We love games that mess with our heads. Who can forget fighting Psycho Mantis in MGS: Twin Snakes? The science of the mindscrew is a delicate one, but when used well, it can be a powerful tool for keeping players on their toes. Our most recent game, Deadnaut, a scary blend of Space Hulk and Event Horizon, had to be as unsettling as possible. The stranger and more unusual ways we could find to terrify the player, the better.
If you haven't heard of Deadnaut before, here's a brief description from a previous article:
A big focus for Deadnaut is atmosphere. We want you to feel like the commander of a rickety spaceship who has no qualms with sending his Alien-esque crew off to die in some horror-filled derelict. Except you can make your own crew... and when you do that, well, you might feel a pang of regret for letting Jenkins be dragged away into a corner and torn apart by rabid extraterrestrial critters.
While each campaign in Deadnaut is built using procedural generation, by necessity they follow a number of templates, otherwise you'd get combinations of objectives, enemies and crew logs that make little sense.
For example, the "spectre" template concocts incorporeal foes that can pass through walls and are difficult to see, but are slow moving so you can avoid them with careful movement and character placement.
As well as varied opponents, we wanted to give each template its own flavour and to do that we added several Easter eggs and unique horrors, so each one feels special. Here are a few of them.
5. The Jump Scare
Just because we're going for psychological horror doesn't mean we can't slip in a cheap fright or two. Some scenarios in Deadnaut have you fighting Lovecraftian monsters with mental attacks and crazed, axe-wielding cultists. These creatures are often controlled by totems scattered about the ship, naively collected by the now-dead crew.
If characters stray too close to these totems, the player will start seeing visions in their viewscreen with increased frequency. It definitely catches you off-guard and unsurprisingly, players were quite, uh, taken with them.
4. Cloning: Not Even Once
Deadnaut features permadeath — if you lose your entire squad on a derelict, the game is over and your save is deleted. We didn't want the game to be oppressively punishing however, so it is possible to clone dead crew members as long as one person makes it back alive... and you can afford it.
Except you don't resurrect them, you get a clone instead.
Clones are identical to their original counterparts, but their genome will be mutated. This can cause radical changes in a character's personality and statistics, and can affect their relationships with others. You also end up with a photocopy — if you have to clone that person again, you'll get more significant mutations, until it becomes unsafe to clone again.
We took the opportunity to add some rather disturbing clone "reports" here too, as you can see on the right-hand side of the above screenshot.
3. We've Lost The Signal!
Signals play an extremely important part in Deadnaut. The ship's ever-present AI, called Watchers, will periodically jam your comms and video feed, preventing you from interacting with your crew.
While a dampened audio signal will block orders from getting though (as well as garble character chatter), if your video is affected, it'll becoming progressively more noisy, until it starts rolling erratically to the point of being unusable.
You can select a signal to boost, which will help fight the jamming, but your best option is to place firewalls to prevent Watchers from getting close to you, or moving your crew out of affected rooms.
2. The Dead Walk
Another scenario sees your crew fixing damaged power systems to prevent an infection from spreading throughout the ship. This infection gives the dead a new lease on life (OK, unlife) and you'll be forced to constantly dispatch them until you can make repairs.
Your characters are not immune to this infection — if one of them dies, you'll find yourself putting them down by any means possible. Best of all — your living crew will recognise their undead compatriot and let you know about it.
1. From Beyond The Grave
By far one of the creepiest additions to Deadnaut is in the "spectre" campaign, where enemies can move through walls and no room is safe, even if you have the entrances covered. If a crew member dies and you don't have the resources to clone them, there's a good chance you'll run into them in your next mission.
They just won't have a heartbeat. Or a body. No, if a ghost deadnaut happens to spot one of your characters, it'll follow them around and from time to time, ask questions or spout uncomfortable facts about their demise. In the screenshot here, we take the player's real name and insert it into the game, which even the most iron-willed would find unsettling.
When Less Is More
Including these goodies in Deadnaut was by far one of the most enjoyable aspects of making the game and occurred right at the end of the development cycle. We came up with quite a few ideas, some more ambitious than others, but as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, the worst thing we could have done is go overboard. Subtlety was key (the exception being #5, but it was worth it).
Too much and they'd become tiresome quickly, losing their impact. Of course, regular players will adjust in time, but hopefully by that point they've changed their pants a few times.
Or better yet, taken hands off mouse and keyboard, rubbed their eyes and wondered "What... what did I just see?".
In addition to his weekend role on Kotaku Australia, Logan Booker works as an independent developer at Screwfly Studios, along with David Kidd. Their first game was Zafehouse: Diaries released in September 2012. In November 2014, they launched a second title, Deadnaut. You can follow Logan and David on Twitter, though they won't be offended if you just check out their games instead.