I’m sitting at a nondescript table at the Indiecade booth, in front of a laptop that isn’t exactly going to dethrone Alienware hardware. I’ve spent the last few minutes wiggling a joystick around and pressing the trigger almost arbitrarily. After what seems like days, the game is over, and my heart is pumping a mile a minute. My head is spinning slightly, my hands are shaking, and the tips of my fingers have gone all numb and tingly.
I’ve been playing Deep Sea, and it was by far the most disturbingly immersive game I’ve played all E3.
To call Deep Sea a game would be discrediting the experience. It’s more like a highly interactive theme park ride that ends with you feeling helpless and terrified. Developed by audio designer Robin Arnott, the game puts you in the shoes of someone that’s stranded in some sort of dead vessel deep underwater. The audio tells you in garbled radio transmissions that there’s unknown creatures all around you, and you’ll have to shoot them all down to survive and advance to the next “level”. Additionally, the disembodied voice notifies you that the harder you breathe, the harder it’ll be to hear the monsters around you, and the quicker you’ll end up dead.
That’s where things stray way far off the beaten path: there’s no visuals for Deep Sea, just audio, and a meter attached to the laptop that measures your breath. Arnott has fashioned a gas mask to wear that’s been completely blacked out, with the mouthpiece to the meter attached to the inside of the mask. When you’re playing Deep Sea, you’re literally in complete darkness, with nothing but a pair of big closed headphones to notify you of what’s going on. In this darkness you remain while you’re moving the joystick left and right to shoot the monsters, which you’ll only be able to hear clearly when you hold your breath.
The terror and panic starts setting in almost immediately. Thinking about how we breathe isn’t something we all, well, think about; you can imagine how thinking about breathing in a calm manner while there’s a big blindfold tightly strapped across your face is another matter entirely. The darkness in itself was fine, as was controlling my breathing, but put those together, and it’s a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. I’m not even prone to anxiety in closed spaces, and yet within minutes I felt myself very much on the brink of panic as I couldn’t see anything and all I could do was just breathe irregularly while monsters were surrounding me, ready to strike.
I don’t think I’ve felt the kind of solitude, desolation, and despair as I did while playing Deep Sea. Those last few minutes when the creatures were surrounding me and I could do nothing but just try not to faint and shoot aimlessly, I truly felt hopeless and at one point almost accepted that I was ready to die. Even after the creatures did break through the hull and the game ended, I couldn’t help but feel panic while waiting for Arnott to unstrap my mask and whatnot. Would he really be there to release me from this personal hell? What if he’s not there and I’m forced to experience this for the rest of my life?
I’m normally a pretty positive guy, so thoughts like that generally don’t enter my brain, even while playing the scariest of video games. While Deep Sea was terrifying in its own right, it was how my brain was so quick to change gears and go into panic mode that really unsettled me.
Considering the amount of gear needed for it, you’ll likely never see it on the pre-order list at GameStop. However, Arnott says that Deep Sea was just his first conceptual game, and he’s currently working on something called Synapse, which is meant to target the exact opposite emotions that Deep Sea invokes. As opposed to fear and desolation, Synapse will attempt to instill feelings of euphoria and happiness through a game built around a full, hand-crafted booth.
While Synapse is still in the planning stages, if it strikes a nerve just as effectively as Deep Sea did, you can bet Arnott will receive the attention and praise he so truly deserves. Help fund Synapse at its Kickstarter page here, and for more information hit up Project Synapse.