What It’s Like To Play Devil Daggers

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/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​y​k​R​N​a​u​G​I​5kw

Second, my best run: https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​E​L​b​o​T​r​Q​F​X20

And third, the cur­rent world-record run, which is amaz­ing: https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​g​A​S​y​Y​d​Q​M​0nc

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!