Indie Wonderland: Duskers

Hey, you want to learn an interesting tidbit about your friendly neighbourhood Jarenth? Next to playing video games, I also enjoy the occasional tabletop RPG session. Like Dungeons and Dragons, or Pathfinder. Or Shadowrun! I play a ‘weekly’ Shadowrun session with several online friends. Lot of fun. I play a Rigger in that game. Which, if you don’t know Shadowrun, is a character class that tends to specialize in remote-controlling their personal drone fleet. As an archetype, it’s almost tailor-made for me: what better way to ‘deal with dangerous life-and-death stuff’ than by piloting armored robots into the situation from the comfort of my own couch? I posit that no better reason exists.

So you can imagine I was surprised when I stumbled over Duskers, latest of Misfits Attic (they of A Virus Named Tom, a game I reviewed favourably in a distant past) and found that the object of that game was pretty much that. Except with more of a survival theme. Piloting hand-crafted robot drones into derelict spacecraft to scavenge much-needed fuel, supplies, and knowledge? Let me just sign up here immediately and also forever.

If it’s fun, of course.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, medium.)

(Game source: Patreon funds.)

Opening

I boot up Duskers, and am greeted by… DOS. Or, well, you know. ‘DOS’. Duskers isn’t the first game to play the ‘phony pre-Windows boot-up’ gag; I think SUPERHOT is the most recent one in memory. They all have a rhythm and a rhyme to them, in terms of flow and speed and beepy sound effects. And Duskers plays it close to the chest.

It does look quite pretty. Steam even pops up to come say hello!

Then I hit the ‘boot utility’ title screen, and find that Duskers is pretty committed to the joke. Like, pretty committed. Like, there is no mouse control. All I can do is tap arrows to navigate a colour-coded command line console, or reach for the hotkey stars.

The part of me that enjoys and values deep immersion is clashing with the part of me that enjoys and values complete accessibility.

Holy smokes, there’s a lot to explore in this menu. The several tiers of options are one thing: confusingly, ‘graphic options’ is a subset of ‘options’, but audio settings are front-and-center, and even more confusingly, there’s actually an pre-launch graphical utility that I already had to jump through.

But then there is the difficulty menu, which takes what I said about last week’s Shadwen and goddamn ramps it out an airlock. This game is super willing to let you customize your own difficulty settings. Instead of pre-labeled settings, I instead find a large menu of toggle options. All of them related to the difficulty of the Duskers experience. None of them intuitive, or accessible, for the me that hasn’t actually played this game yet.

I guess ‘requiring confirmation to open an airlock’ is a choice that impacts game difficulty?

Alright, okay. This game is large and expansive up-front. That’s okay, this is going to be okay. There’s a ‘Help Manual’ in the main menu! I trust and rely on manuals completely; manuals are our friends in an increasingly complex world. I’ll just leaf through it, and…

…er…

God-damnit. Why is being a cool drone person always so hopelessly complicated? And here I thought Shadowrun was bad. I… don’t really know how to proceed? Should I just jump in? And hope — against hope — that Duskers is kind enough to take things easy for me? That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing this game would do, but…

Finally, after several minutes of hopelessly futzing about the menu and ‘reading’ — but certainly not understanding — manual entries, I notice what I need to notice: a menu option titled ‘Drone Operator Training’. Duskers has swamped me with choice and complexity so far, so I really hope this tutorial is one of the good ones. Save me, situated scaffolded information presentation: you’re my only hope.

Initial impressions

I don’t know if this is what I was hoping for.

“Welcome to Drone Operator Training,” a cheerful green-on-black text box informs me. “Use arrow keys to pilot drone 1.”

Alright, training. Hold your horses. Lemme just… take a look at stuff, first. What am I dealing with here?

What I am ‘dealing with’ is… shapes. Shapes, and colours. It’s like being three again, except in space. I see two clear blue line shapes, both vague outlines of what I could image are robots: one ’01: Kellee’, which looks like a roomba, and one ’02: Luke’, which looks like a go-kart. Then there’s the large yellow line block marked ‘a1’, that I’m sure is a thing or another.

Beyond that, everything is oddly washed out. With a little squinting, I think I can make out what’s happening here: two cones of light are emerging from the two blue shapes, and I can see my surroundings inside those light cones. It looks like… honestly I have no idea what it looks like. Squares. Walls. Tubes?

I carefully push the arrow keys. When I do, 01: Kellee rumbles forward, taking her light cone with her.

So that’s two hypothesis confirmed at once: these *are* mobile robots, and that white illumination *is* light!

“Press 2 to switch to drone 2”, the text box says. I do, and this happens! Then I drive 02: Luke around for a moment. Luke oddly has yellow light, instead of Kellee’s white and it sort of looks like their light cone is a little more limited? I’m not sure what the significance of this is yet.

“Press SPACE,” text box interrupts, “to switch to a Schematic View of the ships.” Huh. I wonder what…

Ah, okay. Yeah, the clue to this meaning was pretty much in the name, huh?

Okay, so. What I’m looking at here turns out to be a schematic overview of both my ship, on the left, and the ship I’m docked to — apparently — on the right. Except the only relevant part of my own ship is the drone docking bay, because who cares about me when they could care about robots? And I haven’t actually explored any part of the right ship yet, so no luck. I should probably get to that, then?

Connecting the two ships is the yellow block, a1, which I now understand is an airlock. And how do I open that airlock? Why, I just use the handy-dandy high-tech feature of typing out orders in a command line interface.

Maybe user interface trends are as cyclical as fashion? Maybe white text on black background is slated to make a *major* comeback.

The screen snaps back to the drone view, and I pilot Luke through the open airlock. Into… a ship. Not much to see in the ship, so far. Lots of tiled flooring. Some things that look like boxes, or cranes. And…

Hey, look at this! I find a power inlet, handily indicated by a large, memorable shape. And also because there’s a little lightning icon over it. And a floating teal text box saying ‘power inlet’.

‘Recommended course of action: generate some power.’

“Notice,” my friend green text box says, “that Drone 2…” That’s Luke, thank you very much. “…has a GENERATOR in it’s (sic) list of Upgrades (upper left corner of screen).” And hey, look at that! The word ‘generator’ is in the upper left corner of the screen, when Luke is selected. I didn’t know those were supposed to be upgrades, but alright. By switching over to Kellee, I can see they have upgrades called ‘Motion (50/50)’ and ‘Gather’ instead. So that’s teamwork, I guess.

I type the command ‘generator’ in the command line. Luke rumbles forward a little, whirrs, and… does something. The power inlet now glows green.

I learn what happened when I revisit the Schematic View. Apparently Luke the Drone has used their built-in generator to provide power to an area of the ship. That area is now marked green on the map. And even better, the various ‘rooms’ — marked r1 through r5 — are linked by ‘doors’ — marked d2 through d5. And because these doors are powered, we can open and close them!

*Suddenly*, the ship is my oyster.

Excitedly, I drive Luke to door d4, which I’m presuming is open. As I do, the power goes out with a whine. Oh, okay. Luke, I guess you’ve got stationary power duty!

When I swap back to Kellee, though, the game interjects. ‘Instead of controlling your drone manually, why not just command it around?’ By way of simple command lines, I can ‘tell’ Kellee where to go; and they’ll then figure out the specifics.

I type out the command, and then watch a box marked ‘1’ drive through boxes marked ‘a1’, ‘r2’, ‘d4’, and ‘r3’. It’s faster, more convenient, and easier than driving the drone myself, but also more than a little dull.

But such, I suppose, is the life of a rigger.

We arrive in room r3 with minimal fuss. This room has a fuel access point. And fuel is something I want, apparently! And Kellee just so happens to have a fuel collection upgrade. How convenient. I siphon a single jump cell, and feel really cool about doing so. Apparently these derelict ships hold space treasure! I wanna go see what the other two rooms have, now!

‘Hold on now,’ Duskers says. ‘You sure those rooms are safe? Wouldn’t want to get your little drone friends banged up if there’s anything mean or ornery in those other rooms. Maybe we should check to be safe? Your Drone 1 has a motion sensor upgrade, so maybe use that.’

Ugh, fine. Kellee’s motion sensor is super limited and it’s gonna run out eventually, but if this makes you happy. But I’m sure there’s nothing in that room, and then we can all stop panicking about it.

And then it turned out I was wrong.

Oh. Well, that’s, er… that’s good to know. So what do we do about this? Do I have, like, a secret third drone somewhere? With a machine gun?

No, no. It turns out what I do about this is the old bait-and-switch. First, I move Kellee back to room r2 — breaking the motion sensing in the process. Then, I close door d4. Then, I start sensing again. And then, I open door d5. Now, the rooms r3 — out of which I’ve already looted everything of value and interest — and r4 — in which there might be treasure but definitely is danger — are linked. And while the movement is currently visible in r4…

Success! Room r4 goes quiet, just as room r3 lights up. The danger moved! Quickly, I lock d5 again. Now r4 is definitely safe and accessible for my exploration!

As for r5… well, I guess we still have some more motion sensing left.

I end my exploration of the derelict tutorial vessel in room r5, which has a destroyed drone. I steal some upgrades from it. Then, it’s time to bail: using the command line interface, I tell both drones to return to the hanger at the same time. And then, we fly off. Another mission safely accomplished!

Good! I feel like I have all the basic skills now to throw myself at a real game of Duskers.

These are my goals.

The UI for the ‘real’ game is initially a little bit more complicated than the tutorial. Through trial and error, I work out that what I’m looking at right now is some sort of meta-level map. I, the main character, am currently stuck in some sort of garbage vessel. To survive, I need to salvage supplies and fuel from the dead ships and space stations around me. Several of those are in easy travel range: I can move to those by expending ‘propulsion’ fuel. This seems basically a counter on how many things I can do: all interesting space hulks are some distance apart, so unless I get more fuel, I’ll be stuck eventually.

Some cool things are farther away than others.

I can also look at space from two other perspectives: ‘galaxy’ and ‘universe’. I think I can travel from galaxy to galaxy using my ‘jump’ fuel. As for universes… I have no idea. But listen, this doesn’t quite matter right now anyway. There are plenty lootable ships in close range! Easy pickings first, galaxy travel later.

I attempt to dock with the ship I literally started next to, a ‘government C’ type ship named Excalibur. I learn I have three drones in my bay right now, with a variety of shapes, strengths, and upgrades. I also learn that I can rename those drones at-will, and proceed to name them after my favorite recent resistance trio.

Steve is the Motion drone, because he keeps track of enemies and informs the team of danger. Lily is the Generator drone, because she provides us with power. And Richard is the Interface drone, because I have no idea what that does.

The Excalibur is… easy pickings, honestly. There’s literally no danger on board this ship! I checked. It’s so non-interesting, in fact, that I almost forget to take screenshots at all. All I have is this one:

Pictured: the Richard drone, now with new broken Mine upgrade, a generator, a door, and the telltale glow of scrap in the distance.

Man, this space survival thing is easy. Look at how well this all went!

All I did was win.

I’m so gung-ho that I jump straight into the second mission without investigating what all this ‘drone repair’ and ‘upgrade’ nonsense is. I need more fuel and scrap! And caution is thrown to the wind as well. Obviously the ships in this region of space are totally safe. And I don’t feel like I want to burn motion sensor charges every time I could run into something scary! I mean, I can just open the door, right? And then when I see something bad-looking behind that, whatever that would look like, I can just close that door again before it gets the drop on me.

Yeah, that’s *probably* how this goes.

My ‘clever’ plan backfires when I actually run into an enemy: a purple-glowing robot of some kind. When Richard encounters it during exploration, it starts attacking immediately. And my clever plan of ‘just leave’ is foiled when the robot stands in the doorway, blocking the closing action.

I can’t even escape back to my own ship, because my drones keep tripping over themselves and blocking off the path. Steve-Drone is quickly disabled. Lily-Drone is destroyed outright. Only Richard-drone manages to survive, thanks to his earlier mine upgrade and some quick typing on my part.

Not that I actually survive, though. As far as I can tell, this one careless move cost me two of my three drones. And while I could probably go on like this, I feel it’s probably better if I admit I screwed up here and then reset the mission. I’ve seen the option in the menu. So I hit the reset button, and…

I guess a thing happens.

Ah. Okay, I see now. Reset doesn’t reset your current mission. Reset resets your entire game. You can roll with your losses in Duskers or you can literally start over.

Guess it’s good I’m learning that this early into the game.

Staring at a new universe, in a new ship, with a new trio of drones, I decide it’s probably best if I shelf the exploration for now. Starving in space can surely wait a little bit. I’ll return to Duskers later, when I feel more confident in my ability to take on the entire universe through only the camera eyes of a trio of slow, vulnerable drone friends.

Onto page 2. >>

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