In space, no-one can hear you type
My room is dark, lit only by the dim glow from the monitor in front of me. I take a breath and key in the first command.
In the distance, I hear the airlock slide open and a creak of tired metal as the hull of the derelict ship adjusts to the new weight distribution. This thing has been floating, dead in deep space for centuries. Who knows what state it’s in?
> navigate all r2
The whirr of servos fills my headset as my salvage drones trundle out of the docking ship and into the remnants of the old military vessel. I’m already nervous. I wouldn’t normally touch anything this old, this unstable, but I’m low on scrap and even lower on fuel, so needs must. I’m already bargaining with myself. Just need to find the main fuel tank, and then I can get out of here. No need to hang around.
> motion 1
I pull up the ship schematic to view the results of the motion tracker. Its green across the board. The derelict is silent as a tomb. Good.
I key in more commands, connect my generator drone to the power inlets, crack the doors and steadily open up the ship, searching for what’s left after time and space have done their worst.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, beeps and alarms fill my ears. Motion? But how? I was so careful! I hammer the button to get back to the schematic… there’s something in room 10, surrounded by open doors. It can reach my drones. The vent! It came out of the goddamn vent!
Cursing my own stupidity, I hammer commands into the console, my fingers heavy with panic.
> d7; d5; d6; d10
Each door to room 10 seals itself at my instruction, and I can breathe again. My drones are cut off from the docking bay, no way to get back to me without going through room 10 and whatever the hell is lurking in there. I can hear it, banging on the doors, but it seems to be contained, for now.
I open another can and lean back in my chair, studying the schematic and searching for solutions. Time to get down to work.
Don’t tell the actual IP owners, but Duskers is secretly the best “Alien” game ever made. Whilst there have been plenty of first-person shooters based around “Aliens”, no-one has ever tried to capture the steadily building tension of the original. How could any game conjure that growing sense of dread as the crew of the Nostromo walk, unwittingly, inevitably, into the teeth of a nightmare? How can you create that “just another day at the office” feeling, and then have it slide into chaos and carnage as it all goes horribly wrong? Well, I guess those rhetorical questions have been answered for me, because Duskers is built from the purest, most refined essence of those sensations. Dramatic tension drips off this game like… well, whatever that stuff is that drips of those insidey-mouth thingies the aliens have?
The set-up is classic sci-fi horror. As the operator of a robotic salvage team, you must search deep space for derelict space ships, then board and strip them of anything valuable that remains. You can find new drone components to upgrade your team, and then use the valuable scrap metal and fuel you have gained to keep your own ship and systems running. As you jump from ship to ship, dealing with whatever horrors are aboard, you are also fighting in vain against the inevitable forces of entropy. In a neat piece of narrative mirroring, much like the hulks you are exploring, your own systems are also steadily falling apart. In fact, virtually everything in this game is decrepit, dilapidated and desperate, on the brink of failure.
This is the dying universe that Duskers puts you into, and it’s hard to think of any game quite as immersive as this one. Most games trade in abstractions, reducing your character’s actions to button presses and joystick motions that the player then reinterprets as their own heroic feats. Duskers, on the other hand, is absolutely direct. You are your character, and you press every key and type every word that they do. If you describe the act of playing this game, there is no abstraction between what you did, and what your character did. The entire game is played via a command line interface, and whilst this decision was certainly a brave one, it puts you into the skin of your character like nothing I’ve ever played before.
Through an in-game interface that perfectly evokes a computer system from a classic sci-fi film, you sit at your desk and key in the commands that will send your robotic team deep into the bowels of long-dead spaceships.Your only sense of the ships you are boarding comes through that same computer system, either from an abstracted schematic view, or the wonky, distorted live feed from the drone cameras. In schematic view, the sounds you hear are muffled and distant, coming from the other side of the airlock. Take direct control of a drone and your audio instead comes directly from your drones’ internal microphones, clues as to what is out there lurking amongst the static and whine of your drones overworked engines. It’s an experience that’s immediately cinematic, despite the simplistic visuals. Regardless, whatever information you are receiving, the unknown always looms large in your mind. Every time you crack that first airlock, the tension is palpable. This is a game that essentially makes you play out the boarding sequence from “Event Horizon” every 20 minutes or so. You might need to keep your heart medication handy.
Check a room. All clear. Check the motion tracker. All clear. The camera on drone 2 just went out? Get drone 1 to go check on it. Okay, looks fine, just that electrical short again. Must remember to fix that sometime. These narrative beats are the building blocks of science fiction horror at its finest, a slow burn of nervous anticipation as nothing much happens, minute after minute. At the same time, you know that this steady stream of false alarms and empty rooms is also setting you up, giving you false confidence until suddenly, the unexpected descends upon you and your world is consumed by a storm of white noise and panicked key strokes.
And believe me when I say that Duskers can be absolutely vicious when it wants to be. I won’t spoil any of the surprises that you will find lurking in the darkness of these derelicts, partly because the discovery is part of the fun, but mostly because I feel like you should suffer as I did. You quickly learn that mistakes snowball fast when you have to repair them by laboriously typing out chains of commands. Mistype a number under the pressure of a sudden hull breach, or worse, at your peril. Each salvage mission you undertake feels like a high-wire act, and the spectre of a team wipe is never far off.
Fortunately the consequences of those failures are never that high. The game has a rogue-like structure and each vessel you board is randomly generated, so whilst a wipe might cost you valuable equipment, you don’t really lose much progress. You also gain valuable experience, not in-game but in real life. Over time you become a better drone operator. The command list becomes second nature, and you find countless small ways to optimise your efficiency. It’s rare for a videogame to make me feel proud of my ability to do a fictional job, but I am happy to report that I am a good drone operator now. With 30 hours logged salvaging in uncharted space, when I watch videos of beginners playing Duskers now I roll my eyes at virtually everything they do. Their commands are slow and inefficient, their decisions are reckless. Don’t close that door, you might need it open. Why haven’t you redocked the boarding ship at airlock 6 already? I know what that sound means… They are doomed, but they will learn. Space will harden them like it hardened me.
There are countless more things I want to tell you about Duskers, but that would be to rob you of the joys of discovery and the horrors of grim realisation. I want to talk about the threats you encounter, and the subtle ways each one can undermine your “safe” strategy. I want to talk about the equipment combos that suddenly flip the game in your favour… until they don’t. I want to tell you about what happened to my best team of drones on a class A medical frigate that very nearly reduced me to tears at my keyboard. But I won’t. I won’t tell you any of these things. I will just tell you that Duskers is one of the smartest, best designed and exciting games I’ve played in the last decade.
Duskers was reviewed with a download code of the PC edition, bought by the reviewer.