We often say that especially clever video games consist of “shades of grey”, but there are just as many shades of blackness. The colour black has a strange, underground career in computer graphics and aesthetics, spread across different types of display and graphics hardware, different genres and art styles. The darkness of a Game Boy game is green-tinged and fertile, like a puddle of algae (and similarly reliant on sunlight). The darkness of a cathode-ray tube display is a dense fog sealed behind a bulging reflection – small wonder that Silent Hill’s most atmospheric moments came before the advent of flatscreens.
Black symbolises death in western societies, of course, but it also denotes elegance and luxury, with artisans in every era striving to produce the lushest, finest grades of shadow. Much like 16th century Venetian wool-dyers, high dynamic range TV manufacturers promise the “blackest blacks” – the apparent antidote to “crushed black” regions on older TVs that, like a gravitational singularity, swallow up any lighter objects they contain. Grading and calibrating virtual shadows has become a form of connoisseurship: one of today’s more sinister videogame start-up rituals is altering the visibility of two or three images in a row, one always to be left “barely visible”, like the ghost in a creepypasta. The marketing racket around blackness (which links up in both subtle and bruisingly obvious ways with the industry’s treatment and portrayal of Black people – see this infamous PSP ad, or Skyrim’s struggle to light non-white skin) extends to the presentation of videogame hardware. The Xbox One was a work of “liquid black”, designed to “melt into the background when being used”, a helpful quality in a console once triumphantly advertised as an always-online home surveillance device.
Horror developers have, needless to say, done well out of all these multiplying darknesses. Just look at the upcoming crop of haunted spaceship games – Callisto Protocol chasing the resurrected corpse of its ancestor Dead Space, Fort Solis staking a claim on Mars while the long-awaited Routine makes moves on the Moon. I love Dead Space’s tenebrous corridors, the way Isaac Clarke’s hologram-lit torso seems to float inside them, foreshadowing his own dismemberment. But my favourite darkness of all right now belongs to Duskers, Misfit Attic’s bleak roguelike from 2014, in which you play the last human starpilot sending drones to search infested derelicts for fuel, parts and clues about the destruction of the universe.
Duskers invokes one of the oldest kinds of videogame darkness, the MS-DOS command line interface: a primordial gloom that both antedates graphical desktop interfaces and persists insidiously, tucked away in the Start menu. This is a particularly fey species of virtual murk. In a modern 3D world, the shadows been placed in the world deliberately, for utility or effect. The darkness is a presence – even a supportive one, if you’re, say, Corvo Attano eyeing up a guard position. With a command line interface, the darkness is more like uncreated void. It represents nothing, and the terrible thing about nothing is that it can be a source of anything.
Duskers thrives on that generative formlessness. There’s 3D geometry in here somewhere, each procedurally generated derelict a top-down labyrinth of debris, salvage and sealed doors, but the very input and display technologies that make this a plausible sci-fi setting also keep you at an anxious remove. What makes them convincing, as ways of articulating the world, is how much of that world they appear to hide. Your character never sets foot in the ships you crack open, save for when commandeering them, which is an off-screen process. Rather, you experience each deteriorating vessel as the alternation between zoomed-out strategic blueprints and a crackling LIDAR video feed, sometimes controlling drones with WASD and sometimes typing out commands such as “generator” or “navigate all r5”.
Your drones have different optical tech and so, paint the landscape in different shades. This helps you distinguish drones (who are given first names, a nasty twist of the knife given how often you’ll lose them) but the sense that you are switching parallel dimensions also adds to the game’s creeping solipsism. One drone reads a room as a chilly blue checkerboard, while another portrays it as a ghastly red intestine. Which version is more trustworthy? You are Lieutenant Gorman, peering at a bank of distorted helmet feeds, but there’s no Ripley in Duskers to hijack the APC and drive you over the boundary between representation and object, no way of knowing whether you’re at the mercy of a Cartesian demon like Ash, busily misinforming you about your place in this story and the nature of the threat. I take more solace from the audio, which splices instrument feedback with ambient recording yet still seems somehow unmediated and objective, even grounding: the whirr of a turret turning, the groan of an aging hull, a hungry buzzing through a wall.
Even once you acclimatise to the estranging effects of the interface, the act of exploring ships is largely about accommodating what you can’t directly know. Dusker’s drone gadgets are fragile and imperfect. Motion sensors tell you that a room has something nasty in it, but omit the entity’s exact position. Is it moving away from your drones, perhaps giving you a few seconds to sneak in and gather something? You learn to be creative in your reconnaissance: at one point, having lost the drone carrying my sensors, I resorted to opening and closing a distant door repeatedly until a passing anomaly blocked it (once the door did close, I had to guess which side was safe). In echo of sanity effects in the Amnesia games, the creatures you discover on each ship must be kept firmly in your peripheral vision: to bring them into focus is generally to sacrifice the drone in hand, plunging the video feed into static. So you fumble around the gaps these apparitions leave in reality, luring them into cleared rooms with gaze averted, or better yet, a room with a turret or airlock you can activate from afar. Again, the audio is the real comfort; those muffled bursts of turret fire are the nearest you get to a resounding “all clear”.
Aside from keeping you at an eerie distance from the playspace, the clunkiness of typing out commands adds satisfying tension when you need to act fast. All commercial writers and, I imagine, all programmers worry about typos, surplus words and WPM. Duskers upgrades those anxieties into dread. A letter awry can cost you the run. Did you tell your drones to navigate to room 1? Did you order them to navigate individually, rather than typing “all”? Congratulations, twaddler – they and you are now part of the backstory’s debris field.
Some of the game’s biggest scares are self-inflicted, as you realise in the nick of time that you’re about to type D10 rather than D19 – D10 being the door behind which you have sealed a fidgety, swirling Something. Feeling much like a sleepwalker waking at the top of a staircase, you congratulate yourself on your last-minute proof-reading. But hang on, that sealed room has an air vent in it, and oh look, one of your feeds is static all of a sudden. Best navigate the hell out of there, you feckless hack, maybe leaving a trpa behind to counter the threat and, oh dear, that dead drone was carrying all the fuel you’ve scavenged, and oh dear, you’ve typed D3 instead of D4 and now the Something is between the remaining drones and your ship.
Your adversaries – each requiring different tactics, and each the heart of a different explanation for the universe’s destruction, with lore unlocks persisting between runs – can be even more unpleasant in death. Your ship-boarding interface might be cumbersome, but its colour-coding is fairly precise: red on your motion tracker equals “stay away”, green equals “safe”, yellow (my absolute least favourite colour in Duskers) means “hmmm”. Slain enemies blend these hues obscenely, putting the game’s visual organisation under stress: dead pixel clusters of suppurating gold, crimson and purple, all of it floating against a blackness that carries on producing fresh enigmas even towards the end of the game. (Spoilers below!)
Except that there is no ending. As run blends into run you’ll hack terminals to discover logs, follow trails of evidence between certain ship classes, and slowly fill out an archive of theories about the causes of the apocalypse. But the game declines to pick a correct interpretation, its lore fraying and diminishing mockingly to a mass of bitten-off email chains and error messages.
Having trapped you behind your drone feeds, it abandons you to roam the gulf endlessly, alone in a way that makes the Ishimura feel like a birthday party. I admire the Dead Space remake’s overhauling of the 2008 game’s light and shadow effects – as with other remakes like FF7R, I am hoping for an unspoken dialogue with the original artistic choices, rather than an effort to paint over them. But I’ll be very surprised if any blockbuster 3D horror game can produce a blackness as total and remorseless as this.