Duskers and the endless races of video game darkness
We often say that particularly clever video games are made up of “shades of grey”, but there are just as many shades of black. The color black has had a strange, underground career in computer graphics and aesthetics, spread across different types of display and graphics hardware, different genres and art styles. The darkness of a Game Boy game is green and fertile, like a pond of algae (and similarly dependent on sunlight). The darkness of a cathode ray tube screen is a dense fog sealed behind a swelling reflection – no wonder Silent Hill’s most atmospheric moments came before the arrival of flat screens.
Black, of course, symbolizes death in Western societies, but it also signifies elegance and luxury, with artisans of all eras striving to produce the lushest, finest shades. Like 16th century Venetian wool dyers, high dynamic range TV manufacturers promise the “blackest blacks” – the apparent antidote to the “crushed black” areas of older TVs that, like a gravitational singularity, swallow up any lighter objects they contains. Grading and calibrating virtual shadows has become a form of connoisseurship: one of today’s creepier video game startup rituals is to change the visibility of two or three images in a row, one that should always be “barely visible”, like the ghost in a creepypasta. The marketing discount around blackness (which in both subtle and overt ways ties into the industry’s treatment and portrayal of black people—see this infamous PSP ad, or Skyrim’s struggle to lighten non-white skin) extends to the presentation of video game hardware. The Xbox One was a work of “liquid black”, designed to “melt into the background when in use”, a useful quality in a console once triumphantly advertised as an always-online home surveillance device.
Horror developers, needless to say, have done well out of all these multiplying darknesses. Just look at the upcoming crop of haunted spaceship games – the Callisto Protocol chases the resurrected corpse of its ancestor Dead Space, Fort Solis bets on Mars while the long-awaited routine makes moves on the Moon. I love Dead Space’s tenebrous corridors, the way Isaac Clarke’s hologram-lit torso seems to float within them, foreshadowing his own dismemberment. But my favorite darkness right now belongs to Duskers, Misfit Attic’s grim roguelike from 2014, in which you play the last human starship pilot who sends drones to scavenge for fuel, parts, and clues about the universe’s destruction.
Duskers invokes one of the oldest types of video game darkness, the MS-DOS command-line interface: a primordial gloom that both predates graphical desktop interfaces and lingers insidiously, tucked away in the Start menu. This is a particularly fey species of virtual murk. In a modern 3D world, the shadows are placed in the world on purpose, for utility or effect. The darkness is a presence – even a supportive one, if you’re, say, Corvo Attano looking up in a guard position. With a command line interface, darkness is more like uncreated void. It represents nothing, and the terrible thing about nothing is that it can be a source of anything.
Duskers thrive on the generative formlessness. There’s 3D geometry in here somewhere, each procedurally generated abandon a top-down maze of debris, salvage and sealed doors, but the very input and display technologies that make this a plausible sci-fi setting also keep you on an anxious way. What makes them compelling, as ways of articulating the world, is how much of that world they seem to hide. Your character never sets foot in the ships you unlock, except when you command them, which is an off-screen process. Rather, you experience each vessel deterioration as the switch between zoomed-out strategic blueprints and a crackling LIDAR video feed, sometimes controlling drones with WASD and sometimes typing out commands like “generator” or “navigate all r5”.
Your drones have different optical technology, so paint the landscape in different shades. This helps you distinguish drones (which are given first names, a nasty twist given how often you lose them), but the sense that you’re swapping parallel dimensions also adds to the game’s creeping solipsism. One drone reads a room as a cool blue checkerboard, while another renders it as a hideous red bowel. Which version is more reliable? You’re Lt. Gorman, watching a bank of warped helmet feeds, but there’s no Ripley in Duskers to hijack the APC and drive you across the boundary between representation and object, no way of knowing if you’re at the mercy of a Cartesian demon like Ash , busy misinforming you about your place in this story and the nature of the threat. I find more comfort from the sound, which couples instrument feedback with ambient recordings, yet somehow seems unmediated and objective, even grounded: the whir of a turning tower, the groan of an aging hull, a hungry hum through a wall.
Even once you’ve acclimated to the alienating effects of the interface, the act of exploring ships is largely about accommodating what you can’t directly know. Dusker’s drone gadgets are fragile and imperfect. Motion sensors tell you that a room has something fishy about it, but leave out the device’s exact location. Does it move away from your drones, maybe giving you a few seconds to sneak in and collect something? You learn to be creative in your reconnaissance: at one point, after losing the drone carrying my sensors, I resorted to repeatedly opening and closing a distant door until a transient anomaly blocked it (when the door closed, I had to guess which side was safe). Echoing sanity effects in the Amnesia games, the creatures you spot on each ship must be held firmly in your peripheral vision: bringing them into focus is usually sacrificing the drone in your hand, throwing the video stream to static. So you grope around the holes these apparitions leave in reality, luring them into cleared rooms with their gaze turned away, or better yet, a room with a tower or airlock you can activate from afar. Again, the sound is the real comfort; these muted bursts of turret fire are the closest you’ll get to a resounding “all clear”.
Aside from keeping you an uncanny distance from the playground, the clumsiness of typing out commands turns into a satisfying thrill when you need to act quickly. All commercial writers and, I suppose, all programmers worry about typos, redundant words, and WPM. Duskers upgrade these anxieties to fear. A wrong letter can cost you the run. Did you tell your drones to go to room 1? Did you order them to level individually, instead of writing “all”? Congratulations, fool – they and you are now part of the backstory dustbin.
Some of the game’s biggest scares are self-inflicted, as you soon realize you’re typing D10 instead of D19 – D10 being the door behind which you’ve sealed a restless, swirling Something. You feel much like a sleepwalker waking up at the top of a flight of stairs, congratulating yourself on your last-minute proofreading. But hold on, the sealed room has an air vent in it, and lo and behold, one of your feeds is suddenly static. You better get out of there you dastardly hacker, maybe leave a trpa to counter the threat and oh god that dead drone carried all the fuel you cleaned up and honey you wrote D3 instead of D4 and now Something between the remaining drones and your ship.
Your opponents—each requiring different tactics, and each at the heart of a different explanation for the universe’s destruction, with lore unlocks that persist between runs—can be even more unpleasant in death. Your boarding interface can be cumbersome, but the color coding is pretty precise: red on the movement meter equals “stay away,” green is “safe,” yellow (my absolute least favorite color in Duskers) means “hmmm.” Killed enemies obscenely mix these colors, putting the game’s visual organization under stress: dead pixel clusters of suppurating gold, crimson and purple, all flowing towards a blackness that continues to produce fresh conundrums even towards the end of the game. (Spoilers below!)
Except there is no end. As races turn into races, you’ll hack terminals to discover logs, follow trails of evidence between certain ship classes, and slowly fill out an archive of theories about the causes of the apocalypse. But the game refuses to choose a correct interpretation, its story fringing and dwindling mockingly into a mass of hacked-off email chains and error messages.
After trapping you behind your drone feeds, it leaves you to roam the bay endlessly, alone in a way that makes Ishimura feel like a birthday party. I admire the Dead Space remake’s overhaul of the 2008 game’s lighting and shadow effects – as with other remakes like FF7R, I’m hoping for an unspoken dialogue with the original artistic choices, rather than an attempt to paint over them. But I’d be very surprised if a blockbuster 3D horror game could produce such total and unrelenting blackness as this.