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DISTRUST – Cheerdealers and Horror Gaming

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It seems like my interviews happen in phases. Following my interview with Death Trash creator Stephen Hӧvelbrinks, I was lucky enough to get in touch with Cheerdealers, the developer behind newly-released survival horror game, Distrust – which also happens to be a top-down RPG-lite. Getting my hands on Distrust for the first time, I noticed how different it is from other games of its kind, focusing on taking care of basic needs in incrementally cruel conditions rather than combat.

In Cheerdealers’ own words: ‘It’s a survival game where you control two survivors. Your goal is to progress through various arctic bases, managing resources and factors such as heat and stamina to keep your survivors alive. Upon clearing the sixth zone, you will get one of four endings. We do not want to go into spoilers, so if you want details, be persistent!’

Distrust seems bent on making you suffer alongside the characters. With the excellent sound design and lighting, you feel panic with the lights shut out, or when you enter a building with a sliver of warmth remaining, only to realise a window is twisted open. It’s a mad scramble for survival that few will manage to overcome.

Distrust’s primary antagonists are the Anomalies, floating orbs of light that can freeze, electrocute, or drain the energy from a building. Given Distrust’s blatant inspiration in the form of John Carpenter’s The Thing, I wanted to know why Anomalies are the key enemy instead of, say, mutant abominations.

“Here, we should talk more about inspiration. We were inspired by The Thing, of course; however, what influenced us most was the general feeling of the movie, rather than its icons. The closed space of a hostile arctic base with a brilliantly depicted atmosphere of sustained uncertainty and fear that eventually leads to paranoia – that’s what we wanted to capture.”

The developers went on to say: “Distrust is not The Thing: The Game. We wanted to make something unique. In the original movie, the characters cannot trust each other because anyone may be a monster. We separated the unknown aggressive force as a standalone antagonist and introduced an additional game feature – madnesses. This reflects in the title: a player sees the scene through the eyes of a survivor; by ‘distrust’, we mean that a player cannot trust a character who is mad.”

In other words, mutant abominations wouldn’t have contributed to the game’s mechanics, while Anomalies are tightly woven around Distrust’s core gameplay. When writing a story, it is important that every line contributes to that story’s themes and mood. It’s the same in game design. While the urge may exist to throw every idea into the melting-pot, it’s the mark of a good designer when every element revolves around the core mechanics. Anomalies make the rush for supplies, heat, energy, and escape that much more pressing.

Distrust is a difficult but fair game. When playing, I found that the game tests the player before introducing its bigger challenges. Tidbits are left in journals to hint at how Anomalies might be defeated, and energy and heat are abundant in the first few levels. Sleep is dangerous, as sleeping survivors attract Anomalies, but it’s possible to stave off sleep with coffee or place an Anomaly trap in the doorway to ensure a safe night’s rest. The items needed for this are sparse, but you always seem to find them when you need them most. I asked Cheerdealers about how they ensured players aren’t facing impossible situations.

“Indeed, balancing the game was a real challenge for our game-designers. However, trying to find a balance between sleep and wake was not the most difficult part. We just fixed the metric so that any decision a player takes could work out fine, depending on their own decision-making. A player decides by themselves whether to risk madness or rest and attract monsters, but they still can survive, if they act quickly and efficiently. Moreover, some madnesses can actually be useful.”

They added: “The most difficult part was to plan and develop a random generation of the objects within the base. This is the part of the game that requires a thorough balancing. We have a huge set of rules that help us keep a player under pressure, but there are no lose-lose situations. Extremely difficult parts of the game that you may clear on last breath give way to easier periods when you can catch a breath and restore the characters’ metrics. As for the lootable objects, there are many factors that affect the places where the valuable objects may turn up.”

So it wasn’t just my imagination: the game was actively helping me despite the ramping difficulty, giving me the tools to win but leaving it up to me whether I can utilize them.

Game development is a lengthy, grinding process, where every minute of coding counts – but sometimes ideas are left on the cutting room floor. Learning about these can give a good insight into how the game could have been, had different choices been made.

“A number of ideas were cut from the final version. For instance, we had an entire crafting system in place that we decided to drop, retaining only the ability to repair tools. This was based on our vision for Distrust – our survivors need to get out of this hostile base as soon as possible, so they have no time to produce tools and weapons. They’re busy enough finding a way out, scrambling to use every last bit of heat and stamina as effectively as possible.”

Since just about every game in the world has a crafting system these days, and since crafting would have distracted from Distrust’s panic and tension, I think it’s a good thing it was left out.

Finally, I gave Cheerdealers the chance to advertise to HEAVY readers.

Distrust is a solid survival game with a deep atmosphere. Randomly generated arctic bases will make each new play-through different, while the 15 playable characters allow you to come up with different strategies and experience different situations.

“Play Distrust if you want a game with a tense, desperate atmosphere and a deep mystery to solve. Distrust is available for PC via Steam.”

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