David Szymanski: The DUSK dev dishes on some of his favorite Music, Movies, and More

David Szymanski is a notable name in the indie gaming scene for his works on the turbo-paced horror FPS DUSK and more recently, the small, blood-soaked, subaquatic scare Iron Lung. So notable, that even a quick online search will yield multiple pages of interviews and podcasts wherein he has spoken about his games, past, present, and future. So when I was afforded the opportunity to speak with Dave, I did not want to waste his or the dear reader’s time by making him repeat the same answers he had said before. 

After shaking a rune-covered human skull filled with bird bones and screaming at the sky, I was able to summon Dave for a small interview. I took this time to learn a little bit more about what kind of books, movies, and games one would find on Dave Szymanski’s shelf. So that maybe, if you’re interested in making something akin to his eldritch-adjacent tales of terror, you can go through the works that helped shape Dave’s style, and draw your own inspirations. 

I figured for someone who had crafted such memorable worlds, Dave must have read quite a few pieces of fiction in his days, so I started by asking if he would tell me about some of his favorite authors, and what stories had the biggest impact on him?

Dave Szymanski: A lot of normie or mainstream answers, unfortunately. I really like [Horror writer H.P.] Lovecraft, but I should preface that by saying I like the actual stories he wrote, not so much the Cthulhu Mythos, and I think there is actually a big difference. Like nowadays we kind of see Lovecraft as like, “oh, yeah, it’s like the tentacle monsters and Cthulhu and all that stuff” but a lot of what he wrote actually didn’t really explain much, and was sort of, in a way it was like… a predecessor to creepy pastas in a way. Because all this stuff he wrote, I shouldn’t say all but a lot of the stuff he wrote, the vast majority of it that I’m aware of was written for… weird tales, and you know, things like that. And the point of those was that people were supposed to think it could be real, like Lovecraft stuff was written to be something you were supposed to be like, “Oh, I could actually believe that”. And that’s why so much of it is steeped in the details. And, you know, he talks about all these really dry details about stuff. And often it’s, like, a friend of a friend of a friend heard about this, and then I saw it, you know. It’s like, all of these little pieces of information, garnered through all sorts of different sources, to paint this sort of abstract picture of some sort of horror you can’t quite understand. And it was because you were supposed to be able to like, you know, feel like “oh, this could be real”. 

That’s completely lost nowadays, of course, but I always liked that. And I like how things were not really spelled out very well, stuff was left to be kind of not really understood, and kind of creepy, and not so much what we usually see in video games, including Dusk. Which is Lovecraft influenced, so therefore, giant tentacle monster bursts out, you know. That isn’t actually what a lot of his writing was. But anyway, that’s a giant rabbit trail. So I was really influenced by specifically that element of it, it’s just sort of glimpses of things that paint this picture of a larger horror, I always really liked that. I also was very specifically influenced by [Gothic Horror writer Edgar Allen] Poe, in a lot of ways. I really liked his horror writing, and again, it’s kind of that building up an atmosphere and a sense of dread stuff, is something I really like.

I had expected his works to be influenced by more modern horror, so I was shocked that the first two writers he had mentioned were arguably the founding fathers of the horror genre. Curious to see if he had any experience outside of the classics, I followed up by asking if he had read anything from any contemporary authors?

DS: I’ve read a bit of Stephen King, and I don’t actually really like Stephen King very much, not that I don’t think it’s bad. I just don’t think it’s for me. So, you know, I haven’t read, Oh, no, I’m sorry, I completely forgot. Clive Barker. I have actually read a good amount of the Books of Blood, and really liked those for completely different reasons. So like, Clive Barker, if you watch Clive Barker movies like Hellraiser, which I love, or like Lord of Illusion, or you know, things like that, it’s like, it’s like body horror, you know, sort of pseudo-sexual, all this stuff. You do not get a full picture of just how batshit insane Clive Barker stories are until you actually read them. Because they are, like, I really hate the thing where people are like “oh yeah, this is crazy, this person must have been on drugs” but I’m pretty sure Clive Barker must have been on drugs. It’s just crazy stuff. Like it’s not even scary. It’s just insane. 

Like, my favorite example is,  there’s one story where it’s just like, John Wayne shows up, and then Marilyn Monroe shows up and she’s like, hiding people’s eyeballs inside of her, inside of her (Dave pauses for a moment) anatomy, like just weird stuff like that, and I love it. Like for, for me that was, I think honestly Squirrel Stapler probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t started reading Clive Barker and kind of gotten this example of how you can do just super weird stuff, and have it kind of work as horror. And I’ve always had a really strange sense of humor. So between that and doing stuff in Dusk that I thought was kind of humorous and having it scare people. I was like, “oh, you know, what, maybe, you know, combining the sense of humor and horror together results in good stuff”. And that’s sort of how Squirrel Stapler and the Pony Factory came about. Which is kind of relevant to, you know, DreadXP.

From the dawn of gaming, people have always tried to bring an air of cinematography to their games. Now, a lot of people online have spoken about which films they are reminded of when playing Dave Szymanski’s games, but I wanted to ask him directly, what movies or shows had the most impact on the style or world of his games?

DS: I was interested to hear answers because I do hear different things from people where they’re like, “Oh, well, this obviously influenced by” like, the best example is Event Horizon, because there’s the whole there’s like the whole spinning blade, giant spinning blade grinder thing in Dusk episode two. And it looks really similar to a hallway in Event Horizon. So people are always like, “Awesome Event Horizon reference”. I’ve never seen Event Horizon. I just thought it looked cool. I’d probably seen a screen grab of that hallway, and it probably was in my brain somewhere. 

Let’s see. The biggest one, especially if we’re talking about Dusk, would be The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Which, I mean, the first level of Dusk is just a giant Texas Chainsaw Massacre reference basically. It’s still my favorite horror movie. I love it because of how it’s able to build this really, really deeply disturbing and uncomfortable atmosphere with not really all that much gore and violence. Like, Toby Hooper was actually, very stupidly in hindsight, shooting for a PG rating when he made the movie. And it, of course, did not get that, but so that meant he actually downplayed a lot of the gore and horror, and in my opinion, it made it a stronger movie, because instead of a lot of really dated looking, you know, 70s era effects, you have a movie where the violence actually looks pretty realistic because it’s kind of underplayed. And for the most part, you’re just seeing a lot of really disturbing implications of things or the aftermath of things like that, and it makes it a much more frightening movie, in my opinion. 

But I should also say that it was my first real horror movie, which I’m sure has something to do with me liking it so much and it having such a big effect on me. I’m not sure if I went back and watched it for the first time now, if it would hit me as hard, but I think that’s kind of the case with everyone. You know, the first movies that got you into horror are the ones that you are like, “oh, yeah, that’s the hard stuff there”. And sometimes, you know, other people see it, and they’re like, “what? This is it? This is nothing”.

I followed up by asking if there were any works of fiction that shaped his other games the way that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had inspired elements of Dusk?

DS: I don’t think there was any specific works that inspired Iron Lung. If I remember correctly, I think it was just, I wanted to make a cool submarine horror thing. For the other ones, It was actually a lot of David Lynch in the earlier horror games, because I was really getting into David Lynch at the same time that I was making those. Main one, I think, would be A Wolf in Autumn, which is the least popular one, but that was really, really directly Mulholland Drive inspired. And once you know that, the ending makes a lot more sense, I think. (Laughs) Um, let’s see. And I think if I remember correctly, I was thinking a lot about Twin Peaks while working on The Moon Sliver and The Music Machine, although I’m not sure that really shows up in them. It’s just, you know, that was on my mind at the time. 

Other horror movies I really like although, I shouldn’t say other movies that fit in with my philosophy of how I like horror, would be stuff like, one of my favorites right now is called The Tunnel which I think I brought up a couple times. It was actually Ted [Hentschke of DreadXP] who inadvertently introduced me to it, because before I was involved with DreadXP at all, I was just searching for found footage and I was searching for some good found footage movies to watch that I haven’t heard of, and I came across this article. I was like, you know, here’s all these underrated found footage movies. And it actually had a lot of really good suggestions, one of them was the tunnel which ended up turning into probably my favorite found footage movie. And it turns out Ted had written that. When I met him later, I was talking about The Tunnel and he’s like, “oh, yeah, I love that movie. I even wrote this article”. I’m like, wait a second. I know that article. 

Oh, geez, what else, it’s so hard to think of this stuff on the spot, you know? Those are the ones that I can come up with off the top of my head, a lot of found footage I really like. Because I think you’ll probably get that with horror, I really like stuff that is based around dread. And you know, the atmosphere and the vibe and stuff, more than just overt sort of things jumping out and lots of gore and stuff. Although I enjoy that also, but the stuff I really take a lot away from or the things like you know, more like Blair Witch Project, or, like I said, The Tunnel or things like that, that’s very focused on building this sense of dread and atmosphere.

On that note, I asked Dave what he thought was the most important aspect to building suspense or dread in a horror movie? And I followed by asking if he thought these were things that could be replicated in gaming?

DS: I think it’s weird to talk about horror films, I think because for me, because I am increasingly finding that it’s hard for me to find ones that really do successfully build that tension, and really get to me. I just mentioned found footage, and one of the reasons I really like found footage so much is because for some reason that format is the only one that can still really consistently, like, get to me and scare me, even if it’s not a good movie. And I think it’s because of the immediacy and taking out all of the cinematography tricks and stuff that, you know, once you’ve seen a few horror movies, you start to get a sense of like, “oh, well, if the cameras doing this, that I know a scare is about to happen”, or, you know, I know that they’re going to look over here and there’s going to be a thing. You start to kind of suss out the tricks that they use, and you know, what the camera does, that’s going to cue you into what’s about to happen and sort of that is not there, you know, with a found footage movie, of course. 

What successfully builds tension, I think in horror in general, stuff is very context driven. Like, what, uh, let’s see if I can come up with a good example. Like, let’s, let’s say the cornfield scene in Signs, you know where he sees the leg. Like, that’s something that in that context is scary, because you have not really seen those things before. And so something like that, something that’s just sort of a very minor thing happening is scary. But if you take and put that in another movie, like, Friday, the 13th I mean, Friday, the 13th is never scary, (laughs) but you know if you take it and put it in a slasher, you know, if someone goes in the cornfield after a bunch of their friends have died, and they just see the slasher’s leg retreat back into the cornfield, that’s not scary, no one’s gonna be scared by that. 

It’s because the context of what happens is a lot more important, in my opinion, than what happens. Like, I’ll go back into found footage again, I guess. One movie I really liked is this, super, super low budget one called, I think, called Leaving DC. And most of the movie is just a guy scrubbing through audio that he’s recorded the night before. And in that context that’s set up, like, you just seeing the audio, like him scrubbing through and seeing like, oh, there’s a sound that’s about to happen there”. And then hearing this weird noise and stuff, It’s spooky. And again, if you put that in like another movie, where there’d been more sort of overt crazy stuff happening, that would be nothing. So I think that’s really important in horror in general, not just in movies.

A lot of people don’t realize that Dave is also a talented musician. While the soundtrack for Dusk may have been handled by someone else, a quick glance at Dave’s bandcamp profile will show that he has been building the soundscapes of his games for quite some time. Interested to learn more about his process, I asked Dave if he would discuss some of his favorite musicians and their influence on him?

DS: Yeah, definitely. So I’m very classically rooted. That’s actually what my degree is in. I have a degree in violin performance. So often, when talking about music, there’s almost no common ground because I know very little about, like, the music most people know and listen to and a lot about music that most people don’t really care about. So it’s like, Hakita and Andrew at New Blood, Hakita does the lead on Ultrakill. And Andrew of course you know that he composes, he did the Dusk soundtrack Amid Evil and like, every soundtrack, he’s like the Gianni of boomer shooter soundtracks. Like, I can’t really talk with them about music because there’s no common ground. Neither of them have any education in theory, and I have no education in, like, any audio engineering or anything like that. 

So, anyway, that big, big long rabbit trail to say most of my influences are pretty classical and come from that world. Like I’ve always been a huge fan of Aaron Copland, maybe not so much the super ballet stuff, but I love his symphonies. His Symphony Number three is my favorite piece of music ever. I’ve always really liked minimalism, like John Adams, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and specifically Steve Reich is someone especially as I’ve left college and kind of moved into making music on my own, a lot of the stuff that I write that isn’t game soundtracks is very Steve Reich influenced. Outside of that, another composer very few people have heard of is David Kanaga. And he is probably best known for doing the soundtrack for Proteus, not Prodeus, which is the more recent boomer shooter that came out. But Prodeus which is a sort of musically driven walking simulator that came out a number of years back. And it’s one of my favorite indies, it’s just absolutely beautiful. And a big part of that is the soundtrack, and he has such an interesting style. It’s like It’s wild. He’ll just leave mistakes in, you hear where he hit keys he didn’t mean to hit and stuff like that, a lot of sampling. So he’ll take a sample of something and just play it on the keyboard, and a lot of like, atonal sort of semi-atonal stuff happening. It’s just a really freeform, crazy style. And that really, that was really cool to me. And I actually wrote a lot that was very directly influenced by that idea. Maybe not as much game soundtracks, but a lot of like my non-game stuff. 

And then finally, I guess more recently, in this time, with Iron Lung, I took a lot of ideas from Aubrey Hodges, who is the composer who did like the Doom 64. and PS1 Doom soundtracks. Again, a lot of sampling. And his whole style is sort of like, a lot of sampled sounds, a lot of really deep, really deep bass, heavy drones and stuff like that. And it’s just this really cool atmospheric creepy sound, and I tried to replicate that in Iron Lung where almost everything you hear in the soundtrack, not quite everything, but almost everything is actually like the sound of metal scraping or metal bending or things like that, but it’s just pitched way, way, way down, put on a sampler and then played as you know, I kind of use the notes to make melody out of that which I thought was really fitting. It just kind of, in my brain, fit for the Iron Lung setting you know, it’s all rusted metal and things creaking and falling apart. So those would be the main ones that come to mind.

As far as games were concerned, I was less interested in the mechanical inspirations for his games, and I Moreno wanted to know what his personal tastes were. So I asked Dave outright if he would tell us about some of his personal favorite games?

DS: Now, this is a tough one, like narrowing down which ones to pick. There’s so many, I mean, I guess we’ll start with the main, or the most obvious one, which is S.T.A.L.K.E.R. which there’s a bunch of Dusk that is actually kind of just being ripping off S.T.A.L.K.E.R. like the wendigos, just straight up bloodsuckers from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. like I just stole them. I think that it’s hard to know how that would affect someone nowadays, but at the time, when it released and when I first played it, it was really mind blowing as a game that not only had a, you know, creepy atmosphere and scary stuff happening, but was also set in this world, where the systems were making the world itself feel much, much more alive and real than really anything else before that. Or at least anything else in the sort of FPS genre or subgenre or whatever. And so that’s always stuck with me a lot in a lot of different ways. Originally, it was like, the openness and sandbox elements were something that I tried to replicate in some games, the survival, you know, not having many resources and stuff like that. And then later on, it was just the setting and atmosphere that really, that I kept wanting to try and capture and still do with different projects, trying to capture that feeling of bleakness and threats that you just get from just being in the world. 

I’ve always really liked classic Resident Evil for a different reason. I wouldn’t say Resident Evil has ever been necessarily that scary. But mechanically, I love the survival horror gameplay of stuff like this, and one of my favorite games of all time is the Resident Evil remaster or Resident Evil remake. Sorry, the remaster is the remaster of the remake. But the Resident Evil Remake is one of my favorite games ever, because of how well it uses limited resources and your limited mobility and you know, you having to plan and stuff like that to build tension. 

Let’s see, System Shock 2 comes up for a similar reason. It builds tension and stuff very effectively through your own vulnerability and lack of resources. And its sound design. Condemned Criminal Origins is one that I’m always going back to, like I’m constantly replaying parts of Condemned or replaying it in full. In that case, because of the whole atmosphere of brutality to it, from the way enemies act, the first person melee combat, which is just so impactful. It almost, to me, has always kind of felt like a waking nightmare, in a sense, because so much of the plot just does not make any sense. Which, I guess, you could say that’s a flaw, but to me, it just made the game feel more like you’re in a nightmare like this is dream logic, which made it even scarier. 

In a similar way. This is a boring Normie answer, but I really liked Silent Hill one for very, very similar reasons, like that whole dream logic element. Silent Hill one does not make much sense at all. You feel like you’re just trapped in this ludicrous, nonsensical nightmare. And it’s great. I actually I’d prefer one to two even though I know you know [Silent Hill] two is great. But one is the one that really affected me for whatever reason. 

And then I guess on the indie side let’s see, I’ll shout out Lost in Vivo for sure, it’s one of the scariest indie games I’ve ever played. There’s so many indie horror games that are good. That’s sort of the main one that I always like shouting out because it did something kind of unprecedented, which is that he was able to scare me with just a monster, which had not happened in years. At the point when I played it, it had been years since I played a game where I had just seen a thing and that thing got to me. It didn’t, you know, it didn’t have to build it up, it didn’t have to set up a scare or anything like that. It’s just seeing that thing made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. And I think those are the main ones that I can think of right now. There’s, of course, there’s a ton of good horror games. And I know I’ve forgotten something. But yeah, those are ones that are at the front of my mind at this moment.

Recently Dave had posted on Twitter that he was doing the lords work of dumpster diving through the 50 cent section on steam to see if there was anything worth taking a look at. Being a fan of janky jams myself, I asked Dave if had found any recently that he would suggest?

DS: Not quite yet, No, I will keep looking. There might be some that I’ve already played that are 50 cents, though. I do have a curator, a steam curator called Top Shelf Jank, which I use as a way to shout out games, not always necessarily jank, but it’s for things that kind of fall into that mold of weird, obscure, maybe a little rough around the edges, and something that you there’s a certain sort of person who would appreciate it. And so that’s a good one to follow if you have any interest in the sorts of weird random garbage, sometimes the hidden gems, I tend to find 

like, I wonder how much Nightmare of Decay is right now. I shout out Nightmare of Decay, because I’m not sure how much it is right now, but even not on sale. It’s only five bucks. And it’s probably the best indie Resident Evil throwback that I’ve played. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s the one that’s closest to kind of nailing it. And it’s only five bucks, and it’s very charming and fun. It is new. It only released back in May. So keep that one on your radar anyway. Yeah, it’s fun. Again, not perfect, for sure. But I was surprised how much it got right. And I gladly finished it and had a good time with it, which is, you know, for a $5 unknown indie game, it’s like, that’s a good deal if you actually end up finishing it and having a good time. It did good work.

Before I wrapped up the interview, I wanted to cast a wider net and see if there was anything on the world wide web that he would recommend. It is hard to fit a funny YouTube channel or a creepypasta podcast into one of the categories I had brought up before, so I asked Dave if he had any favorite online oddities that he wanted to shout out?

DS: I know there’s a bunch of stuff. None of it is coming to mind right now. I follow all sorts of cursed Twitter accounts for things, cursed images or terrible memes and things like that. I don’t know how much joy that would necessarily bring to people though. But if you enjoy the stuff that I think is funny, go through what I follow and you’ll find some garbage. Other than that I do watch YouTube for sure. And of course, you know Civvie11 does really good reviews. I watch his stuff immediately when it comes out, you know channels like that. I’ve been watching a lot of retro handheld channels. When I say retro handheld, I mean like new, retro handhelds, like emulation boxes, because I’ve recently gotten addicted to those. So I’ve been watching a lot of those channels. I watch a lot of Jerma stream archives, because I usually don’t have time to watch him live. And I find him immensely entertaining. Because every stream is sort of just like, I like describing it as like a slow, prolonged, psychotic breakdown, which is really funny to me. Other than that, I work on a lot of stuff, when my day is over, I’ll go hang out with my family, because they haven’t seen me all day, I’ll put the kids to bed and stuff like that. And then it’s my time, and I usually spend that time playing games and sometimes watching movies and yeah, not a lot of room for much else. So it sounds kind of boring. And that’s because it is, because being a game developer is not very glamorous, as it turns out.

I told Dave that I have heard many devs say that at the end of the day, it is still a job.

DS: Yeah, I love it. I really enjoy it. But I think you know, describing it to other people it’s like “wow, it sounds like you don’t have much of a life” yeah, I don’t, this is kind of my life, making games, playing games, stuff like that. I don’t know if it’s healthy, but I like it.

With that, I thanked Dave again for his time, and broke the magic seal that sent him back to his world. If you are interested in learning more about Dave Szymanski, you can read the interview written by DreadXP’s own Jans Holstrom from a few months back, or you can seriously just google “Dave Szymanski interview” I was not exaggerating in the opening of this article. 

To take a look at his other work you can hear his music on his Bandcamp page, or you can check out his book, which he said was “incoherent nonsense”. Of course, if you have not already you should most certainly check out his gameography on Steam, and be sure to follow him on his personal Twitter.

And of course, as always, if you are simply dying for more ghoulish gossip on the latest and greatest gory, gruesome games, then head back to DreadXP and read more of our frightful features!