What It’s Like to Play is a column that describes how videogames are played, to an audience that doesn’t necessarily play a lot of such games. It is inspired by the series of the same name that ran on CultureRamp in late 2012, and its basic premise is explained by L. Rhodes here. The name is used with permission.
Devil Daggers is a swirling, confusing, chaotic mess of a game; a perpetual motion machine composed of neon lights and the covers of metal albums. Devil Daggers is a clankety tumble dryer full of gargoyles and paintballs that is fueled by the souls of the damned. Devil Daggers is perfect, but also useless. Devil Daggers is pure videogame, injected directly into your ears and eyeballs via a rusty hypodermic found in a ditch behind a middle school. Devil Daggers is pretty fucking sick, dude.
Devil Daggers is one of the least legible videogames I’ve ever played, which makes it a perfect candidate for a WILTP article.
Devil Daggers attempts to distill the fabled First Person Shooter (FPS) genre down into its fundamental essentials, both in terms of gameplay and style. It’s “first person,” which means that what is displayed on the screen is meant to represent what would be seen from the viewpoint of the player’s avatar in-game. It’s a “shooter,” because the main action the player can take in order to interact with the game is pressing a button to fire projectiles at enemies.
Devil Daggers is currently only playable on personal computers, which means it is intended to be controlled by a keyboard-and-mouse setup — moving the mouse changes the direction in which the avatar is facing, pressing the WASD keys causes the avatar to move around through the space, pressing the spacebar causes the avatar to jump, and left-clicking the mouse causes the avatar to fire a projectile. (These are the standard FPS controls that have remained mostly static for some 20 years.)
Many games try to tell a story, or at least provide some form of narrative backdrop for the events unfolding on-screen. Devil Daggers has no time for that nonsense.
The first time you boot up Devil Daggers, and click “Play,” you are confronted with a black, empty space, populated only by a single, slowly spinning dagger, point down, a few feet ahead of you, bathed in a small circle of light. There is a low hum in the background. The only part of your body you can see is a single hand, outstretched in front of you. You move forward, and once you get close enough to the spinning dagger, there is a sharp noise like a cymbal or a chime, and then you are transported somewhere else. Looking around, you see you are on a large, circular stone platform, with only inky blackness in the distance. There is an ominous, ubiquitous humming sound in the air, coming from no obvious source. A few seconds in, there’s a strange sound like something growling or hissing, and a tall, squidlike obelisk covered in strange markings appears somewhere near you. It spits out a gaggle of ten or twelve huge, floating skulls, which careen wildly around before beginning to chase you. Maybe you kill a few of them, maybe you don’t. Since this is the first time you have played the game, you probably die very quickly. One touch from one of the skulls produces a horrible shriek, and the game is over.
Then you are sent to a score screen, which will helpfully tell you that you have survived for maybe nine seconds, and will inform you that the best players in the world have survived for literally one-hundred times that. At this point, you either quit playing Devil Daggers forever, or you click the Retry button, and find yourself once more in the center of a platform, about to be surrounded by grinning skulls out for blood.
That little vignette with the dagger only happens when you click the “play” button from the opening menu — when you click Retry you are transported directly to the Stygian hellscape that comprises the majority of the game. This means that you usually only encounter that vignette the first time you play the game in a given sitting. This gives it a ritualized air — a way of centering yourself before moving into the shoot-run-die-repeat rhythm that is a session of Devil Daggers — a required deep breath before diving headfirst into the game’s grinning, diabolical monsters and distorted screams.
You’re gonna die a lot, but each time, you’ll learn a little bit more about the way the game is played. You’ll learn that if you hold the left mouse button down, you fire a stream of reddish, magical daggers out of your hand. If you just click it, you fire a shotgun-style blast of daggers, doing more damage in a short range but dissipating at distance. You learn that if you time a jump for the moment you hit the ground after a previous jump, you jump further and faster (this is called “strafe-jumping” or “bunny hopping”). You learn that if you fire that shotgun-blast right at the ground as you jump, you will be flung through the air.
You’ll learn that you can shoot some of the enemies to death easily, but that you have to shoot others in a weak point, a little red gem that detaches after suffering enough damage. You’ll learn that those little red gems inexorably move towards you, and that when one reaches you, you hear a strange, warm sound. Gather enough, and the screen flashes and slows down for a few seconds — when that’s over, you fire more daggers every time you click or hold the mouse button, doing more damage more quickly. You learn that those red gems stop moving towards you while you’re firing daggers, or are actively repulsed every time you fire the shotgun blast. You’ll need to stop firing sometimes to make sure that you collect enough gems. You will learn all of these things in tiny bursts. At first, you’re happy to survive for 20 seconds. Then 30. Then 40, until eventually you can make it up to around a minute, which seems to be where most people run into a wall.
I mentioned that Devil Daggers is about distilling the FPS down to its core, and that informs its aesthetic, too. The most important FPS of all time is DOOM, Id Software’s game 1993 game about shooting demons on Mars. It’s not the first FPS, but it codified all of the tropes and foundational grammar of the genre. Devil Daggers calls back to DOOM’s weird, blocky, low-textured graphics with every fiber of its being. The monsters and effects are deliberately rendered with lower texture resolution, such that things appear scratchy, blocky, hard to look at. The enemies appear to be made out of bone and consist of vast skulls with spider-legs, flying centipedes like vast spinal columns, skulls with ram horns that wheeze and huff as they bear down on you. There are a lot of skulls.
This callback to the very foundations of the FPS genre permeates the entire game. FPSs have changed a lot in the 25 years since Wolfenstein 3D. The Borderlands and Call of Duties of the world owe their existence to DOOM, but they don’t play very much like it. By deliberately eschewing the trappings of the modern FPS (military realism, cinematic stories, graphical fidelity), Devil Daggers hearkens back to something more foundational, something almost primal, given that many of us first played DOOM or its ilk when we were younger and more malleable. Devil Daggers, at its core, is simple: shoot the monsters before they touch you.
For a $5 game that usually lasts only a few minutes at a time, there’s a lot going on in Devil Daggers, so I haven’t talked yet about arguably the most important thing in the game: the sound. Devil Daggers is one of the most aurally complex games I’ve played in a long time, and this serves both an aesthetic and a mechanical purpose. Each of the different enemies makes a different sound — horned skulls wheeze, spider-skulls make little clickety-clack sounds, the enormous black flying centipedes let out a horrible howl when they first rise from the ground. Most importantly, the spider-skulls produce this grinding whine whenever they draw the red crystals towards themselves. All of these sounds are overwhelming at first, and contribute to the feeling that you’re trapped in a very small box with the entire population of Dante’s Inferno.
But the sounds are also essential for proper navigation. Many FPS games feature a “radar” screen, a little circle in the corner of the screen that shows where enemies are relative to your player. This allows the player to keep track of enemies who are behind them even if they can’t see the enemies. Devil Daggers has no such radar screen, which means that if any enemy is behind you, there are no visual cues to tell you this. Thus, because each enemy makes a distinctive sound, the soundscape becomes your radar screen. If you hear a clickety-clacking sound behind you and to the right, you know there’s a spider-skull — when the wheezing gets louder and closer behind you, you know one of the horned skulls is almost upon you.
Taken together, the visuals and audio cues in Devil Daggers create an overwhelming synesthetic mess. Much of learning to play Devil Daggers consists in learning how to make sense of this cacophany of flashing colors and creaking screams. This makes the occasional moments of silence all the more powerful. If you successfully clear the enemies quickly enough, you may find yourself standing again in an empty, nearly silent space for a few seconds, with nothing to do and no enemies to harm. These moments are profoundly disorienting.
Now, I say you figure out the game’s rules out as you go, but probably you pick up half of this stuff, and then either give up or get hooked such that you start watching YouTube videos or reading what little wiki-stuff there is out there. That’s when you realize how bad you are at this game. Most players seem to make it for only 60 seconds. Currently, I am the 1973rd best player on the leaderboard, and my record is 294.3056 seconds. The best player in the world, as of this writing, has survived for 1000.1998 seconds, or almost 17 minutes. Thus, though I’m in the top 2% of Devil Daggers players, I am approximately a million years away from the top of this game.
Through practice, watching better players, and reading information, you start to understand the patterns and tactics inherent in the game. Devil Daggers is actually quite scripted — although enemies do not always appear in the same location, they always appear in the same order and at the same time. One of the squidpillar things appears at 14 seconds every single time, for instance. So you start to memorize the order in which you need to kill enemies, and start to anticipate the game’s spikes in difficulty. You learn to pretty much always kill the skull-spiders first, so they don’t steal your gems away.
Devil Daggers has a small but devoted following online, such that the wikis and video walkthrough are actually kind of scarce, and sparse where they do exist. For me, at least, this makes the game even more interesting — the small size of its community makes it feel like a secret society. Certain signs and shibboleths mark those of us who have put time into Devil Daggers, and separate us from the rest.
Devil Daggers is bananas, and I can’t recommend it enough, if, that is, you have a certain amount of patience and some familiarity with the mechanics of first person shooters. It’s pretty hard to imagine somebody enjoying Devil Daggers if they don’t already know how to move through digital space with the WASD+mouse combination, for instance. In this way, Devil Daggers functions as a kind of art that requires skill and intense familiarity with the art form in order to appreciate. We have stuff like this in every medium — there are movies that are hard to appreciate if you don’t already know a lot about film, and there are books that are very difficult to parse if you don’t know a great deal about literature.
I guess what I’m saying is that Devil Daggers is the Ulysses of videogames?
If you’re curious, here are some videos of Devil Daggers.
First, how a lot of people play it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykRNauGI5kw
Second, my best run: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELboTrQFX20
And third, the current world-record run, which is amazing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gASyYdQM0nc