by the steady blinking light; that’s what I think sells the comparison for me.

  14. C0llic says:

    I think he’s primarily referring to the retro future aesthetic – 70’s CRT terminals with primitive interfaces. It also fits in with alien’s approach to sci-fi – the crew are essential space truckers. So yeah, I disagree – so what if you’re using drones? I think his comparison makes sense, and I say that as a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s film.

  15. grrrz says:

    fun,but this is really a pain in the ass to play on an azerty keyboard.
    (you have to press shift to type a number. or use the numeric keypad). In case of panic situation you’re screwed. also some things are not really explicit. (lost all my drones in the transporter, because I didn’t knew how to bring them back).
    I don’t even understand what kind of thing you’re supposed to do in the long run.