Dredge: How four gamers from a Christchurch studio won critical acclaim with a horror fishing simulator

It's dark on the water; as the early evening hours pass, the fog rolls over your boat and the light on your ship's aft flickers on and off with uncertainty.

An eerie silence hangs over the calm ocean as you head to your destination - but then without warning, lights appear under the waves and after repeated attacks with no way to fight back, your boat is dashed to pieces, lost to Davey Jones' locker.

It sounds like it could be from a blockbuster movie, but this is actually a moment from a small indie fishing game called Dredge, which launched this week on consoles and PCs and has already swept to critical acclaim and success in the gaming world.

Not bad for a first time release from a small Christchurch-based gaming company called Black Salt Games. It's even more impressive when you realise it was put together by a team of just four people, all of whom say they're overwhelmed by the positivity the game's received both pre and post launch.

The team told Newshub they hadn't expected it to be a soaring success, with Dredge's story writer Joel Mason saying he thought it would be the opposite.

"I thought at this point I'd be calling up my mates and saying, 'Hey, I'll give you 40 bucks to go buy my game, and go tell people about it'. And I don't need to be doing that right now!" he told Newshub.

The game has a very simple MO - head out onto the waters, catch fish using Quick Time elements, place them in your Tetris-like cargo hold, and earn money by selling to the locals, who wouldn't be out of place with the cast members of UK black comedy show The League of Gentlemen.

As you earn money for your catch, you can upgrade your boat, expand your hull and interact with more of the offbeat characters who live on nearby islands. But go out at night on the waters, and a new mystery begins to unfold as the aquatic horrors come to the surface.

Mason, Alex Ritchie (2D artist) and Michael Bastiaens (3D artist and animator) have been together a long time. They worked in a previous company for eight years and all share common gaming loves like Elden Ring and The Witcher.

An animated boat on an island near a house
Dredge's 2D artwork stands out in the current gaming market. Photo credit: Black Salt Games

They drew on their love of game loop mechanics and fantasy elements to help bring Dredge to life over the past two years.

Critics are praising the game's simple mechanics and mix of fishing and Lovecraftian elements as something truly original.

"In terms of where the original pitch of Dredge came from, the combination of fishing and horror, it's kind of hard to say," said Mason.

"I think I've always wanted to do a fishing game. I've always been interested in fish and fishing from a young age, and the sort of cosmic horror spooky stuff just felt right for a fishing game because I'm slightly terrified of the ocean.

"We ourselves are not particularly strong horror gamers. We love the atmosphere that comes with horror games, but I don't think we relish the jump scares or things like that. We wanted to bring the atmosphere from other horror games into it, but to try to also appeal to others like us that don't necessarily love horror games. So allowing players to really control how much horror they get was a key part of our decision making."

The boat in Dredge near a sunrise
Take your boat out on the ocean waves in Dredge and you'll see vistas like this. Photo credit: Black Salt Games

Without the shackles of working for a big studio and the demands of various teams was a different experience for the Black Salt Games' staffers and led to Dredge becoming very much a team effort.

"A lot of the kind of 'who should be picking up this thing?' became more of a 'Oh, you're a bit under pressure right now. All right, I can jump onto that, I can build that'. But it worked out really well," Bastiaens said.

However, none of them could have anticipated the feverish response a demo launched at Steam Next Fest in the latter half of 2022 would net. Early adopters of the game helped fuel the passion for the product, but the team told Newshub it never took any of that fan love for granted.

"That was when things really started exploding and we got a huge community from that event. I think we had something like 70,000 people playing the game and getting that audience across it was really great. And the fact that they loved it was even better," Mason said.

In the game's first week of release fans have sustained their interest, with the Black Salt Games crew glued to play-alongs and the intense speculation over Dredge's story.

Bastiaens said that has been intensely gratifying as not holding the player's hand too much was a key focus of the game.

"Someone comes up with a wild idea, and everyone seems to collaborate with others to corroborate it," he laughed.

"Simplicity is one thing, but also not hand-holding in the way that a lot of modern games do [was key]. Trying to leave players just enough information that they can figure things out, but also respecting their intelligence as well. Having faith that they will be able to figure it out," Mason said.

For artist Ritchie, the chance to go a bit wild with the kinds of underwater creatures you can catch proved to be irresistible.

"We need them to each have a unique shape. So that's the first challenge - just sketching out the shape and then painting it, but they're all based on real fish. Then for the weird ones, I just kind of go wild. Most of the time it starts from the art. So I would do just whatever comes into my head, or when I run out of ideas, ask the others!" Ritchie laughed.

A screenplay shot from Dredge
Dredge's simple gameplay mechanics will reel in fans of fishing games. Photo credit: Black Salt Games

While Dredge's gaming environment and map is non-specific to any part of the world, the team admits they've snuck in some New Zealand native references in both the fish and scattered carefully throughout the game's haunting soundtrack.

"There are some native species that we've snuck in there or at least fish that New Zealanders will be familiar with. There's  a long, thin eel. There's a gurnard, snapper. There's some gropers as well  - they are deliberately not called like 'the European eel' or 'the Atlantic cod', we kind of strip away some of the regional stuff because we don't necessarily want to place our game anywhere in the world," Mason said.

"I think there's at least one bird in every area that plays in our soundscape, which is very cool to include," Mason hinted.

"There's moreporks, there's tuis, there's kookaburras, there's kea somewhere. There's a lot of bird samples going on."

As for what's next for Black Salt Games after this current success, it's too early to say - the coming weeks will focus on patches for minor bug fixes and then resting after full launch.

Some players are already clamouring for more after having completed the game's 10-15 hour story campaign.

"I guess it's about not overstaying your welcome. It's a bit contentious in the game industry because there's a lot of different opinions about gaming. You can't please everybody," Mason said.

"You're either too long or too short or, you know, you just you just go, 'I've got to aim to be the right length for your game'. I think it feels like a good problem to have if people are asking that question as well."

There could even be talk of spinning Dredge off into other media - with its mix of oddballs, fishing and water-based horrors, the team are asked if they would consider the notion of turning it into a short streaming series.

"I haven't seriously entertained the idea - I don't know how it would work but I'm sure there would be a way to make a really interesting short series out of it," Ritchie said.

Bastiaens thinks it's entirely possible.

"The idea of everything links quite well to a kind of series. I guess we'll see if anyone comes with an offer or anything like that! It'll be interesting to have those discussions," he chortled.

You can find out more about Dredge here