By Leo Powell
This was not life, and yet it was not death;
if thou hast wit to think how I might fare
bereft of both, let fancy aid thy faith.
Hell, Dante Alighieri (Canto XXXIV)
Devil Daggers is the demon spawn of 90’s dark first person shooter Hexen, reborn as an arena shooter. A simple, intense game that will either turn you away or – drag you in.
A little while ago, there was a huge graphical renaissance in game design, the ripples of which are still being felt now: pixel art. The retro throwback to the days of 8-bit graphics was a first a delightful shock, and then an eye rolling norm for countless indie games. This initial turn was analysed by Brett Camper in his essay that spoke of La Mulana, in which he makes the point that not all “retro” aesthetics are cynical or unthinking: “Retro media… is not that which innovates upon its direct parents, but rather those ancestors which are unequivocally outdated”.
Basically, the pixel art of La Mulana wasn’t retrograde, a back-step, but a reconfiguring of the old in our time. It was a “platform remediation”, which uncovered something in the old style that could work in the now.
I think the same could be said of Devil Daggers. You all feel it when you see it: that unique, long lost atmosphere of the 16-bit FPS. The effect is a mixing of the nostalgia of the old and the unique properties of its lineage.
And it’s all about atmosphere.
Devil Daggers excels in atmosphere, a lesson in “less is more” while capturing the frenetic violence of a horror-ridden, Doom-style hellscape. The arena plays like Asteroids or Robotron used to, and as an indie game you can appreciate that it falls on simple gameplay for its crutch. The gameplay is claustrophobic and heart-pounding, and it is the atmosphere that does most of the heavy lifting to support that. The sounds are crunchy and close, and the pixelation functions to blur the death-creatures, making them more unknown and horrifying.
And honestly, the game deserves an award for its sound design. There is no music, but the sound cues are so important in the dark, that you realise just how lazy and unimportant sound design is in other games. It makes all other games boring to listen to by contrast and again, we see how indie games can teach us not to take for granted the more basic elements of game design.
Even the lack of a story, and the ambiguity of the theme, is a strength. You don’t always need to tack on a theme or a plot to make sense of the gameplay. Devil Daggers is an example of how the lack of story actually helps the game function. The atmosphere is heightened, and true horror is invoked by the unknown. Why are you there? What is your goal? The lack of music means you have even less knowledge of that the feeling should be, and it’s left up to your imagination. The pixelation, the darkness, the lack of story, and the sounds all come together in this synthesis that hammers home a single point deftly: die endlessly in an arena of death, and die better every time.
Blissfully, there are little non-diagetic elements to the game, but where present, they work. The inclusion of a global scoreboard and, amazingly, the ability to download and watch anyone’s best attempts are outstanding. It’s more “remediation”; the arcade scoreboard in our internet-enabled time is a fantastic and necessary addition. The ability to watch and analyse anyone’s game is crucial to getting better yourself.
However, the game presents me with a bit of a problem. Does the fact that I don’t want to play this game “constantly” undermine my love of it? 180 seconds feels like a lifetime, and it’s the best I can do (you might play five seconds and decide that you hate it). The fact that the top score in the world is 800 seconds should tell you something. I love Devil Daggers as an “object”, as a thing, an idea, and how it’s executed. However, I sort of want to appreciate it from afar – the value I get from it is partly through owning it, and dipping in and out. Perhaps you would say I’m a dilettante. Fickle. A poser even. But it highlights for me how complex our evaluation of games can be. I value it highly, but not because I think it’s great to play all the time. To play it constantly would indeed be hell.
Lastly, I think this game is worth our attention because it is an example of a genre of gaming largely gone unspoken, yet recently getting more and more popular. I’m not sure there is even a name for it, but it sits among games like Flywrench or Super Meat Boy as “brief but brutal” gameplay design. Perhaps this is a natural balance against the proliferation of long, story-focused games. Either way, I get the feeling that there is a fetishisation of this type of game. The coveting of the difficult and quick. If you are one of those fetishists (you know who you are), then this is the game for you.
The rest can only sit back in horror, and watch on, gripped at the edge of their seats.
Or as Dante would say:
How cold I grew, how faint with fearfulness,
ask me not, reader; I shall not waste breath
Telling what words are powerless to express
Devil Daggers is available on PC.