I recently bought a top-of-the-line gaming PC and thought I’ll spend time playing games like Far Cry: New Dawn or Battlefield V, with their multi-million-dollar graphics and ray tracing technology. Instead, I’m playing a game that looks like this:
This is Dusk, a 2018 first person shooter that tries to recreate the look and feel of 1990’s games like Doom, Quake and Rise of the Triad.
Ah, you think, nostalgia. Not so fast. This game is consistently reviewed in the top 10 of 2018 PC games. It’s number 4 on metacritic, with outstanding scores from both professional reviewers and regular players. It gets overwhelmingly positive reviews on Steam. And, by my back-of-a-napkin calculations, it made its creator at least $1M, with next to no marketing. At least some of these reviewers and players are less than 32 years old (so that means they were 10 years or less when Quake came out).
No, Dusk is just a really good, fun game.
So, how could a game made in Unity — by a single developer — do so well compared with its AAA competition? That question haunted me over the weekend, since it’s ripe with game design insights. Here are my thoughts:
- Simple graphics means the ability to have a simple world model, which unlocks many of the points below. This is the classic indie advantage. Compare to photorealistic games like the ones I mention above, which would feel uncanny if they allowed the gameplay of Dusk.
- Movement, reloading, firing, and everything else that happens in the game is extremely fast by today’s standards (and by reality’s standards). Again, compare to the more real-world speeds of contemporary shooters.
- There is no effect of precise aiming or “headshots”. No sniping here. No cover. In other words, no use of slowly preparing a shot from far away. Instead you go in, strafe and fire. Close range is needed — if you’re too far, your shotgun is useless, and so are your pistols.
- Lots of slow-moving projectiles (like fireballs) that you can dodge. This makes even movement from point to point part of the dance.
- Firing and moving (the only verbs of the game) feel good and polished. There’s a lean when strafing, there’s a small camera-shake when firing. A lot of iteration went into these simple things (see the first look video from 3 years ago that had many of these, but not quite).
- Simple mechanics. Monster A takes about X shots from a shotgun or Y shots from a pistol. That’s about it. You learn this in minutes and then can focus on strategy, using environmental hazards, positioning, and so on.
- True “popcorn horror” — simple graphics mean that nothing is really that scary, and killing is more cartoonish than real. Compared to most current shooters, this game is truly PG-13.
- No difficult morality — you’re killing blood-drenched torturer-cultists, demons, boogeymen. No civilians here. No need for the game to set up stories that explain away your killing spree.
- No cutscenes. Short loading screens. If you want to play, you get to play in under a minute, probably in about 10 seconds. Again, compare to other contemporary shooters.
- Basically no story. This is more of a game-as-a-sport than a game-as-a-narrative. Focus is on gameplay and core mechanics.
This last point might come as a surprise from someone who’s so much into game storytelling. You might think that I prefer stories in games. But no: I prefer core. Essence. I prefer focus. I prefer doubling down on what’s most fun about your interactive piece, and doing that.
By the way, the fact that the game’s developer chose this path is not a given. As far as I can tell, David Szymanski’s previous games have been focused on story quite a bit. For example, his game Fingerbones is “a short psychological horror game that focuses on storytelling and mystery”. So, I’d say the omission of a story is very much intentional.
Now, this is not another “gameplay is more/less important than story” post. All I’m doing here is acknowledging the fact that there are games that don’t need a plot. (They still need some kind of storytelling, of course. In the case of Dusk, it’s minimal, and mostly environmental.) I call these “games-as-a-sport”. When you’re playing football with your friends, you probably don’t need to have a story around that gameplay. Same for games like Doom, Rocketleague, most racing games, and of course most sports videogames like FIFA or Madden NFL. Plot is almost irrelevant in these games, and that’s okay.
There is another dimension to it. Dusk is, in a very real sense, a casual game. I know that’s not a word that comes to mind when you see — essentially — a Quake clone, but there you go. What I mean by casual is that Dusk is “pick up and play”. There is very little involvement when playing the game. You don’t need to clear your schedule. You don’t need to close yourself in a room with the gaming PC. You don’t need to ease yourself into the story (non-existent) or into the control scheme (basic). Dusk is a casual game, in my book.
Now, games-as-a-sport are often casual and games-as-a-narrative are often not, but that’s not a rule. The Wizard Sniffer (IFCOMP 2017 winner) is definitely narrative but also casual (upper left quadrant). In the opposite corner, I put games like Heartstone, with their sport-like, un-narrative gameplay, but very involved mechanics.
But back to Dusk. Let’s compare it with Doom (2016), the official successor of the 1990’s games Dusk tries to emulate. Doom has realistic graphics and modern movement and gameplay. In order to keep the spirit of the original, id Software had to add “push forward” mechanics (like reloading through melee) to prevent people from play from afar. But they didn’t have the simplicity and focus of Dusk, so it still doesn’t feel as good. Killing in Doom is way too realistic to be just popcorn horror. There’s too much story to be a game-as-a-sport. There’s too much involvement for this to be a casual game. It’s all just too heavyweight.
So, there you go. Dusk manages to be more with much less. This hasn’t really been a review — it was more of a game design brain teaser— but in case you’re looking for a fun shooter, you could do much worse than Dusk.
PS: It should go without saying, but this is the internet, so: the fact that I like Dusk doesn’t mean I think every other game should blindly follow its blueprint. I obviously love narrative games and I’m not even that partial to first person shooters. Let a thousand flowers bloom and all that.