Lucid dreams & walking nightmares: Darq developer interview

Darq, a 2.5D side-scrolling puzzler featuring a boy called Lloyd who is tormented by the horrors in his lucid dreams, is the work of essentially one man: Wlad Marhulets, who was a movie score composer when he decided to decided to check out videogame development engine Unity and make a video game.

After 3.5 years of development – and many, many hours later – Darq was released in 2019, has spawned two pieces of DLC (The Tower and The Crypt) and recently, the Complete Edition was released. Quite an achievement and Marhulets even wrote a book about his development experience.

Thanks to publisher Feardemic, I played the Complete Edition and I enjoyed it a lot thanks to its visual style that has hints of Tim Burton and game play that reminds me of Little Nightmares and Limbo.

After playing through the main game, I had a few questions about the development of the game, though, and Marhulets’ transition from composer to game developer, so I asked Feardemic PR man Scott Millard if I could ask Marhulets some questions about it – and he was more than happy to.

What follows is an email interview with on making Darq, the lessons he learned and his journey from composer to game developer. A big thanks to Wlad and Scott for their willingness to take part and to Wlad for the prompt reply to my questions!

Wlad, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. You’ve had a career in music with scores for Hollywood movies so what was the catalyst for wanting to make a video game? Was it something that you always wanted to do or was it a random, lightbulb moment that just popped into your head one day that you wanted to try something different?

Hi Gerard, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Although my name is listed in the credits of some Hollywood movies, I was still in the early stage of my film composing career at the time. Fresh out of college, I was incredibly lucky to join the roster of GSA, one of the most established talent agencies in Hollywood (representing such composers as John Williams). I got to score a number of indie movies and contributed additional music to a few larger films, working alongside Marco Beltrami, a renowned composer known for his scores for Scream, World War Z, and others. As I was learning the craft of film scoring, I came to realize that I had a strong desire for creating a project of my own. Something that would allow for full creative freedom. Something that I could both make and write music for. I didn’t know what it would be at the time. A short film? An animation? A video game?

Wlad Marhulets

Once, I had a month off in between film scoring gigs, so I decided to download Unity and just give it a try. I felt like a kid in a candy store – it was love at first sight. A month later, I had a little prototype that barely resembled what DARQ looks like now. A friend of mine, a filmmaker, encouraged me to put together a short trailer and upload it to Steam Greenlight (which was still around at the time). So I did just that. To my surprise, DARQ became #10 of the most upvoted titles on Greenlight. It was covered by major media outlets. I got thousands of followers pretty much overnight. It was both incredible and terrifying. What was I supposed to do? I had three to four months’ worth of savings. I also had a game that apparently was popular before it was even close to being made. Needless to say, at that point, I practically knew nothing whatsoever about game development. It seemed completely crazy to quit film scoring to pursue a career in an unfamiliar industry without any skills. While I did it gradually, I ultimately quit my career in film and transitioned to full-time development. I had to learn coding, 3D modeling, texturing, animation, game design, level design, marketing, community management, running a business, law, and many other things completely from scratch. It changed my life forever. 

How did you come up with the idea for Darq? Talk me through the thought processes and inspirations that lead you to wanting to make a horror/scare game as your first video game? It would seem like it would be a difficult genre for a first video game, right?

I spent about five seconds deciding what game I was going to make. Really. I felt no weight of that decision because it was supposed to be just a hobby project that was never meant to be seen by anyone. Making a psychological horror set in a lucid dream sounded like an interesting idea to explore. After all, anything can happen in a world that’s completely abstract, which creates endless opportunities for unexplored gameplay ideas. Although I don’t tend to have nightmares, I did have a number of lucid dreams in the past and they were quite fascinating experiences. I remember trying to read a book in one of them, but I couldn’t because letters would jump around. That’s why the title “DARQ” is the misspelling of the word “DARK.” That is also why all in-game text that is not a part of the user interface is always misspelled, animated, and hard to read. Again, the title was set in stone in a matter of seconds. No alternative titles were considered. There was no trademark database search. The first project I ever saved in the Unity engine wasn’t named “A rolling ball test.” It was named “DARQ.” 

I understand you had no experience in coding or modeling or anything to do with making a game when you started on Darq so just how challenging was it learning the tools ie Unity? How many hours and years of your life did it take from original idea to the final game and importantly, was it much, much harder than you thought it would be? Did you ever have moments where you seriously questioned what you were doing?

Yes, it was challenging. It took much longer than I thought it would. At first, I naively estimated the project would take six months to complete. The development of the base game, excluding the DLC’s, ended up taking over 3.5 years. According to my estimation, it amounts to over 10,000 hours of my personal time. During the first year or so, I started the game from scratch three times. I’d say about 1.5 years were spent on acquiring skills and experience. It wasn’t until the third version of the project that it reached a level of quality I was happy with. 

Half of the development was part-time, the other half was full-time. By “full-time” I mean: I worked on DARQ every waking hour. I took a few days off here and there, but generally, 100 hour work weeks were the norm. There were periods when I worked 16 hours a day. Before you feel sorry for me, let me emphasize that I loved every second of it and it was my choice to work this hard. While there were challenges and moments of incredible difficulties, there was nothing I wanted to do more than to work on DARQ. Did I question this endeavor? Yes, in the first year or so. Naturally, I was worried that I might end up wasting a significant amount of time pursuing something that could fail, both critically and commercially. With time, though, my worries went away when I realized something important: I was doing something that I loved doing completely. It’s a rare privilege and I’m grateful to have experienced it. If I had millions of dollars in my bank account, I would have worked on DARQ just as hard. The process itself was the ultimate reward, which made the outcome almost irrelevant. Of course, I still wanted DARQ to succeed and I made every effort to ensure its success, but I was working on it because I enjoyed it more than words can describe. 

To me, Darq has a lot of metaphors about illness and mortality layered all the way through it as Lloyd makes his way through his lucid dreams. Why did you decide on a boy called Lloyd as the lead character and what other games did you draw on for inspiration? It has real echoes of Limbo or Little Nightmares, to me both games with creepy and unsettling imagery rather than in-your-face horror moments.

During the first year of development, I spent a lot of time trying to define what DARQ is when it comes to story. As you accurately noted, its world is highly symbolic. Nothing you see in DARQ is there by chance. Every little detail is carefully thought-through and serves a purpose. DARQ can be seen as a puzzle game in which the main puzzle is to decipher its meaning. The game’s environment consists of clues and hints that are well hidden from plain sight but are very consistent in the way they communicate the game’s meaning. While I can’t reveal DARQ’s story just yet (we’re working on a comic book that will accomplish that and significantly expand upon it), I can mention a few things. The name Lloyd has a hidden meaning in Welsh: it describes a character of wisdom, experience, and literally means “grey-haired.” Perhaps Lloyd is not as young as he appears to be. Also, if you reduce his name to the first and the last letters, you get “LD,” which is a popular acronym for “Lucid Dream.” The world of DARQ has no doors except one, and every character Lloyd encounters on his journey hides their face in one way or another. There are many secrets here to uncover. 

When it comes to my sources of inspiration, unsurprisingly, they come from cinema. I grew up watching films by Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labirynth is one of my all-time favorites), David Lynch, and others. While my busy schedule as a musician didn’t allow me to play many video games, I did play Limbo before making DARQ. I was stunned by it, and no doubt, inspired by it. When it comes to Little Nightmares, I discovered it halfway through the development of DARQ. I absolutely adore it and I’m always honored when DARQ is compared to Little Nightmares, Limbo, and Inside – they are among my favourites. 

Puzzles play a major part in Darq so tell me a little about the decision to use environment manipulation combined with puzzle solving. What was behind that thinking?

The game starts by showing the player that walking on walls and ceilings is the main mechanic. It creates a nice introduction to the abstract nature of the world, but it’s just the beginning. As the game progresses, Lloyd learns how to control his “dreams” more and more, so in addition to walking on walls and ceilings, he discovers that there are practically no limits to what’s possible. He learns how to rotate the world, look at things from various perspectives, move quickly on the Z-axis (taking the 2.5D concept to its limits), and more. The puzzles are there to showcase all the new mechanics and to convey that all limitations and rules are often imagined and self-imposed. When designing the puzzles, I wanted to utilize the abstract quality of the Escher-like dream environments as much as possible. The puzzle I’m particularly proud of is the one with the rotating camera in the train level – you’ll know it when you see it. 

Darq released last year and was very well received by the press and gamers, and you’ve now released a complete edition as well. How did you feel once the game was complete and in the hands of gamers: How did that feel like for you: Relief? Uncertainty? Happiness?

Having spent so much time working on the game in solitude, it’s an incredible feeling to be able to share it with the world. I know how lucky I am and I pinch myself every day. I probably wouldn’t have been as enthusiastic if DARQ wasn’t so well-received, but seeing people truly enjoy the game is very meaningful to me. While for some DARQ will serve as entertainment, for others, according to reviews, it’s an unforgettable emotional journey that won’t be easily forgotten. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined that DARQ would be nominated for awards (and win some!) alongside AAA titles as Death Stranding, The Last of Us Part II, Borderlands 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and others. Losing an award to my childhood hero, Hideo Kojima, was an honour. What else can I ask for? It’s both humbling and profound.

You’ve written a book about the experience of making Darq as an independent developer. Looking back at the experience, are you glad that you went on that journey and how did you keep motivated?

Looking back, I have no doubt that starting a game development studio was the best decision of my life. It was also the most difficult thing I’ve ever done and I’ve made many mistakes along the way. That’s why I wrote the book “GAMEDEV: 10 Steps to Make Your First Game Successful” –  mainly to share the lessons I’ve learned on my journey, both by doing things right and by doing things wrong. When it comes to motivation, I never struggled with it when making DARQ. My guess is, if you struggle with motivation, you may be in the wrong field or working on a project that doesn’t inspire you. As cliché as it may sound, doing what you truly love makes a big difference.

You also wrote the music for Darq so do you see any shared similarities between the development and music industries? Do you feel you working in the music industry gave you a deeper understanding of the development process in Darq? What things had you learned as a composer do you think eased the transition into game development?

I think some skills related to music, or film music especially, can indeed come in handy when developing games. First off, writing music is one of the toughest things one can do for a living. It requires good social skills, a balance between sensitivity and thick skin, and a set of useful habits, such as the ability to concentrate for long periods of time and self-discipline. Both are necessary to achieve any long-term goal, such as making a game. Also, when scoring films, one inevitably develops a good understanding of timing, story, sound design, cinematography, editing, acting, directing, color, dialog, and other things that apply to developing games to some extent. 

What’s next for Unfold Games? I hear comic books are in the works based on the Darq universe but are more adventures planned for Lloyd? Or are you exploring new worlds and new characters?

Yes, the DARQ comic book is in the works! Not only will it reveal the hidden meaning of the game but also significantly expand on its story with new characters and locations. No sequel is planned as of now, but we’re hard at work on a new IP – this time it’s a “double-A” production with a pretty large team involved. The project is shrouded in mystery for now, but the official announcement is a few months away. Other than that, on May 1st we’ll be announcing the nominees of the UnfoldGamesAwards – a free-to-enter award programme for indies we organised in partnership with Intel, Unity, Pixologic, and a few other companies. As far as I’m aware, it’s the biggest free-to-enter competition for indie developers in the world when it comes to the total value of prizes, which include funding, cash, hardware, software, and services. It’s meant to be an annual event. 

Darq The Complete edition is available now on Steam ($NZ24.75) and ($NZ22.45) for PC and available on Xbox ($NZ29.40), PlayStation ($NZ31.95) and Switch ($33).

Evil Genius 2: World Domination

Apologies for the lack of content here lately: Work life is hectic at the moment.

I’ve got some cool stuff coming up (hardware/developer interview) but I thought I’d post my review of Rebellion’s Evil Genius 2: World Domination which was originally posted over at Enjoy.

It’s hard work being an evil meglomaniacal dictator in Evil Genius 2, believe me.

I mean, between ensuring you have enough energy to keep the lights on in your ever-expanding lair where you’re plotting world domination. You also have to deal with workers (aka minions) who are more concerned with what’s for lunch than guard duty and infiltrating enemy agents hell bent on ensuring you don’t achieve, well, your goal of world domination.

A sequel to the original Evil Genius, a real-time strategy/world builder game from Elixir Games in 2004, Evil Genuis 2: World Domination has a real Austin Powers/Despicable Me feel to it and for my playthrough I picked Maximillian, a despot who actually appeared in the original game. He’s one of four selectable dictators, each with different abilities that can influence game play. Maximillian, for example, can order minions/workers to prioritise tasks and train faster. Other characters include Red Ivan (who appeared in the original game), Emma and Zalika.

Evil Genius 2

The premis is quite simple: Increase your criminal network and take over the world.

If you’ve played any sim game at all, you’ll know what to do: Build up your base and spread your influence across the globe. You have different room types to pick from: Power stations, mess halls, barracks, training facilities, prisons, armouries and infirmaries, for example, then once you’ve decided what you want to go where a troop of henchmen, resplendent in orange jumpsuits, trot in enthusiastically, brandishing underslung ray guns, and disintegrate the bedrock, replacing dirt and stone with shiny walls, polished floors and flashing lights. You then add the necessary equipment to the room, such as a power generator, an incinerator or a security desk, then order your minions to get to work.

Evil Genius 2

Being an evil dictator doesn’t come for free, though, with everything costing gold so you’ll need to launch dastardly schemes from the world map that will not only help spread your evil influence but will provide much need cash to fund your base, which from the outside looks remarkably like the island of the TV show Thunderbirds. FAB!

Learning new and evil skills

It was during the tutorial that I realised the importance of ensuring you balance room size with power needs to ensure the lights stay on.  I was merrily dropping down mess halls and research facilities left right and centre but suddenly – bam – everything went dark: I’d underestimated how much power my lair required.

I also realised rather quickly that I needed to work on my interior design skills as I tended to make rooms too big, leaving little room for more important rooms later on. Rooms like armouries, sleeping quarters and, importantly, vaults to store all the gold that I was accumulating. I also realised too late that I had a tendency to forget doors, meaning power plants nestled idly next to barracks which merged with training facilities. I guess you could call it an open-play lair.

Evil Genius 2

The tutorial does a good job of laying out the ground rules but I felt it could have been a bit shorter and like most management sims/real-time strategy games like this, I quickly found myself wishing I had another set of arms as I tried to maintain the fine balance between ensuring I had enough minions and security staff to deal with agent infiltrations (of which there were many) but also ensuring funds kept flowing through schemes and other nefarious undertakings.

Their mission, should the choose to accept it…

I’ve mentioned the enemy agents who arrive on your island, who arrive by means of sea-faring vessel, posing as visitors to your front of a glamourous casino (how ingenious). Agents are bad for you and your aspirations of world leader and can be either captured, killed or distracted but I found that the game’s AI didn’t quite do what it should have so defeating agents proved a little harder than anticipated. I lost count the number of times infiltrating agents were able to wander deep into my lair, taking photos as they went, before finally being spotted by my minions.

Evil Genius 2

I also found that early on, my minions were woefully underpowered against the agents, with most confrontations ending up with minions being dispatched with a roundhouse kick to the face or punched in the solar plexus before winding up in body bags. Once you succeed in capturing an agent, though, you can interrogate them which provides vital intel that opens up more options and schemes in the world map (be warned, though: They will eventually escape captivity, forcing another round of fisticuffs).

In an effort to beef up base security you can increase surveillance with security cameras and guard posts and lay dastardly traps in strategic locations around your lair in an effort to outwit invading agents and even the odds a little when several are lurking about. Sadly, most of the aforementioned traps proved next to useless – one of them is a comedy boxing glove attached to a spring and either did little damage to an agent or they bypassed it completely, allowing them to move deeper into my lair.

Evil Genius 2

Herding Minions requires juggling skills

Now, I’m no stranger to games like Evil Genius 2 but I did find training more superior minions a little confusing, too, and I’m not sure whether it was just because I didn’t pay attention during the tutorial or I was just doing it wrong but for the life of me I was unable to train more brutish guards that would have been much ore effective against agents.

Graphically, Evil Genius 2 has a nice cartoony feel to it that works well and really fits with the evil-ruler-wanting-to-take-over-the-world vibe. Colours are bright and vivid, and minions trot about comically, going about their business.

While Evil Genius 2: World Domination gets a little repetitive around the five hour mark as you settle into the fine balancing tasks and maintaining your lair and the AI needs a bit of an overhaul to even out the odds a little, it’s a lot of fun, especially when most of the time in video games you’re playing the good guy out to save the world.

Virtual trainer Zwift sees popularity almost double over last year

Zwift, the global online fitness platform that was the friend of many athletes during COVID-19 lock downs, has announced the return of the Tour of Watopia for 2021, which started on March 29, a five stage virtual event .

Zwift is essentially fitness e-sports, be it cycling or running, where users pay a monthly fee and get to participate in virtual events with other participants around the world and features multiple courses, group rides and races. Zwift tells me Kiwis have embraced the platform over the past year, seeing year on year popularity almost double as fitness enthusiasts kept fit during lock down last year.

It’s not just weekend warriors that Zwift is proving popular with, either: Professional cyclists like Ella Harris, from Dunedin, used the platform during lock down to keep themselves in shape.

Zwift utilises an app that connects to exercise equipment like smart bike trainers and treadmills and uses massively multiplayer online gaming technology to create 3D worlds for riders and runners to explore. Circuits include London, New York and Paris and riders earn XP that they can use to “level up”, buy virtual clothing, accessories and bikes like the Specialized S-Works Venge so they can customise their avatar.

Zwift’s Tour of Watopia (ToW) allows riders and runners to fast forward the rewards with double XP and for those new to the training platform, there are rookie rides and runs led by some of the most knowledgeable Zwifters and participants can learn the how-to’s of a group event while earning Double XP. The rides are kept at a pace that encourages riders to stay together.

The Tour of Watopia runs between March 29 and April 29 and you can find out more at