The Scariest Thing About the New Sci-Fi Game Duskers? The Command Line
It came swarming through the vents. I’m not sure what “it” was, exactly—the camera feed on my drones didn’t produce a clear enough picture for me to tell. Whatever it was, it ate through my drones, one after another. I snapped my camera feed from one to the next, desperately trying to navigate at least one to the safety of the shuttle attached to the nearby airlock. I got the final one tantalizingly close to the door before the swarm got her. Slowly, I watched all my camera feeds die, and I was left with the silence of space.
This is Duskers: abstract, distant, and occasionally terrifying. Available now on PC, this game by Misfits Attic is space-faring strategy that casts the player as the lone survivor of some intergalactic cataclysm. You don’t know what happened, but you have some guesses, three drones, and a few days’ worth of fuel. Sitting in your vessel’s command deck, you can send your drones out to scavenge derelicts for fuel, technology, and information.
The smartest design choice in Duskers is also the one most likely to put players off, initially: the command-line interface. Heavily influenced by the low-tech blue-collar dystopia of science fiction like Alien, the world is rendered to you as a retro MS-DOS-type experience. Maps of derelicts make themselves known in wireframe blueprints, rooms and doors labeled with simple alphanumeric signifiers. You control everything via text, hastily typing in commands as you worry about what might be lurking beyond the next closed door. You can manually control your drones with basic keyboard controls, viewing the ships through their cameras, but they’re distorted and fuzzy views, liable to cut out entirely under duress.
You never see the places you go in Duskers. You only see impressions in computerized static, outlines in haunted cathode greens, or the sharp red of scanned threats. It’s not the simplest interface to adjust to; you’ll end up using the help menu a lot at first. But the price of entry is well worth it. It trains you over time to pay attention to every input you receive, making monsters out of every shadow. You listen to every creak of every ship you encounter, trying to discern if the hum you hear is an alien menace or just the reactor.
The swarming things buzzed. I should have known better. I heard it, but I kept pushing on. The power generator I needed was in the room with the vent. What was I supposed to do? Duskers encourages the player forward with the tantalizing promise of resources, and just enough power to do something stupid with them. Your drones can be outfitted with a variety of useful commands, even some limited capability to fight back against the infestations in the galactic graveyard. You can herd unseen terrors, flush them out of airlocks, destroy them with onboard turrets and mines. It’s not enough to win, but it’s enough to survive.
The ships are randomly generated, and death is permanent, but the game softens those high difficulty elements through smart design. The information you gather, and the general difficulty of the game, stays constant no matter how many times you wipe. And even once you’ve got multiple playthroughs under your belt, the little moments of terror are still there: When a routine fuel run is interrupted by a line rupture, blasting radiation into a critical area of the ship. When something fast and incomprehensible surprises you, forcing you to scramble to remember commands under duress. When everything goes wrong, and you end up shuttling your best drones out of an airlock like a Viking funeral.
Duskers is an elemental science fiction story tied together with an interface that insists on holding you at a remove. It’s the distress signal jumping lightyears; the first, breathless moment of an airlock cycling open; the light of a flashlight meeting exposed wire and debris. A lone worker, at the edge of known space, wondering what the hell is going on, wishing it wasn’t your job to find out.
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