From Depths Unknown - Talking and Playing Dredge with Black Salt Games
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 11:03pm 27/02/23 | Comments
We've taken Dredge for a hands-on test ride and also took some time to chat to the NZ team behind the surprise package, Black Salt Games. Read on for everything we dredged up...
“How long has the game been in development?” I ask curiously but with a tenacious, all-knowing stare.
“It's basically exactly two years, maybe to the day,” he says to me, smiling. Wickedly, mind. But warm, nonetheless. “In a couple of days from now I think we’d officially announce it on Twitter; we posted a logo and nothing else, so it's pretty much two years.”
Two years to the day… Cosmic? Perhaps. Arcane? Maybe. Eldritch? Of course… but then the abhorrent, mutated bones of this beast of a game wouldn’t mean a thing if that putrid Old Blood hadn’t somehow seeped into the working fingertips of everyone at Black Salt Games. A studio who’s impressed us with something so rarely seen in preview form for any sort of game, least of which one of this magnitude.
And that’s polish.
“I guess with regards to polish and bug freeness, there's a few factors,” says an elated Joel Mason from Black Salt Games at our compliment. “One is Nadia (Thorne), who is our producer and also QA, who did an amazing job in testing everything over the years and finding a whole bunch of things that we've fixed. And then, also, we are reasonably experienced game developers and our processes for planning these things; we've honed that pretty well over the last decade. So we are used to delivering pretty solid products by now and just making sure that we're on schedule and on track to have periods of time at the end of development to fix bugs and make sure that it is all stable, building that into our schedule.”
We are talking, of course, about Dredge. Described oh-so-cleverly not as a “Lovecraftian fishing adventure” title, but rather an “Eldritch horror fishing adventure”, which might sound like splitting hairs, or tentacles, but the team emphatically stands behind the game not being all Lovecraftian in its tropes and setup. Instead preferring to lean more on the obscurity of the “Eldritch” descriptor.
"There’s a very clear sense that you’re gonna find a “H.P. waz here!” carving or tag somewhere in the world, but at the same time there is a definite sense that Dredge is very much its own thing...”
“I wouldn't say, necessarily, that we're all Lovecraft fans,” Mason says, who also served as the game’s key writer. “I think it's more [that] we like the atmospheric horror games because they have such a cool vibe, but also they're often too scary for us. So we wanted to make that vibe without the huge jump scares or anything.”
It’s interesting because playing through the game, there’s a very clear sense that you’re gonna find a “H.P. waz here!” carving or tag somewhere in the world, but at the same time there is a definite sense that Dredge is very much its own thing. The combination of exploration and collection -- the game’s two key pillars -- is split on an even keel that shouldn’t be, but is. And when you're not recalling item management from Resident Evil 4 or paying memory service to classic text-based adventure games, you're riding the high seas in a lustrous lo-fi game-world that is larger than you might at first think.
Dredge is at all times a surprising game that rolls in on you, like an unexpected fog with nefarious intent.
“We had the 3D, the game that's inspired by how it looked from the prototype because it worked so well,” artist Alex Richie explains. “We found out that we had this low poly, stylised cartoony style, and then it contrasted so well with the horror atmosphere. It was unexpected and it seemed to work really well with our play testers. So we just kept it. I think the contrast was really important. It was really good for the art style, and there's a lot of, I guess, my own personal influence in the 2D art as well -- the abstract nature of it. I like to try and find that line somewhere where it's readable, but [still] abstract and there's enough room for you to make up details in the corners of the art and whatnot, which seem to fit well with the mysterious atmosphere. I guess it was a bit of trial and error in my own personal taste and trying to keep that contrast there.
"I was trying to guide it towards where I wanted it to go. Because I wanted it to be stylised and compliment the low poly; it's [distinct] look...”
”It was because the look [of the game], I guess… it evolved a little bit, but then it [also] settled early on,” he continues. “There was a phase early on in development where I was just experimenting and trying things out a lot. I don't know how long it was, months or something of just tweaking shaders and doing some textures on things to get the look that I wanted. And there was a bit of exploration in there, but I was trying to guide it towards where I wanted it to go. Because I wanted it to be stylised and compliment the low poly; it's [distinct] look, and there's hard edges everywhere in our art style, which I think is different for a cartoony-looking game where they usually don't do that, but it suits the Lovecraftian look.
“So I had a vague idea of where I wanted to go, and I think it started clicking when I was doing the sky shader and I got the clouds to… because clouds are soft and fluffy things, I got the clouds to look neat and how I imagined they would look because they're geometric [in our world]. They're very angular and harsh. And once I had that, I was, like, "yes! This is the clouds! I'm happy with these". And then the next step was doing a 2D portrait [and] when I got the fishmonger's portrait done, those two acted as anchor points where I was, like, "I'm happy with these bits. Now I want the rest of it to match them”."
There’s a lot of incidental design in Dredge, a layered experience that sort of had its many moving parts fall into place, which is not at all unlike the dredging mini-game you play when scouring the sea floor or old ships for loot, treasure and resources. The game is a stunning representation of its standalone world -- “low poly” as Alex states, but then still intricate and thoughtful. I shared a memory with the team where I literally jumped at my own shadow as the game’s sun set and cast an elongated silhouette of my boat -- now a magnificent fishing vessel almost all the way upgraded and capable of reeling in the most abhorrent of creatures from the deep (more on this shortly). The shadow cast was moving; creeping, ever-so-slowly because the day-night cycle of the game is actually quite quick and I thought -- just for a moment -- that some new dread had followed me and was seeking to terminate my adventure then and there.
They laughed, of course, but even Joel admits the same thing has happened to him.
"Or the wavering madness that sits, perched above the waves, somehow threatening to not only steer you off course, but send you mad with fright...”
There’s a ubiquitous unease that permeates even the daylight in Dredge, but it’s at night the game comes alive and presents as a true horror experience. And not only in its atmosphere, but also in its genuinely horrific impediments -- such as the boat with its beacon-like light that comes toward you, like a ship in a storm, only to be revealed instead as a giant angler fish hell bent on making you another shipwrecked scar upon the world. Or the wavering madness that sits, perched above the waves, somehow threatening to not only steer you off course, but send you mad with fright.
The game-world is full of vagaries like this that help the player fill in the blanks -- a more apt statement than it might read right now, but certainly Dredge allows you to dredge up your own understanding, or interpretation, of its world.
It is exceptionally written and painterly in its presentation. From the calm blue of the Little and Greater Marrows to the murky shallows of the Twisted Strand, or the Gale Cliffs, stalked and hunted by a leviathan of the deep, Dredge’s many unique biomes serve up a kind of history waiting to be unravelled. As if the world itself has been waiting for you to crash upon its craggy rocks and go about your entirely-expected noseying. As if every letter in a bottle, or every item recovered from a wreck has been waiting, specifically, for you.
It’s a measured game in this way and in how it unfurls its mysteries. And it’s well balanced, too. You have a persistent world map with some aspects that reset (such as shipwrecks for resource gathering), but largely the game-world as you discover it is a story unto itself and firmly positioned. I won’t spoil how any of this works because there is a genuine sense of value in what you uncover and how you interpret it, but Dredge just gets you from that first pull of the line, that first fish you land and that first upgrade you manage to purchase and apply.
"It just made a lot of sense that everything revolved around that spatial inventory...”
“Yeah, so I think we all really like games with a really tight gameplay loop that have upgrade systems as well,” Mason says enthusiastically. “So I think it was quite easy for us to focus on that loop and then eventually add things like boat upgrades and that sort of thing. And it also ties into that central inventory system that in the original prototype didn't exist. But then I think Alex suggested that we should add it and we did, and it just made a lot of sense that everything revolved around that spatial inventory.”
I mentioned Resident Evil 4 earlier, but the team doesn’t wholly acknowledge that game as being the genesis for the spatial management system -- which I might add is a central part to proceedings. In fact, even as a horror game they’re not remotely fully across Mikami’s original masterpiece nor are they that into horror games in general. As equally stated earlier, a lot of this stuff just… fell into place.
“I have not played it [Resident Evil 4],” Alex says, chiming in on our name-dropping. “I've watched a lot of these horror games [but] I'm not good at playing horror games. I prefer the horror levels in non horror games, but probably subconsciously, I knew about the inventory [stuff], but I've seen spatial inventories in so many games at this point that it was just a concept [that worked] and I don't know that it really came from, anyway. It is quite funny that the remake of Resident Evil 4 comes out the week before Dredge comes out though.”
Game development can be a funny thing. Disparate ideas tend to churn new or old concepts, or even aspects of other games no one really knew would make it into a final product, into moving parts of the new whole. But at the end of the day it all just needs to fit, and every aspect of Dredge does that in crab pot crab loads, to borrow some fishing vernacular…
"From the mutated versions of real-world fish you’ll be plunging the depths for, to delivering these monstrosities amongst the game’s unique and mysterious denizens...”
Oh right, and just on that part of the game -- fishing. (Which also happens to be really important.) It is an abhorrent and fully luring hook with Dredge. From the mutated versions of real-world fish you’ll be plunging the depths for, to delivering these monstrosities amongst the game’s unique and mysterious denizens, the game’s (Eldritch) fishing aspect will bite you. The least of which is it tapping into gamer OCD just to ‘Catch ‘Em All’, so to speak (there is an encyclopaedia you can fill out -- and it’s huge).
“That was a lot of fun, getting to name them and writing the descriptions,” Mason says of the creation process for making the mutated scalies that will be taking up all the room on your boat’s deck. “I could be as edgy as I want, just coming up with the craziest adjectives to describe these messed up fish. But as you say, it's finding ways to just add layers and twists on things. When we started out, we left things so deliberately vague for the player, withholding lots of information, and that made it really easy for us to add those extra layers and extra links in the world, which eventually fleshed it out quite a lot.”
It’s hard to put a full stop on exactly what Dredge is after more than a handful of hours with it, but I’ll do my best -- Dredge is a game about discovery and clout. You need your wits about you to take on the seas at night, but more importantly it is a game that celebrates the little details. That fills the air with a mood and tone all its own. Its dynamic weather system alone is a selling point, if we wanted to pick and pull and choose its best bits, but overall Dredge simply puts together a full package; an experience that is all mysterious and telling, but without really saying anything at all. I will share this little message in a bottle though -- you won’t play another game like it this year.
Dredge is out for PC and consoles this coming March 30.