Project Duru was a head-turner on the EGX floor in 2019. Mole-rats and depression. Certainly a pairing you don’t see every day. As a veteran Fallout player, mole-rats in video games do make me nervous, but I couldn’t resist checking it out.
At first glance, one might be forgiven for taking Duru simply as a cute, colorful platformer with an animal protagonist. Then you notice a sinister black shape trailing our heroine. Weighing you down. Holding you back. And that’s when things get interesting.
Duru is the first commercial game from Twisted Ramble, a German indie studio consisting of three young women who bonded while in university. This puzzle-platformer has you take on the role of Tuli, a mole-rat who struggles with depression. Tuli’s anxieties are embodied in an AI ‘companion character’ that poses some unique gameplay challenges.
A cute face with a dark secret
Depression is a difficult topic to tackle in any medium, not least in video games. To see how the ambitious young team at Twisted Ramble proposed to tackle the weighty topic, I did my best to get Tuli through her day in a gameplay slice and spoke with narrative designer Kerstin Schütt about the concept.
I always wanted to make something that has value for me and also other people. My bachelor thesis for game design was all about identity. Who am I, how groups relate to each other and how our identity is tied to our social backgrounds. That helped me on a personal level with my own mental health issues, so going from there to depression wasn’t that big of a move.
As for mole-rats, I like to take topics that are serious or difficult and put it in another context. That way we keep a distance. You don’t have the trouble of it’s too uncomfortably close to your own life, because they’re cute mole rats. But basically, they have the same problems. They’re the only animal from hive societies where everybody has a job, and I was looking for something like this because it’s all symbiotic, actually.
I asked Verena (Twisted Ramble’s artist) because of her vast knowledge about animals. I asked her what other kinds of animals act like ants, and she suggested the naked mole-rat. But our characters are based on the Damaraland mole-rat, which has a similar complex society. Verena loves drawing animals and has a very cute style so this way we both get to work on what we want.
It’s a wise choice. The Damaraland mole-rat is furry and more easy on the eyes that its wrinkled naked cousin, even if they share the same intimidating front teeth. Both kinds of mole-rat are native to Africa, with ‘Duru’ being a Swahili word for cycle or spiral.
Bel the ‘black dog’
The platformer hasn’t traditionally been a game genre heavy with introspection. Sonic the Hedgehog never stopped to wonder what exactly he was running from. Even if it seems something was going on under the surface since if you left the blue hero standing still long enough, he would leap offstage to his death.
But there’s no running from your problems in Duru. The dark companion (dubbed Bel by the team) has to come with you. Stray too far, and it’ll capture you with a beam of bad thoughts.
To progress, the artistically-inclined Tuli can create items (using her magic paintbrush) and help dumb, clumsy Bel keep up. Not content with being a burden, this parasitic companion will actively sabotage you by eating or kicking around your items.
Duru‘s personification of depression as a hostile yet inseparable presence resonated with me and I have a feeling that others will also be able to relate.
I read and talked to many people about how people perceived depression. For me, it was always a dark version of myself. It’s traditionally referred to as a black dog but to me, it felt more like a kraken because it has so many arms and it always catches you.
I decided to do something in between and make it a bit similar to the main character Tuli because it has many legs and this mask like a mole-rat face. It’s a very dark grotesque form of mole-rat and if you get got to peek behind the mask you’ll see something different.
How dark does it get?
Other games that touch on depression or other mental health issues have very dark moments. Duru‘s approach made me wonder if it could be a good game for younger players who may be affected by depression.
I wanted to make a game that can be enjoyed by a variety of people. We don’t have any violence in the game at all. There’s realistically detailed graphics, especially for dark parts, which we do have. But it’s not gruesome so it can also be played by young adults or children. At a certain age, we were thinking like from eight years old you probably understand what’s going on even if you don’t have the vocabulary for it.
We don’t actually use the word depression in-game. We want to leave it open to interpretation but accessible because it’s a topic that affects so many.
Kerstin and the Twisted Ramble team were all recent students, and I couldn’t help but think back to my own mental health struggles during my studies. Back then there weren’t any video games about mental health issues to turn to. Nowadays, there are more games trying to tackle the tricky topic.
Some noteworthy titles such as Sea of Solitude, Celeste, Depression Quest, or Fractured Minds all try to explore mental anguish using their creator’s experience as a jumping-off point. Did any contemporary titles inspire Twisted Ramble to make Duru?
“Not directly, but one game that inspired me and showed me how games could be an art form was Cat Lady, Schütt replied. “You play a woman who lost a child and thinks it’s her fault. She gets together with a character from suffers from cancer and it’s a really nice contrast because one wanted to die but was saved from it.
“And the other one has to die but doesn’t want it. It’s famous for its horror elements. But without spoiling anything I’ll just say that the story really speaks to me. It’s very dark but we take another approach to the topic.”
Working with depression
The way this antagonist gets in the way of Tuli’s work could well mirror the emotional highs and lows of gamedev itself. I had to ask, how much of the frustrations of the creative process were directly inspiring the gameplay?
“I’m very stubborn and the workaholic so I very seldom had these phases where I couldn’t work,” Schütt explained. “But it changed over time. So for me, it was like, This felt like something sitting on you when you can’t get out of bed and you have to work through it and push through.
“You have like this invisible leash because you know if you have a black dog it’s quite a big dog to pull around and it makes things much harder to do. In the future, we also want to add that this creature is sending dark thoughts to Tuli, which will form images in her mind.
“We pitched the idea to a psychologist we happened to know. She gave us input on how to better translate these issues into the story.
“We also wanted to be true to our personal experience, friends’ experiences. And I do a lot of research like reading through the personal stories of people who are willing to share them, looking for similarities and inspiration.”
The importance of reaching out
Duru doesn’t just look at how depression affects an individual, however, but also takes time to look at the bigger picture. The game also explores how depression affects Tuli’s friends and others in the colony. In between platforming, the player as Tuli can explore the mole-rat colony and converse with other characters with visual speech bubbles. This not only lets you discover the NPC stories but also gives an opportunity to reach out for help.
We’re planning stories for other mole-rats. Right now we present [on Twitter] characters from the game with their descriptions. We want to get across that everyone has problems. Some are small, some are bigger.
For Tuli specifically, the goal is to try and talk to one of her friends about this invisible black monster that’s making your life miserable.
One of the messages of the game is for people who may not have depression but suspect that they know someone who does. How to deal with it and how to help people that suffer from it.
And one thing is to really be there for them, not giving up on them or turning away because your own feelings might get hurt. Basically how to see if someone needs help. Because it’s often misinterpreted as a lack of interest in social life and friendships.
Coming to a colony near you this summer
Duru‘s themes of struggling with depression and the strain it puts on relationships certainly stand out. But just as interesting to me is the challenge of navigating tricky puzzles with a hostile AI in tow.
Kerstin tells me that herself and level designer Sandra have been working hard on the puzzles and implementing multiple solutions to reward players who think creatively. The combination of challenge, aesthetics, and thematic depth could be a winner for platformer fans who enjoyed more arty indie titles like Braid.
The limited-time I had to try Duru has me intrigued, and we may not have to wait too much longer to find out more. Twisted Ramble is working towards releasing a playable demo in January, with an eye to a full release in August this year. In the meantime, it’s possible to register to test the game in its early stages.