Posted by jekagames on Apr 19, 2023

Hello lovely humans! Soft Chaos is back from our vacation!

Today, I want to ruminate on some of the gameplay in Dredge and its relationship to time and psychology. I also want to relate my thoughts on design in Dredge back to our current Soft Chaos Original, the as-of-yet-untitled multiplayer digital escape room project. (If you haven't played Dredge yet, I'll do my best to avoid actual discussion about the concrete details of the story, but in discussing the mechanics and themes, it's likely I've included something spoilerish. Caveat lector!)

First, let's talk briefly about escape rooms and time. Escape rooms are usually characterized by a lack of time. Typically, these games impose an hour-long time limit on play to create stressors and limitations for players. This deadline is inflexible. If you don't meet it, you just lose. Time is one of your most precious resources and the lack of it is one of your biggest stressors. (Oh no, too real! Isn't that just life under late capitalism?!)

Now, in our untitled SCO, I doubt that we'll do away with this genre convention, but after playing Dredge, I find myself wondering what lessons we can take away from how it treats time and the emotional resonances of the passage of time. 

An illustrated fishing boat at sunset, screenshotted from a game called Dredge

So, in Dredge, you play a fisherman who, after an accident, has been given a boat by the mayor of a small island town. To repay the town and improve your boat, you have to fish. Your boat is also equipped with a crane and other equipment that allows you to dredge up objects from the deep. You are warned by the villagers that strange things seem to happen on the water to fishermen who stay out past sundown and that you should always make sure to dock somewhere and rest for the night. 

My experience went a little like this. I quickly learned that life is fragile. My tiny boat dashed itself on the rocks after I accidentally drove it too close to the shore. I also learned that time passes quickly when you're fishing and dredging up artifacts from the past. With my beginner fishing equipment, engines, and hull, my driving speed and fishing speed were abysmal, and my hold could barely take in a day's catch. Every day, I barely made it home before dark and sold my meagre catch.

But the game slowly encouraged me to transgress. Firstly, I learned that certain species of fish could only be caught at night. Secondly, if I wanted to venture further than my little cove, where bigger fish and better fortunes were to be found, I needed to skirt the rules and be willing to travel at night and spend more time awake. Even before the actual nighttime mechanics kicked in in earnest, I could feel my pulse race as I raced through the night. 

An illustrated fishing boat among red clouds, screenshotted from a game called Dredge

Then a paranoid eye opened on the Day/Night wheel. The longer I stayed awake, the more the eye radiated anxiety and fear. And the more anxious it became, the more dangerous the obstacles that appeared grew, too. Strange gusts of winds crossed the water. Rocks materialized out of the night into my path. Iridescent red-green clouds vibrated toward my ship. Another tugboat screamed after me in the night, honking its horn. 

All of these dangers were very real. Or...were they?

Common to each area on the map was a wandering merchant on a pontoon. When I came to them with a damaged boat, they told me things like, "Let me guess — a rock appeared out of nowhere and you couldn't avoid it," or "You've just been standing there for a while now. Maybe you should get some rest." These dangers were no less harmful (I know, I crashed my boat), but this merchant introduced just a little element of doubt by suggesting that paranoia and exhaustion were to blame for my accidents on the water rather than supernatural creatures. 

An illustrated fishing boat surrounded by tentacles, screenshotted from a game called Dredge

That is, in addition to the actual supernatural creatures (giant fish and mutant creatures in my catch, for example) that I could encounter even when I was well-rested during the day. Despite its apparent physical manifestations, exhaustion could still very well be what actually harmed my solo fisherman, causing him to be a danger to himself. In a world where the supernatural exists, why wouldn't the manifestations of an anxious mind also be cut from the same cloth?

As my boat's movement and fishing speed, hull/hold size and ability to take damage increased, so, too, did my daring. I would sometimes stay awake all night to find what I was looking for, then furtively rest during the day until that paranoid eye closed on my dashboard. I faced the night's terrors and survived, minus a wooden plank or two and with the occasional lost fish if I banged the wrong part of the board up against something. After all, I had debts to pay beyond just my sleep debt. 

Let's recap: 

  • Dredge tells you not to go out at night and creates an initial anxiety about time, but subtly encourages you to push that boundary for profit.
  • Then, Dredge uses an exhaustion and paranoia mechanic to play with your character's perception of the world if you do push that boundary and stay out at night.
  • But, Dredge allows you to slowly equip yourself to better face the dread of the night. 
  • Dredge skirts the line between supernatural horror and psychological horror, all while making it clear that some threats are real even if they might be psychological.
  • As a result, the player's relationship to time and daylight changes throughout the game. 

So what could this mean for our Soft Chaos Original escape room game? 

Well, so far, we are, in part, playing into themes about whether something is supernatural horror or just late capitalism. Given that duration is a common limiting factor in Escape Rooms, I would love to see us think about how we could change the player's relationship to that time limit, too. Can we empower them in some way to face it? 

In some ways, maybe that's already what escape rooms in a group are all about: discovering what resources you have within your group and learning to work together to leverage them. But that isn't what most escape rooms feel like or seem to be encouraging me to feel, especially when they're going wrong. Maybe time limits in escape rooms could be made more flexible in a satisfying way that encourages people to transgress. How can we change the players' relationship to time at a more philosophical level? I'd like to think that there is room for more satisfaction in escape rooms than just managing to complete an often random-feeling set of puzzles and arbitrary-feeling answers within a time limit with a themed window-dressing stuck on. 

There must be.

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