Dredge is one of the most underrated games of the year so far…
While it might look like an indie fishing game on the surface, it goes much deeper than that (pun intended). Watch on to find out how it deals with themes of capitalism, cosmic horror and more.
Dredge is a 2023 indie fishing game developed by Black Salt Games, inspired by moody, atmospheric day-in-the-life sims like Papers Please and the florid prose of notorious racist shut-in HP Lovecraft. In it, you control an unnamed amnesiac, brought to the misty coastal town of Greater Marrow by the churning waves. It starts out harmless enough: you take up a job as an angler, sailing the waters in search of mackerel, cod, crabs, and the like. But as the game goes on, you begin to realise that something is… Off. The fog that sits on the water by night harbours a strange, sinister life of its own; occasionally, you’ll pull a fish aboard only to discover it has two heads, or gnashing, human-like teeth, or great staring eyes that pierce your very soul; often, you might see what you think to be an inviting place to dock, only to close in and find yourself staring at yet more cold, unfeeling ocean.
And this is only the beginning of your horror. You see, in the depths of the sea, a stranger and deadlier beast yet lies…
Alright, bear with me.
The main gameplay loop revolves around managing the space aboard your vessel, and the time it takes for you to complete your work before the sun sets and the isles become drenched in fog. You can only carry so much cargo, so each new catch has to be sorted in such a way that maximises your overall haul. Once you’ve paid off your debt to the local townsfolk, you can earn enough to buy upgrades that give you new varieties of rod and more space to work within your cargo hold. And all the while, time ticks ever-onwards, walking us hand-in-hand to the inevitable grave.
Sorry, got distracted for a second. Time is an important resource within the game; once night falls, the sea becomes a deadly, maddening place, so it behoves you to get as much done during the day and sail your ship back to harbour in order to rest, patch up your boat, and sell your wares. Time only moves forward so long as you move forward, but the minutes tick by so quickly its very easy to lose your whole day to one or two especially rich shoals of fish. Merchants are open 24/7, so you can flog your catches pretty much whenever you wan-
Why are the merchants open so late?
Why don’t the shipwright and fishmongers and travelling salesfolk ever seem to sleep?
This is obviously a gameplay feature, ensuring that players who show up late aren’t locked out of earning their keep for the day. But it points to something more subtly distressing about the game’s setting.
Poverty is everywhere in Dredge. The towns of Greater and Little Marrow are inhabited by down-on-their-luck sorts who seem to barely scrape together a living. The nearby village of Istfell – once a prosperous whaling town – has fallen into ruin and disrepair. You even start the game in debt, with your own ship having been destroyed and replaced – at a premium – by Greater Marrow’s mayor. No matter where you look, there’s some poor schlub trying and failing to make ends meet.
This brings me back to my earlier point; the real monster in Dredge is capitalism.
Yes it’s a bit click-baity and more than a little pretentious, but it becomes more obvious to the setting the deeper we get into the world itself. You see, the waters that surround this little archipelago aren’t especially… safe. Monsters abound, creatures that will gladly take a chunk out of your ship as though it were a two-tonne bucket of delicious chum. The first encounters with these monsters are often breath-taking: a hint of a dorsal fin the size of a blue whale slowly emerging from the waves; the shadowy silhouette of a colossal predator lurking directly underneath your ship; the plaintiff cries of an unseen beast, heard moments before it rises from the depths to swallow you whole.
And then you respawn. Back in the harbour, safe and sound and relatively unharmed, save for a couple psychic scars. You pack up your fishing gear and, as the morning sun rises into the sky, you set off again. Time’s a-wasting, after all, and you’ve got upgrades to buy.
From this point on, the threats of Dredge’s world go from the incomprehensible horrors of a Lovecraft novel to a minor annoyance, an obstacle between you and that day’s catch. You devise methods of getting around them, not because of the inevitable damage they could do to your psyche, but because they’re in the way. You don’t have time to wallow in man’s insignificance in the cosmos: you’re at work.
Indeed, the vast majority of monsters you encounter don’t feel all that eldritch: there are large remora-like beings that dwell in the lava-heated waters of the Devil’s Spine who upon seeing you mob your vessel, only for their mother to suddenly emerge and ruin your evening plans; in the mangroves of the Twisted Strand there are large mollusk-like creatures with a uniquely mind-bending of method of hunting, but not one that defies belief or explanation; beneath the Gale Cliffs, a large eel-like creature burrows into the rock to make its nest. These things are certainly out of this world, but they aren’t necessarily horrors – many of them more resemble novel species of animal, as yet undiscovered by humanity.
There ARE Eldritch entities lurking in the water – a colossal, bioluminescent kraken in the shallow reefs of the Stellar Basin, the ghost ships that drift silently on the horizon by moonlight – but even these have more in common with folkloric tall tales told by rum-soaked sailors than they do the unimaginable terrors of Lovecraft’s work.
However, there is a horror lurking upon the waves. You.
Well, you and your ilk, at least. Fishermen trawling the ocean floor in search of resources, natural and man-made. As mentioned earlier, the people of Istfell once made their money as whale-hunters, spearing the leviathans of the deep and dragging them to shore to butcher them for meat and tallow. The grotesque aberrations you pull aboard are sold off as curiosities, their sickly flesh repurposed as medicine or cuisine. If the waters of Dredge are in fact a natural biome, then it’s clear the only thing that doesn’t belong here is you.
And yet you adapt. You intentionally seek out aberrations, knowing they’ll fetch a high price at the market. You dredge deeper and darker waters despite danger to your own life, because the resources that lie there are simply too good to pass up. Hell, one mission even has you hunting the creatures, baiting traps and killing them. A researcher tells you that the mutants that dwell here have been transformed by an unknown pollutant, but what if they’re just adapting too, just as you are?
And then there’s time. Time, as I’ve said, only moves forward so long as the player engages in certain activities, but this wasn’t always the case: in earlier drafts of the game, the waves would pitch and buffet your ship, causing you to be constantly on the move and – in turn – ensuring that the clock is constantly ticking. The game’s night and day cycles have a minor affect on your character’s sanity metre, but it also brings out more valuable fish and the potential for more lucrative hauls. Like the merchants of Greater Marrow, you can’t always afford to go to sleep.
Dredge isn’t the first game to equate capitalism to cosmic horror. 2017’s Night in the Woods is set in a small industrial town beset by a lurking evil that has drained the people of their livelihoods, sapping their health and time until they are mere husks of their former selves. Kentucky Route Zero features a sinister and pervasive corporation that seemingly feeds on the entropy of small-town Americana, taking advantage of those in debt and swallowing them whole just like the monsters of Dredge. The only difference between Dredge and these other titles is that I don’t know if the creators of Dredge actually intended to make a game about capitalism.
Intentional or not, these themes of capital and horror are increasingly relevant to us in the modern world. Many of us feel like we’re being constantly bombarded with threat after existential threat, disease and environmental catastrophe lurking just beneath the hull of our respective boats. And yet, due to the requirements of capital, we don’t have time to stop and examine those horrors; we can’t simply pack up our fishing rods and move to safer waters, nor can we pause the march of time and escape the open maw of the future. All we can do is sit atop the waves, pulling up fish after fish after fish, and hope that the horrors aren’t hungry today.