Of all the traits that sewer levels in video games share with real-life sewers, the most pronounced is that they’re deeply unpleasant places to spend time. Video-game sewers tend to be labyrinthine, full of poisonous enemies, and they sap your life away before you’ve even gotten started. The 2018 side-scrolling action game Dead Cells lets players start from one of four biomes when they begin the game, but Toxic Sewers is by far the most unrelenting. Any player who was feeling confident after beating the Dilapidated Arboretum, Promenade of the Condemned, or Castle’s Outskirts will have that bluster flushed away when they enter the Toxic Sewers.
“This biome is accessible really early in the game and looks like a logical next step right after you acquire the first upgrade, as you need it to reach the Sewers,” explains game designer Arthur Decamp. “There, you face a bunch of new dangers that can be a lot for new Dead Cells players when appearing all at once: hidden enemies popping from the ground, ‘revenge’ monsters that drop bombs upon their death, poison pools, claustrophobic corridors, and more.”
Decamp is the game designer and creative director at Evil Empire, a French game developer that has handled most of Dead Cells’ postlaunch content and evolution, taking the baton from the original developers, Motion Twin. Decamp worked on the game’s just-released DLC, Return to Castlevania, and he says he’d “rather go kill some werewolves in the Castle’s Outskirts after having raided the Sewers for five years.”
But, he insists, “the Sewers have their merit,” especially as an early challenge. Decamp waded into the area that we named No. 41 on our list of the hardest levels of all time to explain what makes sewers such a fitting setting — and where the balance between challenge and accessibility should be.
Sewers are a fairly common level in video games, and as in Dead Cells, they tend to be hard. What do you think it is about sewers that lend themselves to difficult gameplay?
Sewers fit the bill quite well when it comes to difficulty. We associate them with filth, small spaces, carrion, disease-riddled animals, and other such fun stuff, so we don’t have to project too much to make them a grim place, one that you want to leave as soon as possible. Developers often tend to fill them with horrible beasts, frightening poison mechanics, traps and ambushes, making it a universally hostile environment.
Was there ever a thought to use the Toxic Sewers at a later point 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 rather early in development. In terms of epicness, 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 you had experience with the 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 nailed the video-game-sewers fantasy: claustrophobic with jump scares (the scorpions popping out of the ground right in the middle of combat), toxic goo, and more. Compared to its same-level alternative, Promenade of the Condemned, I remember feeling, Okay, this is clearly the hardest of the options.
Did the Toxic Sewers, specifically, influence any of your team’s designs for the DLC you worked on?
It’s more that Sewers served as a good example of a thematic biome in Dead Cells, helping us, along with a few others, to set the tone and intentions of future biomes to make sure that they’d be at least as immersive as this one.
Your team has put a ton of work into Dead Cells since its release. What has creating new elements and tweaking old ones taught you about creating games that are challenging but not frustrating?
It’s all about perception. There is no mathematically perfect balancing, as the real test for it is thousands of biased human brains. Designing challenging content requires understanding that fact and navigating around the way our brain perceives things to avoid causing frustration while not boring your audience. However, this approach requires a lot of trial and error, and I’m glad we kept an approach highly reminiscent of Dead Cells’ early-access days, with a close connection with the community and multiple testing phases, to ensure both that our designs are somewhat robust and well balanced. I can’t pretend that we figured out the secret recipe to make the perfect “harsh but fair” game, but being able to rely on an invested community certainly helps a lot.
Video games range from easygoing experiences like Animal Crossing to exceptionally challenging titles like Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy, and Hollow Knight. How does Dead Cells balance challenge and accessibility?
Up until last year, not much. The game was hard but fair but with only one difficulty option: Either you clicked with it or you hit a massive concrete wall. That’s the way the Souls series operates, for example.
In 2022, we decided to open Dead Cells with the introduction of an accessibility-focused update with lots of options for players suffering from various limitations that could affect their experience with our game. It includes visual, audio, and even gameplay features. If you are even vaguely aware of video-game news and discussions, you know that challenge versus accessibility is a recurrent heated debate. However, we at Evil Empire think that this opposition is somewhat sterile: What matters is the subjective challenge that every player will face, not some arbitrary “git gud” level of difficulty.
We took inspiration from Celeste’s excellent “assist mode” to design separate autonomous gameplay options to help players suit their own limitations while keeping the game as challenging. For example, if you struggle with traps but are fine with everything else, you can just reduce the traps’ damage and keep the game at a fair level of difficulty. If you’d rather lower the enemies’ total HP, you can do that, too, and both of these options are either autonomous or combinable, depending on what you really need to tweak to make the game challenging but fair for you. What matters to the team at Evil Empire is that every player can experience the game they bought the way they want. These options are there to bridge the gap between the intended Dead Cells experience and the way people with disabilities have been experiencing it, to ideally put everyone on an equal footing when it comes to enjoyment and challenge.