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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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Plumbing the terror of the interface in Duskers

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Plumbing the terror of the interface in Duskers

The opening to Alien (1979) is one of those moments in cinema when something was crystallized, defined, even immortalized. It’s a trick director Ridley Scott would pull again three years later, with Blade Runner’s (1982) industrial cityscape cutting to a reverse shot of a human eye; creating an image that would become central to cyberpunk and science fiction for decades after. It’s not that Scott created this image from scratch, out of thin air (it was built from the fragments of Moebius, Phillip K. Dick, and Fritz Lang) it is that Scott presented it with such fidelity, confidence, and elegance that it seemed like something altogether new. The same goes for the opening corridor crawls of Alien’s “haunted house in space”, leading to that first jump scare, not from a xenomorph, but a chirruping, groaning screen, leaping to life.

Interfaces from Alien
Interfaces from Alien

There’s something so innately satisfying about those crunchy graphics and compressed sounds, reflected in the faceplate of a helmet, that never seems to fade. Alien, like Blade Runner, was standing on the shoulders of those that had come before, most notably, the towering form of Star Wars (1977) and John Carpenter’s pulpy Dark Star (1974). Yet Scott’s bulky tech and palpably physical displays are the film’s own creations, their flickering, juddering influence felt even now. Duskers is a game drenched in that influence, one that tasks you with wading around aging industrial interfaces while being serenaded by heavyweight digital noise. A roguelike that has finally reached the end of its troubled development (which saw the studio, Misfits Attic, and the game saved by investors) it displays an unflinching commitment to the blueprint laid out by Scott’s rich and tactile universe.

“Get them out of there NOW!”

In Duskers you scavenge for fuel, resources, and equipment in a universe gone dark. Exploring derelict ships with a team of drones, the entire game is played through an antiquated computer interface, complete with command-line actions and manual degaussing of your mock-CRT display. You’ll type commands to open doors, power up sections of ship, and drag equipment back to your ship, all the time watching the darkness that lies behind the flickering, shifting patterns of white noise. That’s because, like Alien’s Derelict, these ships hide unknown terrors, unstable shapes that spring from rooms and bring down your drones in screams of static. The result is a rhythm that begins with the satisfying clunk of mechanized labor but escalates into a sweaty-fingered haze of frantic typing, lost signals, and mounting terror, until you are left helpless as your remaining drones blink out, one by one.

Early concept sketches for Duskers
Early concept sketches for Duskers

Duskers’ masterstroke is that, rather than put you on the frontline of these expeditions, it leaves you seated firmly in the command center. It’s a powerful experience, and one that recent games have ignored while they’ve been chasing the trigger-happy thrills of the space marines from Aliens (1986), forgetting that the secret to the film’s iconic ambush scene is Ripley and Gorman on the end of a dodgy video feed, screaming “Get them out of there NOW!”. For Misfits Attic co-founder and Duskers director Tim Keenan, this was the starting point for the game. Speaking to him about the game’s inception, Keenan explained that Duskers emerged from his desire to explore “a sense of isolation and our relationship with technology.” He then showed an early concept image for the game, a shot of a “single chair in front of this bed of monitors, surrounded by the blackness of space.” It was this image, of the player both isolated and protected by technology, that would come to form Duskers’ central motif: the ways in which, in Keenan’s words, “technology enables us and technology constrains us.”

As the last known survivor of a mysterious cosmic event, the player’s relationship to Duskers cast of drones represents exactly this dual nature of technology. They are both her savior and her curse, as they haplessly trundle along, gathering scrap and getting blown out of airlocks. The game’s distinct command-line interface, used to control these robotic helpers, and noisy depth-scan visuals, were designed to enhance this feeling. “Originally it was a camera feed,” Keenan explains, “but it felt like there was a camera hovering over the drone, showing me what I am used to seeing.” Instead, Keenan wanted to approach “the way the drone sees the world”, distancing the player from the on-screen action and further isolating them. The way Duskers is now, with its top-down view and diagrammatic plans, achieves exactly that. “There’s a layer between you and the technology that you have to communicate through,” says Keenan, “it reinforces the distance between you and what you are doing.” Keenan’s greatest trick, however,  is to take this distance we usually feel between us and our on-screen character and shift it inside the game, so that our experience of controlling the drones is, as Keenan puts it “1:1.”

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In Duskers, the player is the drone operator’; isolated, afraid, both enabled and limited by technology. “We moved the interface to be part of the game,” says Keenan, “so the fact that you are at a keyboard, the fact that you have a monitor, we’re using that. And we’re removing all the elements between you and the character, because you are now the character.” This was a tricky thing to communicate to the player; how would they know that they were the drone operator, not some proxy, or the drone themselves? Originally, other developers suggested to Keenan to do it cinematically, to build a cutscene where “you see this bed of monitors, just like in Aliens, then you sit down in the chair and you zoom in one monitor.” But, to Keenan, this would only distance the player from the game. “To me it broke that wall. You are already sitting down at a keyboard, you are already staring at a monitor.” So, in an echo of Alien’s iconic startup scene, Keenan devised a solution: “That’s where that boot screen came from; exposing the innards.” It was a potentially alienating step, a touch that along with the command-line interface might be accused of being overly obscure. But Keenan stuck with it: ”At first it was just confusing, but I was stubborn, and now we’ve put layer upon layer on it, I think a lot of people really feel like they are the drone operator and that’s their monitor.”

“technology enables us and technology constrains us”

It’s surprising that Duskers feels like the first game to really perfect this kind of horror interface. The only obvious predecessor would be Adam Saltsman’s criminally underplayed Capsule. For Keenan, Capsule was a “huge influence.” So much so, in fact, that he managed to “steal” Capsule’s sound designer Robin Arnott away from his upcoming project Soundself to work on the game for a month. “He played it and fell in love with it,” admits Keenan, and Arnott’s touch can certainly be felt in the ambiguous mix of ambient sounds that support the game’s sense of distance. This ambiguity is the final piece of Duskers’ sophisticated design, and stretches into the art as well as the sound. “From the very beginning of Duskers, I wanted it to look like a Rorschach test,” Keenan says, “that you would see in it what you saw it in.” In some ways, this was a struggle, and Keenan found his artists were predisposed to make definite objects; power generators, couplings; functional parts of sci-fi furniture. To combat this he pushed them to dent and bend the structures, adding in more organic shapes. The satisfying result of this push came late in development, when Keenan was playtesting the game. “I was in a different drone view than I was used to being in, and I approached from an angle that I wasn’t used to seeing things from, and it upset me, it scared me. I thought, what the hell is that?”

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This is an experience that will be familiar to those who have played Dusker during its Early Access period. The game’s enemies are both fast and terrifying, and you rarely get more than a glimpse of them before they either disable your drone, or you back the hell out and hammer the command to close the door. This has led to some interesting stories, including one Keenan happily recounts, where a player posted a confusing description of an alien on the game’s forums that spiralled into a storm of speculation. “It was a big mystery,” laughs Keenan, “everyone was freaked out!” This emergent weirdness is very much by design. “We don’t name the enemies,” says Keenan,  “so they didn’t have a common terminology. They would call one a ‘leaper’, sometimes they call ‘the slime’ ‘radiation’ or ‘goop’!” It’s this sense of the unknown that makes the game such an rewarding experience. Duskers is an emergent monstrosity, one that has you squinting at the screen, nervously flicking through the potential outcomes of each strategy. It’s a game that hounds you with attrition, breaking your favorite upgrades through overuse, venting airlocks in surprise malfunctions, and shorting out your video signal at random.

It is this emergent energy that drives Duskers, and while over time the clearing of a ship becomes a routine procedure, it never gets any less satisfying to herd threats into rooms then blast them out the airlock with a typed command and a decisive tap of enter. In its mystery and high stakes exploration it feels like a successor to XCOM: Terror from the Deep (1995), especially in its randomly named drones and sense of constant pressure. Yet, it is its attention to the potential horror of its 1:1 command-line interface that marks it out as something distinct. When you are playing Duskers, headphones on and fingers clawed around your keyboard, you might as well be in deep space, desperately poking around for supplies. The great irony is that Duskers does this not through virtual reality, or new “immersive” technologies, but through an antiquated interface inspired by a piece of 1970s science fiction. That’s because Duskers understands that the opening scene of Alien is not just a piece of stylish cinematography; it is an echo of the horrors to come. The horrors of the blank spot on the sensor, the patch of drifting noise and the groan of an error code, in a world where your survival depends on the basic functions of mechanized systems. In short, the terror of space, the unknown, and of the void that lies just beyond the edges of your failing, flickering interface.

Versions is brought to you by Nod Labs,
Precision wireless controllers for your virtual, augmented and actual reality.
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