Early Access Investigations: Duskers

Plucky indie dev Misfits Attic have deployed Duskers on Steam Early Access. Praise has been lavished upon this super-minimalist science-fiction salvage drone affair, and after a few sessions with it, the positivity is not unwarranted. Duskers is a masterful display of thoughtful abstraction, where communication of information sets the tone.

Like my 2014 Game of the Year in Deadnaut, Duskers thrives on wresting away peripheral awareness and the security blanket of constant and immediate response. 

Playing the part of a frontier salvage operator and, to quote Blainey, enduring the tyranny of distance after some sort of universal cataclysm, players are charged with surviving for as long as possible as they plot their course back through various systems. Island-hopping from one drifting wreck to another, gameplay revolves around plumbing the depths of these hulks for scraps, upgrades and fuel with a small clutch of remotely operated drones. 

These drones can be operated manually, but Duskers is defined by its command console control method. It might seem unwieldy to direct a three or four-strong squadron of drones around the confines of a dead starship via text, but once you've got the command vocabulary down -- aided by a gentle predictive entry -- and utilise the semi-colon to link any number of commands together, Duskers comes alive. 

navigate 1 2 r3; navigate 3 r2; generator 3; gather all 1; tow 2; navigate 2 r1; tow 2; navigate 2 r3

The above is straightforward shorthand for a general opening few minutes in a wreck run. I initially send drones 1 and 2 to Room 3, while sending the third drone to operate a generator in Room 2. The second drone, equipped with a tow upgrade, will couple to an item or disabled drone and drag it back to the ship -- always R1 -- and leave it there. All the while, drone 1 will have gathered up scrap from Room 3.

Commands bloom out as upgrades are salvaged and bolted into your fleet. Soon, they'll be interfacing with onboard systems like automated defense, sweeping adjacent rooms with motion sensors, deploying traps and operating stealth systems. Enemy encounters are often lethal, leaving you droneless and feeling desperately distant through the command interface. Cultivating and curating a drone fleet is one thing, operating them in the unknown is another.

Like any good hard science-fiction fun, it's when things go south that Duskers becomes the kind of game that I unashamedly fawn over. Allow me to illustrate with an after-action report that left me staring at a dead feed and palms somewhat sweaty.

Breaching the confines of a derelict vessel, my three drones began operations with the usual curt combo of powering up sections, tripping a motion sweep and gathering scrap. I'd discovered a generator that obviously controlled systems within a still-darkened section of the ship and sent my power-proficient drone to interface, plunging the peripheral sections once more into dimness.

Through the intoxicating lens of a retro-futurism CRT screen filter, the flaring fizz of localised movement radar and Nostromo chirps, my drone powered up the unexplored sections. My other two bots sat quietly, awaiting further instructions to course the grid of partially-cracked rooms and electronic hatches. Fresh rooms came online beyond the reaches of the initial motion detection sweeps. Doorways previously connected to dead relays could be accessed, and I began to slide them open for the gatherer drone, currently holding position at the first airlock. 

The command console flashed with red text.

Drone 1 taking damage

Drone 2 taking damage

Drone 1 was disabled

Drone 2 was disabled

Something was loose. I'd unleashed something that had, up until this point, been held captive within the bowels of this drifting steel-and-drive oubliette. My third drone sat alone on the far side of the ship, its two comrades down but thankfully not out near the boarding ship. I began to weigh up my options, each considered outcome bore retrieval of those two drones an absolute necessity.

The generator drone needed to decouple a tow upgrade from one of the disabled two, using it to drag the damaged duo back aboard the boarding vessel, though with whatever was loose, the survival of the third drone was paramount to salvaging this south-bound mishap. Thus began a sweat-slicked venture of immeasurable trepidation back through the ship, shutting doors where I could and opening others. It was a rough plan, borrowed from Fincher's Alien 3; though without the help of a motion sensor or a band of criminal lifers to offer a terrified hand, it was a hairy, slow crawl towards the entry hatch. 

Luckily, a second airlock near the second generator offered possible salvation. I could flush my aggressor out into space by sending my boarding vessel to this new docking port and throwing open the original airlock, but I'd lose my damaged drones to the void at the moment of decompression. Not an option. Not this early on, anyway.

I had to secure the first generator to break open a shortcut section of doors that led towards the secondary access point, so after checking Room 2 thoroughly and finding it thankfully silent beyond my downed drones, the airlocks were slammed closed and I tapped in the appropriate command.

dock a2

The boarding vessel faded from the schematics, before appearing at the second second airlock. The power access allowed me to bolt shut many of the doors that led off into other areas, which couldn't be ordered to slide home fast enough. Upgrades were traded, and I began the task of dragging the disabled drones to our fresh dust-off point.

tow drone_qbert; navigate 3 r8, tow drone_qbert; navigate 3 r2; tow drone_jill; navigate 3 r8

The derelict was once more plunged into darkness as drone 3 laboured away from the generator and towed its precious cargo towards the waiting vessel. Subconsciously, I probably did it for maximum cinematic effect, the kind of effect that exists solely in the imagination, held at arm's length by the utilitarian flicker of vector blueprint and system chirrup. I should of opened the airlock door first. I should have checked.

a2

It must have stowed away on the boarding vessel. 

Drone 3 taking damage

Drone 3 was destroyed

This is Duskers. You need it yesterday.