A high score is a horrifying thing. The specter of death haunts such innocent games as Jetpack Joyride or Temple Run. Games that can only end in the player’s death. There is no victory in a high score, only stalling; it is an dark staple of the arcade. The record holder may have survived longer and more effectively than all the players listed below them, but they did not win. Few games embrace the nihilism that the high score implies, and fewer do it as evocatively as Devil Daggers.
You start the game in a dark room, standing on a raised platform. A light projects out from you, but all you see is the stone floor beneath you and your red molten hand. Then sound, both digital and organic, crushing and guttural, begins to tickle at the edges of your ears. One by one, demons spawn. First, tentacled spires that vomit skulls. Then, giant skeleton spiders that spit their eggs onto you. Then, giant worms that erupt from the stone beneath you and swirl above you. Bullets stream from your hand or pound like a shotgun as you jump and move across the small space. Clicks and roars surround you as the sound of the demons grows deafening. You evade and kill, but you will die. When you do, a screen appears, listing your scores. The option to “retry” floats on the left edge of the screen. So, you play again.
The first few tries are short and terrifying. Creatures spawn and you don’t know why or where or what they are. Before you’ve gotten things under control even more enemies appear. You die quickly. Gradually, you begin to notice things: Sound tips you off to enemy position. You can jump. It’s more important to defeat enemies than to destroy their spawn points. The hidden language of the game gradually becomes more understandable. You begin to feel powerful.
But the contradiction of virtual empowerment is that it does not give power. Devil Daggers both embraces and subverts that central problem of gaming’s most frequent indulgence. It drenches itself in the vernacular of typical power fantasy: responsive controls, power-ups that make you visually stronger, and enemies that so obviously deserve to die. However, there are no external rewards; no upgrades that can be carried from round to round. There is no heavy metal music or level progression or win state that could act as the reassurance of ultimate worth. Control and power are temporary. You may have memorized the spawn patterns so well you can always survive the first moments. You may be able to consistently survive for 2, 3, 4 minutes. You may even feel safe, but a unprecedented force, some unseen devil spawn, or even a common enemy you thought below your attention will kill you. You are always helpless.
Devil Daggers is the inflicted misery of games distilled. It deals explicitly in terror and violence and in the inability of power to save from death. It turns every round into a evocative and profound horror story about gaming itself. It does all this while being incredibly fluid and engaging. It’s a hell of a thing.