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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.

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


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