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).

2 thoughts on “Lucid dreams & walking nightmares: Darq developer interview

  1. Great interview Gerard. An indie game I’ve played recently is before your eyes. It’s kind of an interactive movie but has a unique way of interacting with it with your webcam which detects when you blink which is pretty cool.

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