Indie Wonderland: Duskers

A few hours in

Not quite there yet.

Fuuuuuck

Okay, so. I’ve played about… I want to say ten sessions of Duskers, at this point. Some were long, some were… less long. All in all, I sent a rotating squad of drones through about three or four dozen mostly-abandoned spaceships, filled only with power inlets, scrap, lore, dead drones, and murderous robots, aliens, and bees. I jumped a handful of galaxies, and even traveled through another universe at one point. I am well aware this means I’ve seen really very little.

Universe-jumping: not as immediately cool as you’d imagine.

Duskers is hard, okay. I know it probably looks easy. It isn’t, but I can see why you’d think that. I mean, after all, what’s this whole game about, really? All you do is type some commands, and send some drones through some doors, and then pick up some scrap and some fuel, and damnit I let out another swarm of space-bees. Welp, it was a good run while it lasted.

Kellee 04 is doing *markedly worse* than their tutorial counterpart.

Duskers is hard, and unforgiving, and more than willing to let you dig your own grave. Or open your own airlock, to stay in the parlance. It’s tricky to get a grasp of, difficult to control, confusing to learn, and offers so precarious a player position that any major mistake — which, especially at the start, often means any mistake — either kills you outright, or puts you back so far that you might as well pull the trigger on yourself. And combined with my slow progress and my limited number of active tries, you could reasonably conclude that this means I don’t like it very much.

You’d be wrong.

Duskers is quite the game. It is incredibly immersive, and atmospheric, doing things with information restriction and deliberate control difficulties that many other games only ever hope to pretend as intentional. It has a rare theme, a rare aesthetic, and a rare gameplay experience, and manages to bring those three together with very little seams. And while the game can at times be brutally difficult, it’s a difficulty that rarely feels unfair. There’s always the idea that more knowledge, or better preparation, or quicker trigger fingers, could have stopped any particular catastrophe. If I had less self-respect, I’d call it the Dark Souls of space.

It *usually* feels fair.

The obvious first highlight is obvious. Duskers is a game about eking out survival in the cold, vast darkness of space, using only a terrible command interface to control a handful of rapidly failing robot drones, that actually puts you in the position of someone trying to use a terrible command interface to control a handful of rapidly failing drones. Duskers‘ interface and control scheme are… if you want to be charitable, they’re ‘deliberately obtuse’. If you’re feeling less charitable, they’re ‘confusing ponderous garbage’. I fall squarely on the positive side of things: I think Duskers‘ interface and control scheme are brilliant for the kind of game it’s trying to be. Slow and ponderous, yes, but slow and ponderous is the point.

Here you are, space survival captain, locked in the command pod of your slowly-failing lashed-together junk ship. Your only ways to interact with the world around you are your garbage instruments. Your woefully low-resolution long-distance scanners. Your coloured-text-on-black-background data logs. And your ever-so-tenuous link with your fleet of robot friends. The only ones that can go where you never can — into the abandoned ships, rife with all kinds of danger, to extract the fuel and the supplies you need to survive.

Hey there, precious resources. You’re coming home with me.

The ponderous interface and the grainy, second-hand-camera-I-welded-onto-my-robot effect are great for bringing across the experience that you’re only remote-controlling the drones. And Duskers uses cool little tricks to reinforce that feeling. Sometimes your drone camera fritzes out, and you have no choice to but wait for a few seconds until it fixes itself. Sometimes the mics pick up audio signals that may or may not be meaningful. And whenever your drone suffers any kind of radiation damage, gauss effects mess up the screen — until you learn to manually clear that with a ‘degauss’ command.

On a larger level, the relation between intended game experience and game control scheme is food for a lot of interesting discussion. One of the reasons Ninja Blues favourite Mark of the Ninja sat so well, for instance, is because it gave the player all information needed to play out the sneaky ninja assassin fantasy. The same goes for Invisible Inc. and the Batman Arkham series. On the other hand, the original Fable famously tried to keep itself as UI-light as possible — really sell the idea that you were actually the god reaching down into this world, using your hand and only your hand to manipulate things. In both cases, controls and UI serve the intended game experience, instead of slavishly copying convention or mapping directly to engineering input — something countless other games do do.

And while Duskers is far from the first game to use visual effects and UI failures at atmosphere enhancers, it does so in a clever, well-designed, immersion-enhancing way. Full marks, Duskers — I’ve never felt more like I was actually a space-locked drone operator. And here I thought Shadowrun would keep that top spot forever.

The game UI obviously stays intact during these glitches and effects. There’s immersion and then there’s ‘immersion’.

Gameplay-wise, Duskers is a clever game about using wits and quick thinking in a desperate struggle for survival, with an admittedly somewhat confusing meta plot. From what I can piece together, you’re… trying to investigate something? Why everyone else is dead, I think? So far everyone else does seem to be dead. Initially, approaching the right ships, scanning the right rooms, and tapping into the right interfaces gives you what I think are supposed to be potential story leads. This ship talks about nanobots and matter replicators — maybe a grey goo scenario played out? That ship talks about artificial intelligences. This base has some background on a potential zombie apocalypse. You get the idea. Bad Shit seems to have happened, but what Bad Shit, exactly? Maybe it was one of these options? Maybe it was… all of them?

Duskers‘ meta-gameplay, such as it is, seems to involve chasing down these plot threads. Such as they are. I first ran across a ‘grey goo’ communications message in a Space Station, and was told to hunt for more clues in other Space Stations. When I finally found a second clue — three games in — it suggested that I ‘scan all the rooms of a class A or B space station’. Whatever that means. Similarly, medical vessels plotted me into a zombie thing, and military vessels held information on some sort of ‘space-time event’.

For various quantities of ‘information’.

Now, I’ll be honest: this is a pretty neat mode of storytelling, and I’m totally letting this drive some of my decision making. But the actual moment to moment gameplay in Duskers seems to be less about chasing these vague plot threads, and more about survival. Sure, it’s nice to find out that maybe artificial intelligences went mad and killed everyone. You know what’s even nicer? Finding a new drone type.

Exploring new ships and stations in Duskers, you’re always on the hunt for goodies and loot. Scrap is the most universal denominator: most space hulks are littered with the stuff. Fuel, both of the short-range and long-range variety, is also pretty common. If you’re lucky, you might find some drone parts, or ship upgrades, or even entirely new drones! And if you’re really lucky, they won’t even be horribly broken.

Don’t count on it, though.

Everything in Duskers is always breaking all the time. Everything. All the time. Every ship upgrade and drone part, when used, has a chance to go sour, or malfunction, or break down. Suddenly your motion sensor doesn’t work anymore. Suddenly your power re-router is stubbornly refusing to reroute any power. If you use it in a mission, even once, it’ll wear. And maybe break. Probably at the worst possible time.

On the flip side of the medal, though, almost everything that malfunctions or breaks can be fixed again. This is what scrap is for: staving off your inevitable jammed-gears demise. Scrap is the universal solvent, capable of repairing anything that isn’t functionally already scrap itself. And maybe even making it better, if you’re really rolling in the dosh. You use scrap to repair drones, upgrades, ship components, and even your ship itself, to make your drones better, and to craft from thin air some of the components you’re really hard-pressed to survive without.

And if you find a broken-down drone on a derelict? With a little luck, you’ll already have a drone with the Tow upgrade with you. Drag that sucker back to your loading bay, and if you have the scrap to spare, you can fix it right back to working condition. Duskers isn’t just a slow slide into oblivion — space giveth as much as space taketh away.

And if you *don’t* have the scrap to spare… well, broken-down drone forms make an *excellent* source of the stuff.

This slow struggle, of finding scrap and repairing and improving your ramshackle stuff, is Duskers‘ long-term core beat. You make the best of the random treasures you find in space. It doesn’t always provide quite the intended experience, I think — I’ve had games where I just hopped around finding nothing, and I’ve had games where I basically drowned in scrap and drone models right up until the point I lost all my core upgrades to alien monsters. But for the large part, it works. Your incentive to explore space is intrinsic — you need more resources to stay alive.

But obviously, there’s more to the experience than just this — it’d probably get monotonous otherwise. As I’ve already shown you, ships in Duskers more often than not are host to a variety of space-born terrors. Aliens, robots, automated defenses. And this forms the game’s short-term beat — working out how you can get as much as possible out of each ship while also keeping your drones alive.

You are not a powerhouse in Duskers. Just no. You can fight the alien threats, provided you get lucky with drone upgrades, or ship layouts. But it’s rarely a certain thing and almost always carries a price. Mines and turrets are straightforward options, but finite. Ship defenses are powerful, but you’ll have to get the aliens to them in some way… and maybe not forget that you’ve turned them on after, because those things will kill you dead. And while it’s almost always possible to blow open an airlock, that has the unfortunate ‘side effect’ of blowing anything in connected rooms out into space — enemies, drones, scrap, fuel, upgrades. As well as letting radiation in.

So, through clever gameplay choices, Duskers manages to achieve what many other survival games struggle with — making you want to not fight the monsters. For the sake of looting, safety, and exploration, it’s almost always better if you avoid or redirect the dangers. So maybe you can use a stealth module, and enter rooms under the cover of invisibility… assuming the enemies can’t detect you through it. Or use a motion sensor to scope out where the enemies are (assuming it doesn’t break) and ‘herd’ them into other rooms… assuming they take the bait. And assuming that once you do herd them around, and start exploring the ‘safe’ rooms, they don’t just turn around and start bashing down the door.

*Or* you can just throw open an airlock or two. It might not be pretty, but it gets *results*.

Why did I come out into murder-space again?

Final thoughts

Is Duskers a fair game? Oh hell no. For one, it’s incredibly random, ships and drones and upgrades and enemies all subject to the vagaries of fate and whatnot. I’ve had games start without a motion sensor. I’ve had games contain swarms behind the second door on the first ship. I’ve had games where enemies jumped me for no reason, from nowhere, in ways that I never felt like I could predict. And I’ve had many games where something I really didn’t need to break, broke, at exactly the moment I needed it the most. I can’t prove that Duskers is actively malevolent, but, you know. Throwing that out there.

Is Duskers immaculately designed? Again, I’m going to say no. While I love the control style and the aesthetic to bits, it can be a difficult game to learn. While the tutorial helps, the game at large is filled with commands and possibilities that you’ll have to luck into, or intuit, or just never use and then get angry about. The degauss command is one example. The game only passingly mentions that you can undock and re-dock at different airlocks. Apparently, ‘yellow’ rooms on the motion sensor don’t mean ‘vague’ results — they mean that that room can never be scanned, ever. And it’s only thanks to the input of a friend that I learned you can use the ‘alias’ command to write your own custom command series, saving many a needless phrase repetition.

Not that I do much with it — these phrases are largely the starting ones. But it’s still nice to *know*.

But is Duskers fun to play? Your mileage may vary, as usual with these things. If you don’t care for roguelikes / roguelites, if UI accessibility and cleanness of controls trumps immersion for you (instead of the other way around), or you just don’t care about desperate survival in space, you might not be willing to throw Duskers its twenty dollar asking price.

But all the same, I’m currently trying to get the game running on my travel laptop. Figure there’s a whole lot of deadly space I can explore in an eleven-hour plane flight.

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Jarenth likes being alone and only interacting with other people through tenuous digital information links, so you can see how Duskers appeals to him. Help him indulge his social needs on Twitter or Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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