Exclusive Interview: DUSK Developer David Szymanski Talks Horror And Game Design

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Recently I had the chance to chat with DUSK developer David Szymanski about… well, DUSK mostly. After such a successful launch, I was eager to hear how he was taking it all, and to ask him about his next steps. We also discussed some schlocky, underrated horror films, the dangers of working alone, and the importance of good level design.

As we begin our conversation, David tells me he’s got a migraine and apologizes if he’s “slow.” A half an hour and pages of transcript later, I fear to know what David’s “fast” is like. Warm and patient, he’s a very easy conversation partner – and the antithesis of DUSK’s oppressive (and sometimes terrifying) campaign. I first ask him how he’s been dealing with the critical success of DUSK.

“Critically speaking, it’s kind of overwhelming to the point of where you just get jaded to it kind of – or not really jaded so much as your brain just stops processing it. Every review is like, ‘This game’s amazing,’ and after a while, you don’t really register the magnitude of everyone liking it. It’s a very weird feeling.” As David speaks, I wonder to myself how many other indie developers have felt similarly in the wake of such a successful release. It’s become increasingly rare that a niche indie title like DUSK receives so much love from press and fans, but David has his theories.

He begins with the obvious. “Dave is a fantastic salesman,” he explains of New Blood Interactive co-founder and CEO Dave Oshry, whose less-than-orthodox Twitter campaigns and ridiculous domain name purchases (www.notfortnite.com) put plenty of eyes on DUSK through the power of absurdist comedy. He calls the power of being able to sell things “underappreciated,” and endearingly explains that Dave was constantly thinking of new ways to market the game.

“The game resonates with people… You need someone, or a collection of someones, who are pushing that game out there and getting people to look at,” he continues. “And also there’s luck. It happened to hit at the right time where people were hungry for that kind of game… Our community is awesome, I think a lot of the sales or impressions we get were pretty much word of mouth.” He’s sure to emphasize that there were a lot of factors (read: people) who helped DUSK become the indie behemoth it is today. “It feels more like a collaborative success… It’s a thing all of us can be proud of.”

David expresses sincere gratitude toward the entire New Blood staff throughout our interview, and tells me working with them gave him the direction he needed to mold his own ideas into something greater.

“I know what DUSK would have turned out to be if I had just been working on it… When New Blood got involved, that all changed significantly. And there were a lot of situations where Dave or other people would suggest stuff and I’d be like ‘I don’t want to do that, I don’t think that’s important.’ But it ended up being really good and really strengthening the game. And that’s an advantage of working in that sort of setting where there are other people giving their input or working on the thing.”

Having primarily worked on his own until now, David understands the traps one can fall into working by themselves. Immersing yourself in your own work, simply having your eyes on it for too long, can be maddening.

“Now you have a bunch more eyeballs on it and if you have a thing you’re doing that maybe makes sense to you but is not going to make sense to any other human being on the face of the earth, they’re gonna tell you that. As important as it is for indie games to have that personal creator’s hand behind them, it’s also important for them to exist in the reality where this is a product that someone is gonna pay money for and is going to want to get something out of.”

David’s early career in game development saw a focus on atmospheric horror games like Fingerbones and The Music Machine. He explains why he’s strayed to more gameplay-focused titles.

”I had gotten kind of burnt out on doing those, and I managed to mentally get myself to this point where I was angry at my own audience for not doing what I wanted them to do or not really giving the games the attention I wanted.” He says, for the future, he wants to move away from “walking sims,” and while he respects the genre he’s ready to take lessons he’s learned from DUSK in a new direction.

On this note, I ask about possible plans for his next project. Would it be another FPS, or something else entirely?  

“I’m not gonna be doing another retro FPS, at least for a little bit.” He tells me he’s a big fan of immersive sims and survival horror, and that his next project might go in “one or both of those directions.”

“I have missed horror – like, pure horror… I’m doing a little prototype, and I have no idea what it’s gonna become. I show screenshots to people and they’re like, ‘So, what game is this? Who are you and what are you doing?’ and I’m like, I have no idea, I just made a hammer that you swing and put it outside in a concrete place and then we’ll see if that turns into anything.”

Knowing this project has likely either emboldened or inspired countless others to make their own retro-inspired shooters (just take a look at this Reddit post), David offers some advice.

“Think about the level design, think about interconnecting interesting spaces, and think about varying up your encounters just with where your enemies are placed or what environments they’re placed in,” he explains. David goes on to state that it seems like many devs making similar games focus too much on the “combat loop:” trying to emulate the enemy-heavy and arcadey feel of older games without giving as much thought to the crucial element of stage design.

“That was one of the big focuses from the beginning, I’m like – I want to make this level design as authentic and true to games like DOOM as I can.” We talk about some other recent games that have borrowed similar philosophies: Amid Evil (which New Blood is also publishing), Ion Maiden, and Project Warlock, and David muses that the retro FPS genre is experiencing a “mini-Renaissance.” The emphasis on well-designed levels, old or new, is what sets games like these apart. It’s their lasting impression that allows us to remember the little secrets, the shortcuts, and the ambushes as we make our way through for the dozenth time, even years later.

DUSK

DUSK is set to release on consoles this year, including Nintendo Switch. I’m worried about how a fast-paced FPS would feel on a controller. Regarding initial controller support, David admits that it hasn’t been at the forefront of his mind.

“So, weirdly, I put very little thought into that. When we did controller support for DUSK – it does have controller support on PC right now – [it] was just sort of thrown in. We didn’t put that much thought into like, ‘Do we need to adjust things about DUSK to make this work?’ It was just sort of like, yup, you can control him on a controller, cool, that’s good. And it ended up working pretty fine.” He goes on to assure me that the console versions of the game will get an additional tune-up to make them feel as good as possible on release.

I ask if they’re planning on incorporating gyro aiming for the Switch release, similar to DOOM’s later implementation.

“We’re planning on it. We haven’t tackled it quite yet and in game development, there’s always that possibility where you start doing something and it just is not going to work. But we’re planning on having gyro aiming because a lot of people want that.”

I knew I had to ask about Cart Dog: probably the most bizarre enemy in an already bizarre game. Cart Dog is a limbless hound, suspended by a braided rope to a rectangular wooden frame with wheels, allowing it to charge at the player at hilariously high speeds. David offers some insight as to how he worked on enemy designs.

“I hate to be that guy, but I kinda just pulled them from my head. Like the Cart Dog – I don’t even remember if there was any particular inspiration for Cart Dog, it was just this concept I had that I thought was equal parts funny and horrifying, which is perfect for DUSK because that’s entirely what DUSK is: it’s just smashing together the idea of things being charming and funny and kind of adorable and things being disturbing and gritty and dark, like any good retro FPS does. Cart Dog is just the epitome of that.”

For good measure, I ask David what his favorite horror film is.

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974… It has one of the most tangibly grimy, sweaty, disgusting atmospheres and looks of any movie,” David replies, perhaps unsurprisingly. “You can feel how gross and disgusting that whole house is.” David’s penchant for the grime of the Texan farmstead is evident from the very first level in DUSK, which sees the player enter a dilapidated farmhouse from the cellar; viscera and skulls decorate the kitchen, and bizarre, surrealist portraits frame the walls. The whole first episode’s inspiration suddenly comes into focus.

We digress a little, and David tells me he’s a big fan of “schlocky” found-footage films like Cropsey (the Discord handle I used during our call). We enthusiastically exchange some recommendations, and he tells me about a terrible-but-in-a-good-way movie called Grave Encounters. As we wrap things up, I tell David to check out Lake Mungo if he gets the chance – secretly hoping a small part of it will find its way into whatever his next project might be.

You can pick up DUSK at any of the following domains: www.notfortnite.comwaste.money, drinkmore.vodka

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