Deep Sea at SXSW’s Screenburn

Deep Sea, Robin Arnott’s terrifying sound-based undersea adventure pushes boundaries between game and interactive experience. Sure, there’s combat, a battle between the player and some sort of killer leviathan, but the focus is much more on an experience than a high score.

Deep Sea caught my eye in a sea of stunning indie titles at SxSW’s indiePub pavilion because of all the apparatus. Players wear a modified gas mask, covering the entire head and blocking out all light, and a set of headphones, blocking all the noise from the show floor and playing Arnott’s creepy undersea audio.

Players use a joystick to move and to shoot at the undersea mobs, but enemies can only be tracked by listening intently to the ominous sounds of approaching monsters. Inside the dark sensory deprivation of their hood, a player hears only a crackling help request — which explains the basic commands without breaking the fourth wall — and the vibrations of encroaching but undefined enemies, and the playback of their own breathing.

The sound of shooting and even the player’s breathing will draw the monsters, a mechanic that reminded me of Taiyoung Ryu’s Maum, although I found it much easier to control my breath in Deep Sea than my brainwaves in Maum.

Unexplained horror is much more terrifying than blood and guts, and Deep Sea is no exception. Game players who’d shot their way gleefully though Left 4 Dead or Gears of War, talked about feeling shaken by Deep Sea. The narration offers gameplay hints, suggesting players aim one way or another to target, but never reveals what kind of horrific monsters are being targeted. The vagueness of the storyline, plus the sensory deprivation, really creates an experience.

Relying on equipment like this mask is a risky choice for a game developer, as anyone who’s played a clunky VR game or worn awkward 3d glasses can attest. But Deep Sea uses the logistics of the required equipment to set the tone. The use of the game system itself to establish the situation and setting couldn’t help but bring Brenda Brathewaite’s project, The Mechanic Is The Message to my mind.  After putting on the gasmask, which seems intentionally awkward but was made more challenging by my ponytail and earrings, I reached blindly for the joystick, missed, and needed my hand guided to it. The mechanics are used to amazing effect here; the game opens with the player disoriented and helpless.

I quickly forgot about the mask I was wearing, perhaps because it was meant to inhibit my senses rather than enhance them as other gaming headsets would. I found myself focusing so intensely on the sounds of enemy movement that I was even standing at the Deep Sea booth, leaning towards the source. There’s no replay value, no desire to kill a record number of leviathans or stay alive longer next time, but at the same time, it’s impossible to play it without being moved, or take off that hood without immediately telling friends they just have to try it, too.

I don’t expect Deep Sea to take off as a popular game, or to see mass-production of Arnott’s homemade gasmask hoods, but this is the type of wild, immersive experience that makes me love indie games.

Originally written for Indie Game Magazine, 2011


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