DreadXP are giving devs the creative freedom to make weird, surprising, lovely horror games
It’s strange now to think that, until May 2020, there were no Dread X games. Indie publishers DreadXP have become so synonymous with tightly curated, intriguing horror experiences that it’s hard to believe the original demo anthology that kickstarted that reputation is only approaching its second anniversary.
Regular RPS readers may already be aware that (a) I’m a huge horror nerd, and (b) I think the games published under the DreadXP banner are something pretty special. I was equal parts grossed out and charmed by the Lovecraftian dating sim Sucker For Love: First Date when I reviewed it back in January, and was pleasantly surprised by my time with the My Friendly Neighborhood demo at the recent Steam Next Fest. So when I was offered the opportunity to interview Ted Hentschke, Head of Productions at DreadXP, as part of a digital event at last month’s GDC, you can hardly blame me for jumping at the chance.
I decided to begin our chat at the very beginning: with the near-worldwide COVID-19 lockdowns of early 2020, and the idea for a lockdown game jam that would eventually become the first Dread X Collection. I’m curious as to how Hentschke feels the pandemic has impacted indie game development in the long-term.
“I honestly don’t see how it couldn’t,” he replies. “Even before things shut down, remote work was becoming the new norm for indies. And I mean indies. Not the AA games with million dollar budgets dressed up as indie for marketing kudos. I mean the dev teams made up of a handful of friends that met on Discord. The kind of people where office space was never even an option, both due to cost and location.”
Hentschke is, I quickly come to realise, a compelling evangelist on the subject of remote working. “And is anyone really surprised?” he goes on. “I work best at night. How can I expect my employees to keep a daytime schedule when I’m the one doing paperwork at 2am? Not to mention, what even is daytime or normal work hours when half your employees are on the other side of the planet? I think there’s this perception among some that the desire to work from home comes from some kind of weakness.” Hentschke says the reality is that you can get just as much done – or indeed more – working remotely as you can in an office. “You just have to make sure your pipeline and incentive structure is set up for it. And on top of that, why the hell would we demonize people being comfortable?”
So, in spring of 2020 and with most places in lockdown, suddenly everyone was living and working like an indie dev. It’s no wonder that game jams sprung up from this fertile ground — but I asked what had inspired the publishers at DreadXP to commission exclusively horror-themed ones.
“The anthology format has a strong history in the world of horror,” Hentschke explains, citing Creepshow, Tales From The Crypt, American Horror Story, V/H/S and Southbound. “Horror audiences are voracious for content. New stuff or sequels, they just want more. I mean, what other genre consistently pumps out a dozen sequels for a franchise that stopped being the hot new thing 20 years ago?”
“What exactly is scary? That’s what we’re here to explore. With the collections, we can push the boundaries of horror in a way that’s both satisfying to creators and the consumers.”
“Horror is the genre for dreamers,” Hentschke continues, an observation I find unexpectedly self-affirming. In horror, he says, a thing doesn’t need to be 10 hours long or completely polished, as long as it’s scary. “What exactly is scary? That’s what we’re here to explore. With the collections, we can push the boundaries of horror in a way that’s both satisfying to creators and the consumers. If you don’t like one experiment, then there’s six to 11 more for you to try out. It’s the perfect package for horror fanatics.”
I’d always kind of assumed that the inaugural Dread X Collection must have grown out of a more informal game jam, thought up by a group of friends who all knew each other through the indie horror scene. It turns out I was quite wrong: the plan was always to make a high-quality anthology for publication, and Hentschke made contact with most of his collaborators for the first time when putting it together.
He only knew Airdorf (developer of Faith, who contributed Summer Night to Dread X) becauese of a podcast he recorded, he’d recently met Kyle a.k.a. The Classified X (developer of SCP: Blackout, who made The Outsiders and Toy Shop for the Dread X Collections) at PAX South, and the same went for Xalavier Nelson Jr. (developer of Mr Bucket Told Me To for Dread X, as well as self-published games Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator and An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs). The rest of the contributers came either through recommendations or cold calls, and after that they put together a list of people they wanted to work with (which has continued expanding).
So has the way DreadXP recruit developers changed over the course of several anthologies? “When we kick off a new collection, we go through the list and see who might best fit the theme,” says Hentschke. “Ultimately there are way more people we want to work with than we’ve been able to fit into collections. I will also say that now that things are opening back up again, availability has become harder to nail down, so if you’re a hopeful indie dev out there always feel free to reach out.”
There’s a lot of freedom — creative and otherwise — offered to each participating dev. Each collection has a theme, and prior ones include Lovecrafting, spoopy and PT (as in, playable teasers for games that would be different to said teaser). They have a meeting at the start to make sure developers arent accidentaly doubling up on ideas, and some QA passes, “but we don’t censor or exercise creative control other than a few blanket rules,” Hentschke explains. “We don’t allow anything overtly pornagraphic, and as a general company rule we don’t allow games that promote any kind of hurtful message towards any group. Other than that, it’s all up to the dev.” They also don’t keep the IP for any individual collection game, he explains, so they let devs do what they want with their own art.
There’s something connecting many of the varied games published by DreadXP that’s been playing on my mind, especially in comparison to other recent horror games (I’m thinking, in particular, of the dreadfully over-earnest vibes I got from Martha Is Dead, but it’s far from the sole offender). Most DreadXP games seem to have a streak of comedy running through them, but without losing their power to horrify.
“What do we do after a movie makes us scream? We laugh,” Hentschke says. “There’s a reason most prank shows are just a compilation of people being startled. Horror is raw emotion. So is comedy. To just have one without the other would lead to a very flat and dry product. You need some absurdity to break up the tension. Humour is the best way to do that. On the other side of the coin, you need some tragedy to add some weight to the silliness. Horror is a great backdrop to seat those heavier themes.”
I could happily chat about the philosophies of the horror genre all day, but I’m also keen to find out a bit more about the behind-the-scenes workings at DreadXP HQ. My next question pertains to the My Friendly Neighborhood demo I recently enjoyed so much. It’s DreadXP’s first venture into publishing something completely unconnected with the Dread X Collections.
“We currently have a number of titles in development that weren’t part of the collections,” Hentschke confirms. “Dread Delusion was part of The Haunted PS1 Demo Disc, but not a [Dread X] collection. We also recently signed The Mortuary Assistant by Darkstone Digital. Aside from that we have a few unannounced projects in the works. Overall, I’d say our slate over the next few years will focus much more heavily on original titles and the collections will remain as more of a fun project for our fans and developers.”
I feel a bit like a proud aunt at this point. Even though I was just a fond observer, I remember when there was but a single Dread X Collection up on Steam, and now look! DreadXP is well on its way to becoming an indie horror publishing powerhouse. You might even say it’s there already. But amongst all this snowballing success, will there still be more full versions of Dread X Collection games, à la Sucker For Love?
“We also recently announced that we’re doing a full version of Hand Of Doom,” Hentschke informs me. “Aside from that I can say that there is at least one other game from the first three collections that we are actively developing, and two others we are in the planning phase for.”
He adds that there’s only so much time, and fans shouldn’t expect to see full versions of everything from the collections, which is perfectly understandable and honestly the answer I was expecting. I hope one of the full games in development is the aforementioned Toy Shop, although to be fair I can’t think of many Dread X Collection games I wouldn’t be happy to see expanded on.
Still, I couldn’t help but pick up on the subtitle of Sucker For Love: First Date, and ever since then I’ve been wondering if there’s hope for a Second Date on the horizon. Hentschke’s enthusiastic response is extremely welcome. “Yes!” he exclaims, before revealing something I hadn’t expected: “We actually signed Sucker For Love as a three-game deal. So expect more news on the second (and third) date soon!”
A second romantic outing with my latest dating sim sweetheart, Cthulhu-presenting anime girl Ln’eta! I’m genuinely thrilled at the news. The prospect of that third date is a little more terrifying, in that I’m pretty sure it’s bound to end the world, but hey, we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.
Before that happens I’ve got to wrest control of a derelict TV station back from a group of rogue puppets in My Friendly Neighborhood; shape the fate of a dark and twisted fantasy kingdom in Dread Delusion; survive a night shift as a lone morgue attendant in The Mortuary Assistant; recapture the wonder of my childhood playing ’90s fantasy shooters with the nostalgically sinister Hand Of Doom; and, erm… visit a karaoke bar in Dread X Collection 5. That’s a lot of DreadXP titles to look forward to, and I can honestly say I’m excited for every single one.
Disclosure: the Xalavier Nelson Jr. mentioned in this article is the same Xalavier Nelson Jr. who has written for RPS in the past, and could he please be less prolific or it will get to the point that we have to just put this disclosure on the front page of RPS to apply to every game ever.