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Terror in the Deep

Few games ask the player to strap on a gas mask, regulate their breathing, and completely lose one of their senses, but Deep Sea isn't most games.

If you’re afraid of the dark, claustrophobic, or unsettled by sea creatures, don’t play Robin Arnott’s Deep Sea.

Seriously.

The outside world becomes a blur when the mask goes on, and everything else becomes dark.

Deep Sea has been around since 2010, earning a Nuovo Award honorable mention in the Independent Games Festival last year, but it’s not easy to play. You can’t just download Deep Sea from Steam. The game has a complicated setup, not the least of which is a gas mask. Right now, Deep Sea’s playable at the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment in Oakland, CA, where I tried it.

You do more experiencing Deep Sea than playing Deep Sea. Once the mask is on, with a hand firmly gripping a one-button joystick, the world begins to slip away. Hold your breath, and take the plunge. Deep Sea is uncomfortable to engage with, a sentiment that’s overwhelmingly obvious within moments of having the purposefully stuffy mask strapped on. Breathing deep causes the mask to push ever-so-slightly inward, which makes subsequent breaths that much harder, which forces you to breath gently, slowly. Then, try not to focus too much on the very sound of breathing being pushed into a microphone, which amplifies the noise, and blasts through the headphones.

Like I said, it’s deeply troubling.

Moments later, a voice comes over the headphones, and it becomes clear you’re in some sort of submersible. The atmosphere has echoes of BioShock, with a distinctly old timey feel to the whole aesthetic, insomuch as you can ascribe an aesthetic to a game without any visuals to draw on. You’re informed that some dangerous creatures are in the area, and it’s recommended to take them out by listening for their movements, pushing your submersible from left to right, and firing a missile. The only way to know where the creatures are is to hold your breath, listen closely, adjust in that direction, breath out, hold your breath again, listen to see if you’ve moved correctly, breath out, hold your breath again, fire a missile into the darkness, keep holding your breath, and wait for the groan of an upset monster...somewhere. What’s much more likely is your missile has gone sailing past, and you must try again.

After a few minutes, I’d had enough. My breathing was irregular, sweat poured down my face, and I'd somehow completely forgotten there was a bright ‘n friendly world just outside of the mask, with my wife only a few feet away. The combination of complete darkness and all-consuming sound created a temporary sensory deprivation chamber of sorts, allowing immersion within a singular interactive experience unlike anything I’ve tried before.

“The question I was asking myself, as I was starting this game, was 'How can I create something really immersive?’" said Arnott during a recent conversation with me. “Fear is actually a trigger, a really easy trigger, to get people to drop their expectations, suspend their disbelief.”

“I can make the player use their imagination to loop into unpleasant scenarios," he said. "Then, they’re doing all the work for me, and I don’t have to do much. I can just get the little bits that the imagination will go crazy with.”

If Arnott created Deep Sea with visuals, that’s what players would have focused on. If the creatures didn’t look absolutely terrifying, the most novel sound design in the world wouldn’t have been enough. Given that Arnott is a sound designer by trade, he wanted to design a game that played to his strengths and weaknesses.

Deep Sea was commissioned by NYU Game Center’s No Quarter program, the same one responsible for bringing us other experimental games like Nidhogg (whatever happened to that one, anyway?) and Recurse.

It started much more complicated, too. The game once involved infrared lights interacting with a Wii remote, and even tracked missile hits and misses on a leaderboard. Those features were tossed out, as Arnott started to figure out what made Deep Sea effective, and what allowed him to get underneath people’s skin faster.

“I made the game simpler and simpler and simpler,” he said. “Any system that the player could consciously game was taking away from the experience of just being with the fear, being in the moment. The whole development journey of Deep Sea was a process of simplification, which, at the time, because I’d never made a game before, seems kind of backwards. But I think that’s how a lot of art games, in particular, get good, get made.”

You become acutely aware of your body--breathing, heart rate, body temperature, stress--while playing Deep Sea. Since you’ve lost understanding of the outside world, everything left has become much more sensitive. This focus is what allows the fear to take over in Deep Sea, and can prompt a person who otherwise has no problem breathing on a day-to-days basis (like, say, me) to suddenly be faced with serious trouble regulating an otherwise normal function.

“The gas mask, for example, was initially a mechanism to just immerse the player,” he said. “It ties really nicely into the fear because it locks you away from everything else, but going for fear, going after that primal response, was an answer to the immersion question. The gas mask was an answer to the immersion question, and the breathing mechanism was an answer to the immersion question.”

Antichamber and Deep Sea are far apart in terms of game design, but share audio philosophies.

Unlike yours truly, Arnott isn’t singularly obsessed with manipulating fear. He’s currently working on the sound design for long-in-development-but-supposedly-almost-done puzzler Antichamber, which is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Many of the sounds in Antichamber--chirping birds, running water--tap into our evolutionary track to ensure players are calm, peaceful, and still. Deep Sea tried the same thing, except Arnott wanted to terrify us.

Aside from that, he’s also developing a game in the same vein as Deep Sea, but focused on achieving meditation. Work on Deep Sea is over, but the lessons learned from its creation live on.

“So the experiment continues,” he said.

[Thanks to IndiePub for the second shapshot of Deep Sea.]

Patrick Klepek on Google+
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Posted by patrickklepek

If you’re afraid of the dark, claustrophobic, or unsettled by sea creatures, don’t play Robin Arnott’s Deep Sea.

Seriously.

The outside world becomes a blur when the mask goes on, and everything else becomes dark.

Deep Sea has been around since 2010, earning a Nuovo Award honorable mention in the Independent Games Festival last year, but it’s not easy to play. You can’t just download Deep Sea from Steam. The game has a complicated setup, not the least of which is a gas mask. Right now, Deep Sea’s playable at the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment in Oakland, CA, where I tried it.

You do more experiencing Deep Sea than playing Deep Sea. Once the mask is on, with a hand firmly gripping a one-button joystick, the world begins to slip away. Hold your breath, and take the plunge. Deep Sea is uncomfortable to engage with, a sentiment that’s overwhelmingly obvious within moments of having the purposefully stuffy mask strapped on. Breathing deep causes the mask to push ever-so-slightly inward, which makes subsequent breaths that much harder, which forces you to breath gently, slowly. Then, try not to focus too much on the very sound of breathing being pushed into a microphone, which amplifies the noise, and blasts through the headphones.

Like I said, it’s deeply troubling.

Moments later, a voice comes over the headphones, and it becomes clear you’re in some sort of submersible. The atmosphere has echoes of BioShock, with a distinctly old timey feel to the whole aesthetic, insomuch as you can ascribe an aesthetic to a game without any visuals to draw on. You’re informed that some dangerous creatures are in the area, and it’s recommended to take them out by listening for their movements, pushing your submersible from left to right, and firing a missile. The only way to know where the creatures are is to hold your breath, listen closely, adjust in that direction, breath out, hold your breath again, listen to see if you’ve moved correctly, breath out, hold your breath again, fire a missile into the darkness, keep holding your breath, and wait for the groan of an upset monster...somewhere. What’s much more likely is your missile has gone sailing past, and you must try again.

After a few minutes, I’d had enough. My breathing was irregular, sweat poured down my face, and I'd somehow completely forgotten there was a bright ‘n friendly world just outside of the mask, with my wife only a few feet away. The combination of complete darkness and all-consuming sound created a temporary sensory deprivation chamber of sorts, allowing immersion within a singular interactive experience unlike anything I’ve tried before.

“The question I was asking myself, as I was starting this game, was 'How can I create something really immersive?’" said Arnott during a recent conversation with me. “Fear is actually a trigger, a really easy trigger, to get people to drop their expectations, suspend their disbelief.”

“I can make the player use their imagination to loop into unpleasant scenarios," he said. "Then, they’re doing all the work for me, and I don’t have to do much. I can just get the little bits that the imagination will go crazy with.”

If Arnott created Deep Sea with visuals, that’s what players would have focused on. If the creatures didn’t look absolutely terrifying, the most novel sound design in the world wouldn’t have been enough. Given that Arnott is a sound designer by trade, he wanted to design a game that played to his strengths and weaknesses.

Deep Sea was commissioned by NYU Game Center’s No Quarter program, the same one responsible for bringing us other experimental games like Nidhogg (whatever happened to that one, anyway?) and Recurse.

It started much more complicated, too. The game once involved infrared lights interacting with a Wii remote, and even tracked missile hits and misses on a leaderboard. Those features were tossed out, as Arnott started to figure out what made Deep Sea effective, and what allowed him to get underneath people’s skin faster.

“I made the game simpler and simpler and simpler,” he said. “Any system that the player could consciously game was taking away from the experience of just being with the fear, being in the moment. The whole development journey of Deep Sea was a process of simplification, which, at the time, because I’d never made a game before, seems kind of backwards. But I think that’s how a lot of art games, in particular, get good, get made.”

You become acutely aware of your body--breathing, heart rate, body temperature, stress--while playing Deep Sea. Since you’ve lost understanding of the outside world, everything left has become much more sensitive. This focus is what allows the fear to take over in Deep Sea, and can prompt a person who otherwise has no problem breathing on a day-to-days basis (like, say, me) to suddenly be faced with serious trouble regulating an otherwise normal function.

“The gas mask, for example, was initially a mechanism to just immerse the player,” he said. “It ties really nicely into the fear because it locks you away from everything else, but going for fear, going after that primal response, was an answer to the immersion question. The gas mask was an answer to the immersion question, and the breathing mechanism was an answer to the immersion question.”

Antichamber and Deep Sea are far apart in terms of game design, but share audio philosophies.

Unlike yours truly, Arnott isn’t singularly obsessed with manipulating fear. He’s currently working on the sound design for long-in-development-but-supposedly-almost-done puzzler Antichamber, which is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Many of the sounds in Antichamber--chirping birds, running water--tap into our evolutionary track to ensure players are calm, peaceful, and still. Deep Sea tried the same thing, except Arnott wanted to terrify us.

Aside from that, he’s also developing a game in the same vein as Deep Sea, but focused on achieving meditation. Work on Deep Sea is over, but the lessons learned from its creation live on.

“So the experiment continues,” he said.

[Thanks to IndiePub for the second shapshot of Deep Sea.]

Staff
Posted by Flacracker

I'm a fast reader.

Edited by Morningstar
Posted by BeachThunder
Posted by jakonovski

TFTD marathon to celebrate the new XCom? No? What a bummer.

Edited by FUMN

Listening to the audio without the experience is odd.

Also, as a severe asthmatic with RAD, I doubt that I would be able to play this game. But it is totally up my alley. D:

Good write-up Patrick.

Posted by MAJID

This sounds like something that would make me feel ill within minutes.

Posted by Sergio

@Morningstar said:

I'd go for Terror From The Deep.

Totally thought it was about this. Now I'm disappointed.

Posted by MarkWahlberg

Sounds crazy

Posted by carpei

Well that sounded terrifying.

Posted by VarkhanMB

Wow. Thanks for looking at that game for us, Patrick! I will never play that game 'cause I'm a big fuckin' wuss, but I am totally interested in games that use sensory deprivation, to some extent, as a mechanic (or even necessity, in that case.) That's a fantastic project.

Posted by AndrewB

Few games ask the player to strap on a gas mask, regulate their breathing, and completely lose one of their senses

Glad I'm not the only that... oh, game?

The atmosphere has echoes of BioShock, with a distinctly old timey feel to the whole aesthetic, insomuch as you can ascribe an aesthetic to a game without any visuals to draw on.

It's certainly an achievement to create a "world" using only sounds. Definitely something that could be explored a lot more in video games, and something I feel would be very appreciable to the blind.

Posted by chilibean_3

Great article. I'm going to have to get out to Oakland soon.

Posted by Deusx

That was pretty cool. It's something different.

Posted by ComradeCrash

It sounds so interesting thing to try.

Posted by porr

Totally going to Oakland this weekend..

Posted by Humanity
@BeachThunder

@Morningstar said:

I'd go for Terror From The Deep.

That's what I was thinking too. <3 TFTD

I also thought they were doing some sort of retro quick look because of xcom
Posted by Phatmac

I'd love to try this out sometime.

Posted by agerstone

Christ that mask is terrifying

Posted by TheHumanDove

As someone who has a big fear of underwater shit...this is unpleasant

Posted by dvorak

The only thing that would make me not want to play this is the aspect of wearing a gas mask that somebody else has. They get pretty steamy and gross after wearing one for only a few minutes.

Posted by Forkstik

God, i really wanna try this game. Sounds like such an interesting experience!

Posted by patrickklepek

@dvorak said:

The only thing that would make me not want to play this is the aspect of wearing a gas mask that somebody else has. They get pretty steamy and gross after wearing one for only a few minutes.

They had cleaning materials in Oakland, so it was sprayed and wiped before I played it.

Staff
Posted by Dr_Acula

:/ I was hoping you were going to say that XCOM got so many preoders that Terror From the Deep was confirmed as a dlc or sequel.

Posted by avidwriter

So he made a game with no graphics, good job.

Posted by BeachThunder

@Humanity said:

@BeachThunder

@Morningstar said:

I'd go for Terror From The Deep.

That's what I was thinking too. <3 TFTD

I also thought they were doing some sort of retro quick look because of xcom

I really, really hope they do; that would be awesome :D

Posted by BananaHace

Patrick, all this focus on horror stuff lately better culminate into an ILLBLEED endurance run at some point.

Posted by Baconbot

@BananaHace said:

Patrick, all this focus on horror stuff lately better culminate into an ILLBLEED endurance run at some point.

Yeah, I would love to see this.

Posted by Scrawnto

@TheHumanDove said:

As someone who has a big fear of underwater shit...this is unpleasant

I know what you mean. I will not wade in water if I can't see the bottom, and you bet your ass I wouldn't swim in it. This sounds incredibly distressing, and not at all in a fun way.

Posted by Dezztroy

Torpedo, not missile. You can't exactly use rocket engines underwater.

Posted by Sunjammer
Posted by Olqavtoras

I really want to try this game.

Edited by fisk0

@BeachThunder said:

@Humanity said:

@BeachThunder

@Morningstar said:

I'd go for Terror From The Deep.

That's what I was thinking too. <3 TFTD

I also thought they were doing some sort of retro quick look because of xcom

I really, really hope they do; that would be awesome :D

Yeah, me too, especially since I think Terror from the Deep is pretty underappreciated. It seems to generally be considered just a reskin of UFO Defense, but it really fine tuned the user interface to something that's pretty usable even today, whereas the original feels pretty clunky and unresponsive. And of course, the atmosphere was fantastic.

Online
Posted by lazarenth
Posted by Humanity

@fisk0 said:

@BeachThunder said:

@Humanity said:

@BeachThunder

@Morningstar said:

I'd go for Terror From The Deep.

That's what I was thinking too. <3 TFTD

I also thought they were doing some sort of retro quick look because of xcom

I really, really hope they do; that would be awesome :D

Yeah, me too, especially since I think Terror from the Deep is pretty underappreciated. It seems to generally be considered just a reskin of UFO Defense, but it really fine tuned the user interface to something that's pretty usable even today, whereas the original feels pretty clunky and unresponsive. And of course, the atmosphere was fantastic.

I've only ever played Terror From the Deep so all my fond memories are of that game. I mean I tried playing X-COM: Apocalypse but, lets just not talk about it.

Posted by Deusoma

Man, fear for fear's sake is just about the single worst reason to create anything, ever. Still, this guy is clearly good at thinking outside the box in interesting ways, so hopefully he'll take his curious talents and apply them to something less abhorrent in the future. :P

Posted by YapaPanda

I thought this was gonna be about the x-com sequel so color me a little disappointed. Nevertheless, very good read

Posted by ZmillA

I want to play these games!

Edited by NTM

Well, at least he accomplished that? I don't know, but it sounds kind of dangerous, or am I just thinking of it as too immersive? Like, it made it seem like it takes your air, not to the players doing.

Posted by NTM

@Scrawnto said:

@TheHumanDove said:

As someone who has a big fear of underwater shit...this is unpleasant

I know what you mean. I will not wade in water if I can't see the bottom, and you bet your ass I wouldn't swim in it. This sounds incredibly distressing, and not at all in a fun way.

Yeah, I kind of agree, but also, I think that's kind of what's attractive about it, because it's a new experience.

Posted by Helios1337

@NTM: Wait for the sequel, Terror In The Grocery Bag. Which involves actually putting your head inside a plastic grocery bag while you listen to the sound of people ringing items through at a checkout.

Posted by NTM

@Helios1337: Well, then that'd really make the game undesirable.

Posted by ThePhantomStranger

So you said it was downloadable from steam but how would you play it without the gas mask?

This all sounds awesome, now I want to see this combined with the heart monitor game somehow...

Posted by Helios1337

@Intelligent_Space_Man said:

@Helios1337 said:

@NTM: Wait for the sequel, Terror In The Grocery Bag. Which involves actually putting your head inside a plastic grocery bag while you listen to the sound of people ringing items through at a checkout.

GOTY

Posted by Patman99

@Intelligent_Space_Man: That is possibly the greatest gif I have ever seen come out of Giant Bomb

Posted by shmic

are you my mommy?

Posted by WMWA

Noooooooope

Posted by Dan_CiTi

I am The Fear. 

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