New Blood’s DUSK is a bit of a perplexingly pleasant paradox, often read as an effort to remake the shooters of yore. Quake, Blood, and numerous other influences have been attributed to it’s lineage since release, but despite familiar low-poly trappings and iterations of fondly remembered design, DUSK both stands out and holds its own as something entirely new.
There are numerous publications out there that can tell you the ways in which DUSK is spectacularly incredible, and it’s most definitely deserving of such high praise, however, REBIND is here to show you a peek behind the curtain, to give you a glimpse into the unspeakable cosmic terror responsible for the game that is currently disguised as the cheerful flesh vessel named David Szymanski:
REBIND: Tell us about yourself and your inspirations, both for your entire career and for DUSK in particular.
David: Well, my name’s David Szymanski, and I live in northwest Pennsylvania with my wife, daughter, five cats, and a very hyper-active dog. I’ve been developing games professionally for about five years now. Before that it was just a hobby (well, maybe not “hobby…” Whatever you call something that you don’t get paid for but which you neglect work, education, and relationships to do anyway). I’ve worked solo on a series of 4 narrative-driven horror games, worked collaboratively on 3 other titles, and of course Dusk, which sorta counts as both.
I was inspired to pursue game development originally by Myst. In school we were learning to use a program called Hyperstudio, which was a close relative to another program called Hypercard, which was the foundation Cyan used to develop Myst. And one day it sorta clicked that hey… maybe *I* could make something like that. So I did. It was called Duststorm, and I’m pretty sure it sucked. A few years later it was retro FPS shareware like Doom, Duke Nukem 3d, Chasm, Quake, etc that grabbed my imagination, and I spent quite a long time trying to make my own first person shooter in Qbasic. I never succeeded, but one of the games I spent time planning out was a gritty Quake-like called Dusk. Of course basically nothing of that original design made it into the game that I eventually did make, other than the title and Quake aesthetics.
For awhile I was really taken with the idea of narrative-driven horror in a videogame. The point and click adventure Scratches influenced that a lot. I loved how frightening it managed to be just from the narrative it told rather than any overt threats to the player. Like a lot of devs circa 2015 I was also really caught up in the “walking simulator” movement, or more specifically in the idea of making games that didn’t have to rely on traditional game mechanics and obstacles. I guess Dear Esther and Gone Home were the big ones but my personal favorites were The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Proteus.
When I started working on Dusk, Doom and Quake were the two main influences: Doom for gameplay and Quake for aesthetics. Chasm: The Rift, an obscure little Ukrainian Quake clone, was also lumped in there since it’s always had a really special place in my heart, as the first game I ever bought for myself and one of the early shareware demos that got me interested in retro FPS in the first place. As development progressed I grabbed various things from a bunch of other games: blood effects from Lithtech, Heretic’s crossbow, Half-life’s HECU marines, etc. Classic immersive sims also contributed a lot, especially Thief. And the general atmosphere of STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl influenced the gloominess of a lot of episode 1 levels, as well as the industrial themes of episode 2.
If I had to list personal influences now, at this moment.. erm, I guess I’d probably say there’s a lot of survival horror and immersive sims in there. The Resident Evil 1 Remaster especially and Thief/Deus Ex. I’ve also been thinking a lot about melee combat, and especially the simple brutal combat seen in Condemned: Criminal Origins. And of course retro FPS are in there as always. They’re such a big part of me I don’t think I’ll ever make something that isn’t influenced by them in some way.
REBIND: What was it like getting involved with New Blood, from a developer perspective?
David: Coming to a collaborative / group environment after spending so many years completely solo (or just serving in a support role on other peoples’ projects) was definitely a mental adjustment. And there could be friction throughout Dusk’s development when Dave and I disagreed on things. But New Blood’s whole approach is pretty laid back which made it easier to make the transition and I think I’ve gotten a lot better (and happier) working in that sort of situation now.
REBIND: Speaking of inspirations, have you found yourself particularly enamored with any other independent developers and the games they’ve been putting out?
David: Guess it’s shoutout time!
One game that I fell in love with from moment one that has never gotten the recognition I feel it deserves is Miasmata, which was released in 2012 by two brothers who as far as I can tell did everything including the engine from scratch. It is one of the moodiest, most unique games I’ve ever encountered, and I urge anyone with an interest in survival horror, exploration, or just unusual first person games in general to give it a look. I’ve heard they’re working on something else but with zero social media presence and a contact email that seems dead (I’ve tried emailing them multiple times lol), I have no idea when or if that will ever be a thing.
In more recent terms, while his stuff isn’t necessarily my style of horror it’s really hard not to be charmed and intrigued by the raw enthusiastic confidence of Puppet Combo’s games. PSX nostalgia meets an obsession with schlock VHS horror films and it’s a match made in heaven. His development pace is impressive as heck too: a new prototype every month.
In my opinion one of the best horror games–maybe one of the best indie games period–to release recently is Lost in Vivo by Akuma Kira. It’s just a constant parade of imaginative, subversive twists and turns wrapped in a Silent Hill-esque survival horror framework with some nostalgic tongue-in-cheek nods for anyone who closely followed the indie horror scene around 2014-2016. It’s a blast, and I’m really happy that despite a slow launch it’s managed to gain momentum from word of mouth and Youtube coverage alone.
Shoutout to Arbitrary Metric and their game Paratopic too, for continuing the pseudo-walking-sim horror tradition with a fresh take on the concept, and contributing to the push for low res low poly 3d as a legitimate aesthetic choice. Jess is a fantastic artist and while some people have been crediting Dusk for helping to bring back that look, it’s people like her who have developed and will continue to develop it beyond just a nostalgic reference into something that stands on its own as a modern aesthetic, like pixel art.
I also have to mention Dirigo Games, who did Depths of Fear :: Knossos. Nobody does uber-jank diamond in the rough games like he does. Knossos is held together with duct tape and it’s a quirky, charming, sometimes quite creepy blast. His recent free demo Syscrusher has awful movement, cluttered visuals, broken balance, and none of that matters because it is a roller coaster ride of utterly lovable fun from beginning to end and I’d purchase a full version in an instant. He also has a very positive social media presence, from what I’ve seen, which is something that’s really needed in the indie dev sphere.
There’s also David Pittman, who’s sadly had to leave solo development but who was very inspiring to me starting out, as an example of someone who was able to make low-fi games from scratch and earn a living with them. For awhile he was also one of the only indies taking direct inspiration from immersive sims, and even when his games were flawed they were always interesting and full of personality.
And there’s the incomparable Jeff Vogel who has made a living making tiny niche indie CRPGs for longer than most of us have been alive. Not only are his views on indie development as a business invaluable, but it turns out his weird ugly little text-heavy remakes of remakes are super fun, charming, and speak of a developer who’s spent a lifetime learning what areas need resources and refinement and what areas do not.
And special shoutout to friends like Megan Fox and Garrett Cooper and co whose games aren’t always my thing but who are better and more knowledgeable programmers than I will ever be. And to Dillon Rogers who I talk to on a daily basis about all sorts of design stuff and who’s given me a lot to ponder about game design over the years.
I mean… there are a bunch of indie games and indie devs I really admire, and I’ve probably left some obvious ones off this list. But those are a few that spring to mind.
REBIND: What’s a design trend you’ve got a bone to pick with, as well as a design failing you yourself have succumbed to and learned your lesson from?
David: Gonna have to go with procedural generation. Or, not procedural generation itself but rather the idea that it can be slotted into any genre or design as a sort of catch-all solution to the level design problem. There are absolutely games that use procgen wonderfully. FTL, Minecraft, Spelunky, etc. It can be an invaluable tool for anything that benefits from the potential of unexpected outcomes more than developer agency. The problem is, there are a lot of things that benefit way more from developer agency. For instance I don’t think retro FPS is a good fit for procgen at all. It’s too reliant on flow, on context, on manipulation of level minutia. Procgen algorithms can create surface-level unpredictability, but they are too rooted in understandable patterns to create genuine subversion. And while the basic principles of retro FPS design can be reduced to concrete rules–interconnectivity, loops, variation, etc–the more abstract ideas of subversion, flow, feel etc, can’t.
There’s a larger… well, I don’t think it’s a “problem,” so much as just a “thing.” But there are a a lot of indie developers who are really coders first and developers second. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does lead to a certain way of thinking about game development, where it’s reduced to a collection of rules and principles without recognizing the value of expression. Or put another way, that a good game is created by summing a list of approved parts. Procgen fits very nicely into this approach. Levels can be reduced to an algorithm, governed but rules for what makes a Good Level. It’s a very attractive proposition and I think we all fell for it at one time or another. I know I did. I fooled with a few procgen prototypes and released a semi-roguelike called Down We Go–maybe the weakest game I’ve ever actually finished.
It’s a fit for some things, but it’s just not a fit for everything. And I think we’re all starting to realize that. Warping to a new system in FTL not knowing what could be waiting for you is awesome. Experiencing the same immaculate flow and layout of the Resident Evil mansion for the half dozenth time is also awesome. No one design solution fits every game, and often shortcuts that sounds too good to be true probably are.
REBIND: What’s in the future for you after DUSK?
David: I’ve started work on a new game (although it’s nothing more than a rough prototype at the moment that may never go anywhere), dabbled in remastering one of my old horror games, and it looks like I might be collaborating on one or more unannounced titles. There’s a whole list of post-launch support we have planned for Dusk as well. So for a while at least, that stuff.
I keep getting asked “when’s Dusk II” and honestly I can’t think of anything I want to work on less right now heh. Not just because I’ve had more than my fill of making retro shooters for the moment, but because a Dusk II would have to be bigger, more expensive, more… everything. I’m not even sure I have the ideas for that yet. Besides which the 2019 indie scene is noooot the time to be upping budget, devtime, or necessary resources. A handful of years ago you could be relatively certain that production value and decent marketing would get eyes on your indie game. That is no longer the case. Dusk has done very well but Dusk was a risk that could very easily have not panned out and left all of us broke. For the foreseeable future I’ll just be continuing to do what I’ve always done: make games on the cheap and try my best not to get locked into a lengthy dev cycle that will require a game to hit big-ish to justify the time/expenses. The market is unpredictable and who knows, what I do next could only sell 500 copies and/or critically flop.
We had a lot of questions, and David had a lot of answers! Keep an eye out for Part II soon.
Until then, why head down to the town of DUSK and give the locals a run for their money?
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice