An innovative psychological horror game from Unfold Games, DARQ, is a mind-bending title. Telling the tale of a boy that becomes self-aware while dreaming, DARQ thrusts players into a world almost devoid of light and is ever present with tension. Whereas other horror games occasionally follow a genre template, DARQ is instead pushing forward with daring new concepts and presentation.
DARQ has made an undeniable impression on those who have seen the debut trailer. With such striking presentation, it may be shocking to learn that DARQ is the debut title from Unfold Games. More specifically, it marks the first time DARQ Producer/Art Director Wlad Marhulets has developed a video game.
Speaking with Two Left Sticks, Wlad discussed the origins of DARQ saying, “Making and playing video games has been a hobby of mine since I was a kid. I had many hobbies, in fact. Apart from music, I’ve always been interested in drawing, painting, sound design, writing, storytelling – just about anything that has to do with art.”
Wlad continued by saying, “Making a video game like DARQ had been on my mind for a long time. I had never got a chance to act upon this dream because I felt that I simply wasn’t good enough at programming. Back in 2015, I got to write music for a very special video game called A Cat’s Manor, developed by Happiest Dark Corner. The game is absolutely stunning, dark, and beautiful. When I saw the game for the first time I was more than impressed and inspired. It encouraged me to take my first steps towards developing DARQ.”
Inspired by filmmakers such as Guillermo Del Toro, it’s safe to say that Unfold Games are reaching an amazing level of visual quality. That said, the question still remains of what players can ultimately expect from this lucid nightmare.
Besides the stunning art direction, DARQ is exploring new gameplay mechanics. While being a side-scroller, a level of immediate depth is provided through the ever twisting, and sometimes evolving, environments that Lloyd, the protagonist, explores. Unfold Games is focused on experimenting with design elements to provide an experience unlike any other. The team accomplishes this through the eerie dream world that players need to both navigate and survive.
“Since the beginning, DARQ has been an experiment. I had no interest in making another FPS or platformer,” said Wlad. On the dream world, Wlad said, “A dream world seemed to be the perfect setting that would allow me to experiment, and hopefully get away with some bold gameplay ideas.” One such bold idea of Wlad’s is the emphasis on sound. Besides a focus on direct sound design, DARQ will force players to explore environments solely using sound as they navigate in pure darkness.
This emphasis on sound stemmed from Wlad’s background as a composer for film and TV. “As a professional musician, I often wondered what it would be like to give the sound an important role in games,” said Wlad. “In DARQ, switching off the flashlight is sometimes the only way to sneak by monsters. When approaching a monster in complete darkness, the player has to carefully listen to the sound of monster’s breathing. Faster breathing indicates that the monster can hear you, which is a sign for the player to slow down or stop.”
A rather daring concept, Wlad is aware that these sound-centric sections will require a balancing act of design. “This game mechanic creates an enormous amount of tension because the player is expecting to be discovered at any second. The lack of visuals only helps build the intensity of such moments.”
Even for Wlad and his fellow designers when it came to testing the game things got scary for them. “Avoiding monsters in complete darkness turned out to be one of the scariest things I had to do when testing the game,” Wlad said.
Another central element of DARQ is how the dream world behaves unlike reality. Familiar elements will exist in the world, but the regular laws of physics simply don’t apply. Wlad discussed abilities in DARQ by saying, “Players will learn how to walk on walls, ceilings, and subsequently, fly. It was important to me to make the game feel like a dream. A dream world is governed by its own rules, where laws of physics are just an illusion.”
Rather than have pre-scripted levels, Unfold Games was intent on fully capturing the randomness of a dream-like world. “It just felt wrong to have an entirely scripted game set in an ever-changing dream world,” said Wlad. “The idea doesn’t necessarily have to do with completely randomizing levels, but rather introducing small changes to the environment every time the player looks away. When you are in a lucid dream, try to check the time twice. Every time you look at the watch, you will see a different time.”
A DISTINCT STRUCTURE
The story of DARQ is something that Wlad has focused much time on crafting and subsequently implementing. Besides the gripping gameplay and imaginative visuals, the narrative of DARQ will also be an element to hook players in. “Coming from the film world, storytelling is very important to me. Before writing a line of code, I took the time to write a story that felt satisfying,” Wlad said about his approach.
“The story of DARQ holds many surprises. I can’t really say much about it other than I’m hoping it would be one of the strongest components of the game. What I can say, however, is that DARQ is not linear and has multiple endings. These depend on the decisions a player makes along the way. Multiple playthroughs would allow the player to understand the story in more depth.”
Wlad’s background in music composition carried over to how he crafted DARQ. Taking a similar path to crafting melodies in music, DARQ was designed in an encompassing way. “I tend to plan the structure of my music before writing a single note, and I took the same approach with DARQ. I carefully planned the overall shape of the story with its twists and climaxes ahead of time, along with other details: color palette, architectural style, approach to lighting and camera work. The process is not much different from writing a concerto or a symphony. It is more complex, though, because more layers are involved.”
Wlad and his team are aware of what to do and not do when crafting the horror experience of DARQ. “Our recent teaser trailer might suggest otherwise, but in fact, there won’t be many jump scares in the game.”
“Some are necessary, however, to establish that anything can happen at any time, which puts players in the state of fear and constant anticipation. There will be little-to-no violence/blood in the game. DARQ relies on atmosphere, slow build, and Shining-like pacing,” Wlad said of the horror design.
Currently set for release in 2017 for STEAM, DARQ is off to a promising start. DARQ’s mysterious story and unique gameplay could provide the next Limbo in how critics and players receive it. It’s rare to see such a compelling game trying something new in horror, and it seems like Unfold Games could be on the track to greatness with DARQ.