Castaway meets Space Hulk, BigTrak & MS-DOS
People tell me that cutting-edge graphical tech is absolutely crucial for attaining that most hallowed of made-up buzzwords: immersion. I understand that point of view and the logic behind it, but also contend that it's complete and total bollocks.
See, for the last few weeks I've been compulsively glued to a primitive early alpha that uses the bare minimum to ground you in an evocative lonely Sci-Fi universe, by making your computer monitor look like a different computer monitor.
Duskers casts you as a astronaut castaway in the depths of space, running out of rations and going half-mad from isolation, desperately eking out the last of your days by salvaging any usable supplies from derelict space hulks. You'll use your precious supplies just to travel between them, meaning that you have to find food or die of starvation, but in a unique twist you'll never personally leave your ship.
Without a viable space suit, you'll instead rely on a handful of remote-controlled drones that become your only means of exploring the wrecks, your eyes, ears and hands, and also your only friends in an otherwise hostile and empty universe. As such, both you and the astronaut stare at the same arcane control interface -- your computer monitor and keyboard -- connecting and immersing you in the game world in a unique and deeply chilling way.
After all, your drones aren't alone out there... and without them you're as good as dead.
Duskers shares its basic progression and structure with many latter-day Roguelikes. Favouring perma-death and randomised replay value, each run requires you to travel between distant derelicts in a desperate attempt to scrape together enough food and supplies to survive another day. You'll typically use up all of your supplies just getting to the next potential objective, at which point you'll dock in full knowledge that failure to secure enough rations and gear means certain death.
Once moored, you'll then deploy your squadron of drones and control them with a fascinating facsimile of what an industrial remote control system might look like right down to flickering CRT scan lines. Lacking any bells and whistles, Duskers presents each derelict as a simple top-down blueprint of randomised interlocking rooms and doors, all individually labelled, while you can only visualise the environment using your drone's sensors. Lacking a video camera, you can only see the ship's interior via a motion tracker, making your imagination run rampant. You'll proceed to explore the environment in search of all-important rations, new drone equipment and upgrades for your spaceship.
Each drone can be directly controlled with the arrow keys, but this absolutely isn't the most efficient way of marshalling your robotic pals. Instead, typing in lines of code allows you to issue sequences of complex commands, from ordering each drone to enter a different room simultaneously to opening particular doors or activating onboard drone gadgets such as motion scanners and power generators to provide electricity to sections of the ship. This low-tech input method may seem archaic, but in practice it feels real and authentic, as if you are that tragic doomed astronaut staring into his monitor on the edge of space.
Dim the lights, squint and you're there. There's no abstraction, no disconnection between the actions you're doing and what your character is doing. Real immersion in a basic bare-bones alpha.
Unfortunately, there's also the small matter of ravening hostile life-forms aboard most vessels, who'll tear your drones to shreds in short order unless you're very clever and incredibly lucky.
Carefully using your motion tracker lets you pinpoint which rooms an enemy is in. Like the yellow barrel from Jaws, you have no idea what they look like (remember, your drones aren't equipped with video cameras!), meaning that menacing red pulses mark out something dangerous that can and will react in unpredictable ways. It's genuinely terrifying, doubly so since your imagination starts to draw on all of your darkest source material. Without any means to fight back, you'll need to put together some complex plans, opening and closing doors to corral and contain these mysterious foes into distant areas, or using drones to distract enemies away from your position allowing its fellows to advance. You'll fail and die several (in my case dozens) of times before starting to master it, but each new run brings fresh experience and a deepening head for strategy.
Except, more often than not, they'll crawl through a vent and trigger an exquisite blind panic attack. How fast can you type under fire? Can you construct a complex fallback plan in a splitsecond? Can you sacrifice one of your drones to save the rest?
And that, right there, is the core of Duskers. Sacrifice. All that matters is surviving another day, long enough to get to the next hulk. Will you collect just enough food to make it to the nearest wreck? Will you stay and salvage more than you need, potentially putting your valuable drones in danger? I'm asking these questions now because you'll need to make them every few seconds.
There's also the small matter of what I suppose you could call the "Wilson effect." If you've ever watched Castaway, you'll remember that Tom Hanks became so deprived of company that he projected an entire imaginary personality onto a volleyball. Duskers will do the same to you, as your drones are all named despite being nothing more than functional machines, meaning that it's impossible not to start imagining their own human quirks. In my last run, Vinnie was always bravely taking the lead -- he's assertive like that, thanks to his gatherer and interface tool -- whereas plucky Holly always stood her ground while providing power to critical systems. Puck, bless him, was always a bit of a coward, making excuses about only being equipped with a tow cable to stay behind the back lines.
"He." "She." They're drones, Jon. Get a grip.
The story is delightfully minimal -- each run is your emergent personal narrative, after all -- but the setting is already rich and ripe with mystery. Something happened to produce all of these floating hulks. Something terrible. Something that you'll piece together from scattered ship logs over the course of numerous playthroughs. We're looking forward to seeing what Tim Keenan and Misfits has in store for us over the Early Access period and beyond.
There's a long road ahead, naturally, but Duskers is already a seriously exciting proposition and an eminently replayable framework for a very different kind of survival game.
We'll keep you posted, and I'll bring you some video coverage soon. Definitely keep an eye on this one.