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Interview

Black Salt Games On Night Fishing And Cosmic Horror In Dredge

Pushing off into the deep with Black Salt Games

If you’re at all familiar with our content here at WellPlayed you’ll have certainly seen us endlessly sing the praises of the upcoming “fishing sim” Dredge. Coming to us by way of New Zealand developers Black Salt Games, Dredge sets you out to sea with a fisherman who must face unknown horrors like loan repayments, faulty equipment, and of course, monsters from the deep. We’ve been hands-on with the game for a little bit now but while we wait to tell you all about that, our managing editor Zach Jackson and myself had the pleasure of chatting with some of the creative minds behind the game.

We’d like to extend thanks to programmer and writer Joel Mason, producer Nadia Thorne and 3D artist Michael Bastiaens for taking the time to unpack our questions about this odd little delight of a game.

WellPlayed: First of all, congratulations are in order for the runaway success of Dredge even before release. Did the team expect such a warm reception after PAX Australia last year? 

Joel Mason: Thank you! This is our studio’s first game, so I don’t think we really knew what to expect. The combination of attending PAX Australia and releasing our Steam Next Fest demo at the same time resulted in the game really blowing up across the internet.

Michael Bastiaens: Since it was my first time at PAX I didn’t know what to expect!  It was super fun, and seeing our discord evolve into an actual community after the event was really exciting to see.

JM: Our discord community went from about 200 members to 1000 in the space of a few days, which was incredible to see.

WP: The concept for the game is quietly brilliant, can you tell us about how you came to it? Was it a carefree fishing sim first or did the Lovecraftian elements predate even the base mechanics? 

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JM: They both came hand-in hand, really. I think they’re a natural fit for each other. Initially, we were striving for a particular tone and atmosphere – something akin to Papers, Please, which carries this feeling of helplessness as you struggle against a system where there’s no truly good choices – just varying degrees of ‘bad’. That futility suits cosmic horror really well.

The original back-of-the-napkin pitch had the player sailing around on a grid-based, turn-based ocean, deciding how to spend their daylight hours and running into random encounters as they navigated around. While it’s obviously very different to that original pitch now as a fluid adventure/exploration  game, we kept a number of systems – primarily, the use of time as the key resource.

WP: If memory serves, when we chatted about the game’s arc at PAX you mentioned that if folks wanted to avoid the horror elements they could simply complete the main quest during the day hours. What inspired this choice? 

JM: It came from a few different places. We didn’t set out to create a horror game. The horror aspect is essentially a by-product of the atmosphere and the setting. We’re not big horror gamers, which I think allowed us to give a fresh take on what’s ‘scary’ to us; it’s not all about darkness and jump scares.

Because we still try to deliver that sinister atmosphere during the daytime, there was no reason to force players into the darkness. We encourage it in a few side quests, but it’s never mandatory. Players should be able to play the game the way they want – and they’ll have varied experiences depending on their own preferences, which is even better.

Nadia Thorne: There are also ways of mitigating the danger of the nighttime if you’re a player like me that wants to still experience everything but is a bit of a wuss – investing in boat upgrades will give you more light slots, allowing your boat to see further through the fog and more health too just incase you do encounter something unfriendly out there, or just have a bad navigation day.

WP: Does venturing out at night have its rewards?

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JM: Yeah, we totally had to reward brave players. Night fishing is dangerous (for a number of reasons), and that added danger is reflected in the increased value of nocturnal fish. But Dredge is as much about exploration as it is about fishing, so we make some things easier to spot at night – distant lights and eerie glows are more apparent as they shine through the gloom.

NT: One of the areas, Stellar Basin is particularly beautiful to boat around in at night which is a different kind of rewarding I suppose. Some things you can only experience when you’re all alone, out on the water at night.

WP: Speaking of inspiration points, the history behind Lovecraft’s mythos is peppered with some less than savoury racial politics. When pulling from this lineage of storytelling how did the team navigate these adaptation waters? 

JM: The short answer is that we didn’t directly pull from this lineage, beyond the initial concept of ‘cosmic horror’. I think people are familiar enough with the general vibe of Lovecraft to understand the tone of it all without us needing to pin down any references to specific creatures or events from the mythos. Many Lovecraftian terrors are described in vague and unknowable ways by design. Similarly, you won’t often get a chance to get a good look at the creatures in Dredge before they take a chunk out of you.

The wonderful thing about the depths is that there are so many flavours of terror to choose from; we didn’t need to draw from the pages of Lovecraft when nature already has so many creepy, messed-up examples.

MB: It felt like things were very loosely based on the Lovecraftian/Cosmic Horror Mythos when I joined the project and when it came to designing new creatures or monsters it just felt like there were already a lot of things that could be tied to existing lore.  The vagueness of Lovecraftian descriptions along with the vagueness of the game allowed people to fill in their own blanks rather than us having to look to directly pull from source material.

WP: Clearly Dredge’s inventory management has been inspired by the likes of Resident Evil 4. Are there any other games or entertainment experiences that have influenced Dredge?

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JM: We hadn’t actually played RE4 when we came up with the spatial inventory system – but perhaps we’d absorbed that subconsciously somewhere along the way. It’s hard not to be inspired in some way by literally every game you play! But I can pinpoint a few:

Frostpunk has this fantastic commitment to the concept of “the cold” that permeates every aspect of the game, even through to the UI and settings screens. I think this probably led to our inventory system being modelled strongly on the layout and functionality of an actual boat.

We really enjoyed Breath of the Wild’s exploration style with its focus on visuals over UI waypoint markers. We wanted to do something similar. While you do get the occasional map marker, it’s not something that appears on your HUD. Getting lost (or at least, feeling lost) can be exciting, especially if it leads to stumbling upon an unexpected discovery. Ghost of Tsushima’s navigation system that subtly leads the player by bending the wind was masterful, and we use a similar thing to occasionally guide the player towards secrets.

Our style of storytelling was heavily influenced by the Souls games, and Hollow Knight. We never wanted to hold the player’s hand when it came to narrative or gameplay. We’re deliberately as light on dialogue as we can be, instead offering additional dialogue options to players that they’re free to ignore. Tutorials are another aspect we tried to keep as minimal and unobtrusive as we could.

WP: On a lighter note, does anyone in the team have ties to fishing or small coastal town culture? Has any of that made it into the game?

MB: I grew up in Auckland so I was never that far away from a coastline and my Dad was keen on hunting and fishing back in the day.  I was never really successful with fishing but I do remember one time just doing some hand line fishing and catching a really angry squid that was flashing red and white.  That was freaking terrifying and I don’t think I’ve done much fishing since.

JM: I used to go fishing with my dad when we lived in England. We’d mostly catch coarse fish like Pike and Perch, but on vacations we’d occasionally go on sea fishing charters. On a charter in Australia, my dad hooked a shark – a Bronze Whaler. After a long fight, he reeled it up to the surface. It was a few feet away from being hauled aboard when the line snapped. It’s no coincidence that the first shark you’re likely to catch in Dredge is a Bronze Whaler! Just don’t let it get away.

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NT: I’ve never been fishing, after Dredge I don’t know if I’m brave enough! I think where we live certainly inspired a lot of things in Dredge – we’re a country with few towns or cities amongst a vast expanse of natural areas where you can go hours or even days without meeting anyone else, which is a wonderful and terrifying feeling and something we’ve hopefully captured in Dredge. You’ll discover an old whaling town, or hear native New Zealand birds when anchored at a remote dock. So I think it’s subtle but it’s in a lot.

For more information on Dredge, you can head over to Black Salt Game’s official website here and be sure to keep an eye on WellPlayed next week for our review.

Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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