Subway Midnight Finds Horror in Bleak Uncertainty

We discuss Homestuck, TikTok, and the terror of public transportation with Subway Midnight's sole developer.

“I really love making games and doing art for games, but it seems like there’s no way around, you know, that sort of hellscape of layoffs and crunch unless you try to do it yourself.” 

Those are the words of Bubby Darkstar, the humble, solo developer who recently released Subway Midnight, a horror-exploration game that takes place in a neverending trail of train carts. If you haven’t played it yet, Darkstar’s debut title is a moody dream powered by its stimulating use of color and the way it blends 2.5D sprites with 3D sets seamlessly. You’re tasked with heading through the locomotive and helping out lost spirits who inhabit it. It’s a real daunting task that keeps tensions high as mysterious, hulking figures slowly hunt your tracks, chasing you endlessly as you run to the next cart, never knowing what dark fate it holds. 

Subway Midnight scares me to an uncomfortable degree. As we exit spooky season, I thought it’d be perfect to sit down and have a call with Darkstar to learn more about who they are, and what compelled them to tell such a sharp, twisted story.

“I sort of didn’t plan this game out very well,” explains Darkstar. “When I first started it, it was full on, like, super serious and it was all 3D. There were no ghosts or 2D elements or anything like that, it was sort of boring. Over time, the more I made it less of a ‘horror game’, the more interesting it became. Horror became the through line, but that’s not what it’s about.”

Darkstar’s inspirations for Subway Midnight range from the creepy Lisa: The Painful to Mob Psycho 100‘s optimism to the makeshift visual aesthetic of Petscop, and it even draws from Homestuck‘s abstract and symbol-based designs.

subway midnight 2

One of the most notable things about Subway Midnight is how sparingly it uses dialogue and text. It is a haunting story almost completely told through imagery and context clues, which brilliantly leaves a lot of its narrative beats up to players’ interpretation. Darkstar made the choice to focus on visuals very early on, mostly to avoid translating huge chunks of text alone.

“How can you tell a story without any dialogue whatsoever? I think that is the [question] that made the game really unique. The thing that a lot of people seem to be latching onto is the fact that a lot of shit is not explained very clearly to you,” says Darkstar. “The characters are very abstract. They’re genderless and the things they do and their relationships are up to interpretation.”

Darkstar recently watched a YouTube video from ManlyBadassHero, who did a breakdown on the game and stated a bunch of theories as fact. Darkstar admittedly thought “Whoa, I never even thought of that, that’s really cool.” A neat, symbiotic exchange between creator and player that’s only possible through purposefully ambiguous media.

The subway system is central to Darkstar’s narrative, and they both really play with the setting to make players anxious about the unknown. When you move through the train, there’s a few moments of pure darkness where you’re forced to sit there and think about what horrors the next cart holds. It’s a viscerally creepy technique that preys on the player’s own imagination.

“Public transport is scary. I’ve had a good amount of bad public transportation experiences. I felt like a lot of other people probably did too. I’ve also never seen a haunted Train Game,” adds Darkstar. “The levels are really small, they load instantly. But there’s like a few seconds of just black and no fanfare. I put that there on purpose. It’s actually randomly between two and six seconds of black. Nothing’s loading. It’s just there to like, make you anticipate and dread the level spawning in.”

Darkstar has been doing 3D design and visual effects in the games industry for 10 years, and they’ve grown tired of the grueling cycle of big budget titles. In their spare time they work on unique projects and scrap them out of boredom, then think of new projects, and then scrap them for the same reasons. Subway Midnight is the first project that Darkstar deemed worthy to finish. 

bubby darkstar

“I love learning stuff and trying out weird engines and different art styles and seeing what sticks. That’s why I’m doing this, because that’s what I think is fun to do,” explains Darkstar. “I was doubtful of [Subway Midnight] the entirety of its development, I think. I made a demo, and I pitched it to a bunch of publishers, and they all turned me down. When I released my trailer on twitter, and like, kind of blew up on Twitter, but yeah I never stopped being doubtful. I guess that’s sort of like the artist’s conundrum.”

Darkstar found solace in Aggro Crab Games, an indie game studio who helped publish Subway Midnight. Their social media push helped put Subway Midnight on people’s radars, and has proven how helpful TikTok can be for indie devs trying to reach larger audiences.

“Aggro Crab’s new community manager Paige lead the TikTok as part of her onboarding,” says Darkstar. “I don’t understand or get the jokes, but some of them are getting 500K views, which is huge. It’s the future, I kind of have to use TikTok now. It’s so weird how low effort stuff gets incredibly popular there.”

Subway Midnight is just the start for Darkstar, who audibly lights up when telling me ideas for their next virtual ventures. 

“Horror is really great, really fun, but also very mentally taxing. It’s not fun to constantly be thinking about the most terrifying thing I can do. So, the next thing is going to be something completely different,” says Darkstar. “I will probably be an evolution of the 2D sprites and all that, but, you know, it’ll probably be like a fun action game. A sort of FPS style thing with cute characters where it’s not necessarily violence, It’s like just shooting at robots. It’ll be something more enjoyable for me to make and enjoyable for people to play.”

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Fūnk-é Joseph

Fūnk-é is a writer, producer, and Fanbyte's Featured Contributor. Check out their bylines at places like VICE, IGN, Paste Magazine, MTV, and more.

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