DARQ Interview -- Exploring the Nightmarish Terrors of the Subconscious
We chat with Unfold Games about its upcoming psychological horror game, DARQ, which is poised to haunt PC, Mac, Linux, and console players early next year.
When DARQ hit the now defunct Steam Greenlight back at the end of 2015, it garnered considerable attention with an entrancing debut trailer that packed eerie visuals, a palpable discomfort, and loads of promise.
Since that December debut, DARQ has evolved considerably, as well as slowly cultivated a cult-following eagerly awaiting to experience its take on psychological horror, and step into shoes of Lloyd, a boy who finds himself within a lucid dream, exploring the dark and unpredictable corners of his subconscious.
Recently, we sat down with Game Director, Composer, and Founder of Unfold Games, Wlad Marhulets, to talk about DARQ, including its inspirations, its approach to jump-scares, its dream-world, and much more.
Tyler Fischer: How was the idea of DARQ conceived? And what made the team want to work within psychological horror?
Wlad Marhulets: It’s a bit of a story! I first ventured into game development a little over a year and half ago. Apart from being a casual gamer, I knew nothing about making games at that point. I’m a music composer and around that time I was having a blast scoring a game called A Cat’s Manor – a brilliant indie title by The Happiest Dark Corner. I got to play A Cat’s Manor in various stages of production, which got me very interested in the development process itself.
Upon completion, I decided to take a month off and learn a little more about game development. It was supposed to be a vacation, and perhaps a start of a new hobby. I downloaded Unity engine with the intention of learning a little bit of coding and going through a few tutorials I found online. I used to code websites in PHP as a kid, so rediscovering that passion and learning a new programming language, as well as 3D modeling, texturing, animation, game design was pure joy.
Within a month, I put together a prototype of a horror game, which later became known as DARQ. I had other game ideas, and quite frankly, the choice to focus on DARQ was quite arbitrary. At the time, it was just a fun hobby-thing for me and I couldn’t have imagined it would end up being an actual commercial project. I was very hesitant to show it to anybody. In the end, I did decide to send it to Steam Greenlight. DARQ was just a rough prototype at that point, but to me it was an experiment — I thought if Steam audience showed any interest at all, I would consider finishing the project.
I didn’t expect much, but to my biggest surprise, the game got to TOP 10 of the most up-voted titles and within days my mailbox was filled with hundreds of emails from players asking about the release date. With so much interest surrounding DARQ I felt it was my responsibility to focus on it full time. Since then, I’ve continued to learn about various aspects of game development and teamed up with a few talented people to help bring the project to life. I must say, DARQ took me on an adventure of a lifetime!
TF: What I personally like about psychological horror compared to more traditional horror, is that it doesn’t have to be grounded in reality as much, and really can plunge into more of the metaphysical. Psychological horror can get weird. How much does DARQ embrace the abstract? And how does it use it to create horror?
WM: Exactly – DARQ is set in a dream world, and by definition, such world is not bound by any rules. Very early in the game we establish that anything can happen and that the player shouldn’t assume anything about what the game can or cannot do. The game brakes its own rules all the time which puts the player in the state of constant uncertainty and anticipation. This creates a dream-like experience in which horror takes place primarily in the player’s mind, not on the screen.
To me, the perfect use of a jumpscare is the diner scene from Mulholland Drive – it establishes that there are no rules.
TF: The game notably takes place within a lucid dream. What has the team done to translate this into interesting gameplay mechanics and features?
WM: “I’ve had the weirdest dream last night!” — that’s usually how we begin to describe our dreams. But somehow, we never realize how weird of an experience it is while it’s happening. I wanted to recreate this phenomenon in DARQ. For example, in the early game the player discovers that gravity works very differently here — and soon enough, walking on walls and ceilings becomes normal and your mind stops questioning it.
The player also has the ability to find and use objects, as well as interact with the environment. The results of such interactions are often unexpected and unpredictable. Finding an object doesn’t mean the same thing as it means in other games. Here, an object represents an idea, or a concept. One puzzle involves finding a crowbar, which can be later used as a bridge — a much bigger version of the original object.
WM: I’ve had a number of lucid dreams in the past — they were very vivid and powerful experiences. I usually don’t have nightmares, but I find the dream world to be the perfect setting for a horror video game.
TF: Back to gameplay, it said that you will have to exercise stealth and careful planning to get by enemies. What does this look like in moment-to-moment gameplay? Is it simply a cat-and-mouse-type system?
WM: Enemy encounters don’t happen often — but when they do, the player has no chance of fighting back. Enemies are much stronger and faster, so the only way to deal with them is to figure out how to sneak by. Each enemy requires a different approach — being very quiet, recognizing their breathing patters, using the environment to find cover, or solving a particular puzzle.
TF: The game’s environments look great and have an almost elegant design to them, but the way the elongated character looks and just the way he plods through the environments, makes the whole process feel eerie. You feel invited to explore, but once you start that invitation slowly dissipates. Is this by design?
WM: Exactly. I wanted to avoid setting the game in typical dirt and blood soaked locations (hospital, cemetery, mansion, asylum, orphanage). There are games that have done it successfully, but I believe putting the player in an unfamiliar setting is much more effective in creating a tense atmosphere, especially in a game that constantly challenges player’s expectations and assumptions.
Elegance is the key word in DARQ‘s art direction — it serves as a means of seduction, or as you said, an invitation for the player to step in and develop an emotional connection with the experience as they progress. Ideally, I want the players to like being there, even though being there could mean facing your fears. For example, one of my favorite locations in the game is a concert hall. For most players it would be a completely new experience to explore the backstage area, the wardrobe, mask and props room, the dressing rooms, etc.
TF: It has been said that DARQ contains numerous jump scares, which are great for Let’s Play videos and streaming, but can be divisive if they are overdone or earned cheaply. Can you elaborate on how the jumpscares are being incorporated into the game in a meaningful way?
WM: Jump scares in DARQ serve one purpose: they help establish the idea that anything can happen at any time. This isn’t a game that is all about jumpscares — quite the contrary, jumpscares rarely occur in DARQ and I’m very careful about how often and in what way they’re being used. I’m more interested in tension and anticipation that occurs in between jumpscares – once the player knows that a jumpscare could happen, they are more likely to stay on the edge of their seats for a very long time. To me, the perfect use of a jumpscare is the diner scene from Mulholland Drive –– it establishes that there are no rules. It adds to a very suspenseful atmosphere throughout the entire movie, even though the jumpscare itself takes place in the least scary environment. I take much inspiration from this approach.
The game brakes its own rules all the time which puts the player in the state of constant uncertainty and anticipation.
TF: Not only are you the Game Director and a designer on DARQ, you’re are also its music composer. You recently finished scoring Ambition, and also have worked on films such as The Giver and November Man. How different is composing music for a video game compared to a film?
WM: In film, every piece of music is written specifically to a given scene to help tell the story, enhance the emotion and atmosphere of the scene. Once the music is written and recorded, it will be forever experienced the exact same way, along with the movie. It’s quite different in games, since what happens in the game largely depends on the player. No playthrough is the same, therefore music needs to constantly adjust itself and transition from one section to another in a seamless way.
All those transition and loop points need to be well thought-through in advance. Both have their own technical and artistic challenges, and I enjoy them equally. Needless to say, music will play a very important role in DARQ – I’m most excited to be writing the score for it. The score will be recorded with a live orchestra in Budapest and released separately. The score mixer, Adam Schmidt, has worked (among others) on Inception, so it’s a perfect fit for the project.
TF: How heavy does the narrative come? Is it more of an interpretational experience, or is the story perspicuous?
WM: The whole story in DARQ is told without words. It’s a simple story with some unexpected twists, told through visual means and the gameplay itself.
TF: What kind of game length are we talking? Beyond the multiple endings, does DARQ contain any mechanics that encourage multiple playthroughs?
WM: This is still something I’m in the process of discovering. DARQ is primarily a puzzle game, so the length can vary significantly from player to player. I’m expecting an average playthrough to take around 4-5 hours. One of the optional game objectives is collection of 10 dream journal pages scattered around the dream world. They are hidden in secret locations that are very hard to reach. It’s supposed to be a real challenge to find all 10 – it’s very likely to finish the game without ever finding one. Collecting all 10 will unlock some special features.
TF: DARQ at the moment has only been announced for PC, Mac, and Linux. Should PS4, Xbox One, or Nintendo Switch owners expect the title to hit any of their platforms?
WM: At the moment, PC release is our priority. Mac and Linux, as well as console ports are likely to follow some time within a year after the initial PC release.
TF: Fill in the blank: if someone likes [blank], [blank], [blank], they might like DARQ?
WM: I would draw more references to cinema than video games: The Shining (in terms of pace and building tension), The Pan’s Labyrinth (as a perfect example of how beauty and horror can co-exist in a dream-like world), as well as films that explore lucid dreaming, such as Waking Life and Inception. When it comes to video games, Neverending Nightmares, Inside, and Little Nightmares come to mind, although gameplay-wise, DARQ is a very different game.
DARQ is in development for PC, Mac, and Linux. As mentioned above, console ports are likely to follow within a year after the initial release, which is currently slated for sometime during Q1 2018.