RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 19th: Duskers

The next door on the Advent Calendar might be dangerous…or, to be more precise, what’s behind it might be. We haven’t examined the contents yet and would advise that you do not approach it until it’s been fully scanned. Why not send in a drone to open the door while you hide in the bedroom. That way if anything terrible emerges, you’ll be safe, hiding under the duvet.

It’s the game with 2016’s best interface, Duskers!

Brendan: Duskers makes me want to sing, but very quietly. The kind of hushed singing you do to yourself when there’s nobody around and you’re extremely nervous. On the face of it, each level is straightforward. You just have some robots, an unexplored spaceship, and your command prompt. That so much atmosphere can be created with so little is impressive. That it recreates the feeling of being a forgotten and lonely employee of Weyland Yutani is even more so. It’s the best Alien game that isn’t really an Alien game.

Part of this is down to the enemies, which you only really see as part of a distorted sonar, shortly before one of your most valued drones is torn to shreds. At first, they are terrifying. Vent-creeping xenothings, clouds of vicious nanites. You don’t want to open any door, explore any room, in case a bullish extraterrestrial storms towards you the moment you enter. But slowly, you learn how to cope, coaxing the aliens through the corridors and rooms like a shepherd with a motion detector, flushing them out whatever airlock you can find or manipulating turrets to fire on them. Confidence comes. You get parts, you get new drones, you get fuel. Maybe this time you will discover the meaning behind this abandoned, ruined galaxy. After all, you can afford to be careful, you have time on your side.

And then you meet the real enemy.

Alec: We’re giving this Best User Interface, right? There’s a certain type of typing which, nowadays, we only see in 70s and early 80s sci-fi. Retro, yes, but futuristic too – something that seems so purely utilitarian, keyboards and screens designed to withstand the rigours of space travel. And something which acts as barrier between the human and the unknown.

Duskers is all about that barrier – the exactness of typing in commands, but the distance involved in relaying those commands to a remote, mindless drone, the awful sense of delay and limitation in the responses you receive. Something is out there, but you can’t see it – you can only try to predict where it might be. The laborious clunk of initial typing gradually gives way to the rapid clatter of memorised shortcuts, and something a little more like reflex slowly becomes possible.

But throughout, that beautiful sci-fi horror trope, evoked so well from tone rather than scene: the door to another room is opening. What awful thing might await beyond? By the time you find out, it will already be too late.

Graham: I ended up not enjoying the strategy game I was most looking forward to in 2016: XCOM 2. Where Enemy Unknown had felt like a distillation of everything I liked about X-COM, XCOM 2 seemed overburdened with stuff. Stuff which cluttered up the world map and drowned you with decisions that didn’t matter or you didn’t understand, and which made the tactical battles longer and their normal inconsistencies much more frustrating.

Duskers isn’t turn-based, but it offers many of the same tensions and excitements of XCOM in a package that is small, tight, never wasteful. Soldiers become droids, though you still name them; you still creep across levels in search of enemies you can’t initially see; you still find tech and drag it back home with you, jetting off when finished or fleeing when the going gets tough. Its tactical and strategic layers are both slight but they feed into one another, and what it lacks in depth it makes up for with atmosphere, with the mystery that compels you forward. Duskers isn’t my favourite game of the year but I think it would have been in most other years than 2016.

Adam: STUFF IS GREAT, GRAHAM.

Duskers is great too. It reminds me of two of my favourite games: Uplink and Alien: Isolation. The Uplink connection should be obvious to anyone who played both games; it’s the interface. You’re typing in real life and you’re typing in the games. You are your own avatar. That, for me, is the perfect way to play, more convincing than any VR claw and goggle set.

Of course, not every game would suit this kind of interface. Duskers sci-fi horror is the perfect fit though, giving you indirect control, and distancing you from the claustrophobic hulls and hells you explore, without letting you ever feel truly safe. Importantly, all of the tech that you control feels authentic, which is why the Alien comparison comes to mind. Future-retro anxiety at its best.

6 Comments

  1. airtekh says:

    I really enjoyed Duskers.

    For a game with such lo-fi graphics, it is dripping with atmosphere – one thing which I treasure in games I play. The metallic thunk of the airlocks opening and closing, the dull hum of machinery and the panic-inducing beeps (“oh fuck what’s gone wrong now?”).

    I always get too greedy looking for scrap and fuel, and end up with a bunch of dead drones. The completionist in me just HAS to search every room, ‘just in case’.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Ben King says:

    Number one on my holiday sale buy list I promise! Missed it on GOG:-/

  3. DrollRemark says:

    I started playing this on my lunch breaks*, because it’s a simple enough game to dip in and out of, but it also happens to be fiendishly enjoyable, so I had to restrict myself pretty quickly. On the flipside though, it feels far more authentic to play it on a mechanical keyboard at home than it does my laptop’s keys.

    I really like that your approach to clearing rooms can change completely depending on what tools your drones are equipped with – having just one motion tracker, droppable sensor, shield or stealth module will result in very different styles, and the pain of losing any of them has to be managed. I like that it’s all about resisting the temptation to charge into rooms, but instead manage your aforementioned modules into the optimal, careful, but also most efficient use of them. And I love that it combines those two points into abject panic and terror when you make the wrong choice and bugger everything up.

    *So one of the shortcuts in-game for “select my previous command” is Ctrl+Up, and I find it one of the quickest ways to close a door after opening it (as the same command does both). However, my work laptop is a Mac, and it’s actually Cmd+Up on that, and without fail I will forget this in the heat of panic and end up accidentally maximising my window whilst an enemy drone charges through the still-open door and lays waste to my team. Great game.

  4. Barberetti says:

    Oh yes!

    The last time I played this I couldn’t find the module or whatever that you need to interface with the .. umm .. information computers? Yeah, it’s been a while since I played.

    I might have a crack at getting this to work with voice recognition software over Christmas. I want to be able to shout commands at my drones.

  5. vahnn says:

    I like Duskers. Duskers is great. More people should play Duskers.

    Few games create such a sense of dread and foreboding with so little. There is a constant tension at every door, knowing that running from alien horrors isn’t as simple as flicking your mouse and holding W. You have to type out commands, or if you planned ahead, the appropriate shortcuts to execute a series of orders that will hopefully spare your precious friends from destruction. It’s great stuff, and the interface works with the input method perfectly to make you feel like you’re really there. Playing in the dark at night when the furnace kicks in and the refrigerator starts humming just further enhances the idea that you’re alone in a spaceship, manipulating your drones from afar in hopes of finding just enough to keep you going just a little more…

    More people should play Duskers.