Of all the characteristics that the sewer levels in video games share with the sewers in real life, the most pronounced is that they are deeply unpleasant places to spend time. The sewers in video games tend to be labyrinthine, filled with poisonous enemies, taking your life before you’ve even started. The side-scrolling action game of 2018 Dead cells allows players to start from one of four biomes when they start the game, but Toxic Sewers is by far the most unforgiving. Any player who felt confident after beating Dilapidated Arboretum, Promenade of the Condemned, or Castle’s Outskirts will lose that bravado when entering Toxic Sewers.
“This biome can be accessed very early in the game and it seems like a logical next step right after acquiring the first upgrade, since you need it to get to the sewers,” explains game designer Arthur Decamp. “There, you face a lot of new dangers that can be a lot for newbies. Dead cells players when they all appear at once: hidden enemies that emerge from the ground, ‘revenge’ monsters that drop bombs on their death, pools of poison, claustrophobic hallways, and more.”
Decamp is the game designer and creative director of Evil Empire, a French game developer that has handled most of Dead cells‘ post-launch content and evolution, taking over from the original developers, Motion Twin. Decamp worked on the game’s newly released DLC, Return to Castlevaniaand says that he “would rather go kill some werewolves outside the castle after raiding the sewers for five years.”
But, he insists, “the Sewers have their merit”, especially as an initial challenge. Decamp got into the area we’re calling #41 on our list of hardest levels of all time to explain what makes the sewers such a fitting setting, and where the balance between challenge and accessibility should lie.
Sewers are a fairly common level in video games, and as in Dead cellsThey tend to be hard. What do you think it is about sewers that lends itself to a difficult game?
Sewers is a pretty good fit when it comes to difficulty. We associate them with dirt, small spaces, carrion, disease-ridden animals, and other such fun things, so we don’t have to project too much to make them a bleak place, one you want to get out of ASAP. The developers often tend to fill them with hideous beasts, terrifying poison mechanics, traps, and ganks, making for a universally hostile environment.
Was there ever the idea of using the toxic sewers later in the game, when players had developed their character a bit more?
Motion Twin always envisioned this biome early in the game, as it appeared quite early in development. In terms of epic, it also fits better in early game situations, as your character is still growing.
You are in the position of having worked on a game after its initial release, which means that you had experience with Toxic Sewers as a player before being a Dead cells designer. What was your initial response to the Toxic Sewers?
I remember thinking that Motion Twin really hit the nail on the head with the video game sewer fantasy: claustrophobic with jump scares (scorpions leaping out of the ground right in the middle of combat), toxic slime, and more. Compared to its same-tier alternative, Promenade of the Condemned, I remember feeling, Well, this is clearly the most difficult of the options.
Did toxic sewers, specifically, influence any of your team’s designs for the DLC you worked on?
It’s more that Cloacas served as a good example of a thematic biome in Dead cellshelping us, along with a few others, set the tone and intentions for future biomes to make sure they are at least as immersive as this one.
Your team has put a lot of work into Dead cells since its release. What has creating new elements and modifying old ones taught you about creating games that are challenging but not frustrating?
It’s all a matter of perception. There is no such thing as a mathematically perfect balance, as the real test is thousands of biased human brains. Designing challenging content requires understanding that fact and navigating the way our brain perceives things to avoid causing frustration and boring your audience. However, this approach requires a lot of trial and error, and I’m glad we’ve kept an approach that’s very reminiscent of Dead cells‘ days of early access, with a close connection to the community and multiple phases of testing, to ensure our designs are somewhat robust and well balanced I can’t claim to have discovered the secret recipe for making the perfect “hard but fair” game, but being able to rely on an engaged community certainly helps a lot.
Video games range from simple experiences like animal crossing to exceptionally challenging titles like Dark souls, super meat boyand hollow knight. As Dead cells balance challenge and accessibility?
Until last year, not much. The game was harsh but fair, but with only one difficulty option: either click it or crash into a huge concrete wall. That’s the way souls operates in series, for example.
In 2022, we decided to open Dead cells introducing an accessibility-focused update with many options for players experiencing various limitations that could affect their experience with our game. It includes visual, audio and even gameplay features. If you’re even vaguely aware of video game news and debates, you know that the challenge versus accessibility is a recurring heated debate. However, at Evil Empire we think this opposition is somewhat sterile: it’s the subjective challenge each player will face that matters, not some arbitrary “git gud” difficulty level.
we are inspired by sky blueThe excellent “assist mode” to design separate autonomous game options to help players adapt to their own limitations while keeping the game challenging. For example, if you’re having trouble with traps but everything else is fine, you can reduce the damage from traps and keep the game at a reasonable difficulty level. If you’d rather lower the total HP of enemies, you can do that too, and both options are standalone or combinable, depending on what you really need to tweak to make the game challenging but fair. for you. What matters to the Evil Empire team is that every player can experience the game they bought the way they want. These options are there to bridge the gap between intent Dead cells experience and the way people with disabilities have been experiencing it, ideally to put everyone on a level playing field when it comes to enjoyment and challenge.