Here’s the Thing is where Rob dumps his random thoughts and strong opinions on all manner of nerdy subjects – from videogames and movies to board games and toys.
It was about four years ago – in May of 2016 – when this intriguing looking indie game popped up out of nowhere and pretty much compelled me to play it based on the premise alone. A sort of strategic, survival, retro sci-fi game where the only way you can interact with the world is through indirect control of a series of robotic drones or interface with a spaceship’s operating system via DOS-like commands? Sign me up! Right now! But here’s the thing: even though I was on board from the start thanks to my love of weird and niche games, I wasn’t prepared for just how much Duskers would grab hold of me.
It doesn’t waste any time painting an extremely bleak picture. For all you know, you might be the last surviving human in the universe, and it’s up to you to try and figure out what happened by exploring derelict spaceships while also salvaging supplies and fuel to keep your own ship running. It doesn’t take long for things to get creepy as within a few stops it becomes apparent that while there don’t seem to be any humans around, there’s definitely something lurking in the abandoned corridors. Sometimes several somethings. And as you’d expect they aren’t friendly.
The catch to all this is that you can’t physically do any work yourself – you have to send out a small team of drones to do it all for you. While you can assume direct control of one drone at a time, it’s usually faster (or in some cases essential) to use the built in command prompt to issue and execute basic orders to multiple drones at once. The interface also extends into the derelicts themselves, with you having to manually type in commands to open and close doors, tell drones to interface with objects, and so on.
Where things start to get roguelike is in the salvaging and inevitable failure. Your ship needs fuel to keep operating, and if you run out you’re done. If you lose all of your drones you’re done, too. Heck if you lose more than one drone you’re probably screwed but a comeback is theoretically possible. And make no mistake, losing a drone hurts. Not only will you have lost a significant portion of your work force, and likely have to abandon whatever tools they have installed (which will also have been salvaged from other drones), but the universe is so desolate and lonely that these little glorified roombas start to feel like your only friends. With each loss your entire world gets that much smaller.
All you can hear is the occasional muted creak of the hull, doors sliding open or slamming closed in the distance, whatever basic audio your drones’ outdated electronics might pick up and the occasional alarm when something like a meteor shower passes through.
Both the visuals and the audio go even further to drive home that feeling of loneliness and isolation. You only ever see things through a sort of retro sci-fi computer display. Each ship you explore is seen as a sort of real time schematic, which only reveals new rooms when your drones enter them. Interference or damage (or just shoddy wiring that acts up randomly) can temporarily remove a drone’s ability to “see” and your feed will cut out. Hostile creatures are displayed as vaguely organic shapes highlighted in red, but there’s so little definition you can only imagine what they really look like.
That audio though. Wow. For as much as I love the look and feel of Duskers it wouldn’t be half as effective without sound. Rather than include a somber score or complex sound effects, everything is presented as though you’re hearing things through multiple bulkheads. There’s no music, because why would there be? Instead, all you can hear is the occasional muted creak of the hull, doors sliding open or slamming closed in the distance, whatever basic audio your drones’ outdated electronics might pick up and the occasional alarm when something like a meteor shower passes through.
I spent an absurd amount of time playing Duskers after it came out, and the only reason I stopped was because I abandoned Steam, but the tinny echoes of abandoned spacecraft and feeling of dread every time I had to open a door have stuck with me ever since. I can’t say its the type of game I’d play to “relax,” but it was always compelling.
Rob Rich has loved videogames since the 80s and has the good fortune to be able to write about them. Catch his rants on Twitter at @RobsteinOne.