April 2, 2012 5:00 PM | John Polson
The underwater horror game Deep Sea, which was on display at Game Developer Conference 2012's Experimental Gameplay Session, is terrifying to think about, even before you put on the mask. Like the cursed videotape in The Ring and urban legends surrounding Ouija boards, Deep Sea has a way of getting inside your head.
This audio game requires the player to strap on a bizarre mask, which may be fashioned after a diving mask, an executioner's mask, or Jeff Goldblum in The Fly -- it's hard to tell. The purpose of the mask is to scare you. The player cannot see. Their breathing is limited. And they can only hear the cries of an angry beast at the bottom of the ocean.
Deep Sea is the work of Robin Arnott, an Austin-based independent developer, who had a streak of pink color in his hair when we spoke via Skype. Arnott -- sound designer on Alexander Bruce's Antichamber loves a good scare, his thoughts and inspirations go beyond horror flicks. We discussed the psychology of fear, the "anti-social kind of creativity" of programming, and the importance of flow, both for the player and the creator.
How scary is Deep Sea?
People seem really freaked out by it. At E3 2011, I remember seeing someone coming out of it ... whose hands were shaking. He didn't want to talk because he was kind of freaked out by it. People don't always get freaked out, of course. It doesn't have a 100% success rate. But when it works, it really works.
What scares them the most about it?
Intense feelings of claustrophobia. It's not the fear of drowning. I had a friend play it and he described really intense Cthulhu-esque monsters. That's not in the game. It's in his imagination. It's never the game itself. It's always imagination. I guess that's what fear is.
Do you enjoy scaring people?
When someone comes out of Deep Sea, still feeling the raw physical sensation of being inside, and showing the symptoms that come with fear: shaking hands, sweating, and a stumbling voice. That means the experiment was a success. Deep Sea works from negative emotions. Most people have a really intense negative experience. It's not a lasting negative experience though. If it were, I wouldn't feel so good about that. But like a good horror film, one reflects on it positively in hindsight. Hopefully, it winds up being positive.
Why did you choose to work with fear?
The decision to make a game based on fear came out of necessity. I wanted to experiment with immersion. I wanted to get the player to translate their own identity into the game narrative. We have an intense relationship with fear. Even more than love and anger, fear has a way of taking over our entire consciousness.
We still have lizard brains. Take the case of a primordial man. If he sees the grass rustle and assumes it is a snake, and he is afraid of it, that person is going to survive to reproduce. We wouldn't be alive if we weren't overly scared of things -- if we didn't let our imagination take control of us. Of course, fear isn't so relevant anymore, now that we have big houses to protect us, and police that will shoot down any mountain lion that comes into our big city. But it's still there, and it can be taken advantage of. It works incredibly well. It's pretty creepy how quickly your response to something fearful will overtake your entire body.
How did you go about engineering the scares?
Most of the testing came from watching people play Deep Sea in public, seeing it totally not work, and refining it until it did. When I first debuted it at the NYU Game Center, it was not a terrifying experience for most people. For about 1 or 2 out of 10 people, it was; but for the rest, it didn't really work. I found the less that players were thinking about the game, the more it had an opportunity to touch the player without them noticing.
So I simplified the interaction. I took out the scoring system. Score doesn't matter to the experience. Why should I even have that? Deep Sea isn't a game that you play to know how well you did afterward. It's a game that you submit yourself to. Realizing that forced me to refine a lot of things. I made the game less confusing, just to turn off the brain. I did anything I could to make the brain stop thinking, stop questioning, and just to accept things.
Does Deep Sea scare you?
No. Not at all. There's no room for my imagination to take over and scare the living daylights out of me because I am acquainted with everything. I hear the "Grooouueeeuuu" of a monster, and all that is to me is recording myself with a microphone hooked up to my throat. The challenge about making an emotional game is that you can never measure the reaction yourself. All the math that makes it happen, and the bits and bobs behind the craft, sanitizes the experience. It makes it more of an intellectual engagement and less of an emotional engagement.
What do you lose with that type of indirect engagement?
One of the communities I take part in, here in Austin, is fire spinning. There is a big circus arts community here. I don't spin myself, but I'm friends with people who do. I go to the events. They have a concept of flow. To them, flow is when you are in a state of perfect, continuous creativity through your art.
It's something you get in the performing arts that is missing in digital arts and prepared arts. When I'm making a video game, I'm not interacting directly with the player. I'm creating something that will communicate and interact with the player for me, hopefully creating a profound experience. But it's not me scaring the player. It's this thing I've made.
As a designer of an interactive experience, instead of a performer of an interactive experience, I don't get to have that one-on-one communication with the player. I don't get that conversation with the audience that a performer has. A performance like fire-spinning is very much a conversation. But I can't go back and forth with the audience.
When I see a player coming out of Deep Sea and taking deep breaths, it's satisfying because it is the part of the conversation that I am otherwise missing. It is seeing the player respond to my work. That gives me a delayed sense of flow--a feeling that pushes me to keep going and to do better things.
Do you plan to keep scaring people in the future?
Actually, no. What I'm really interested in now is using everything I learned from Deep Sea -- about how to put players into an emotional state--and using it to produce positive experiences. For Burning Man 2011, I made a project called Synapse, that also played at IndieCade, that is euphoric and takes advantage of the player's creativity and flow. It all comes back to flow--giving the player a tool to find flow, and to feel creatively empowered. I think that's more beautiful than scaring somebody.
(Photo by Matthew Wegner)
[Written by Jason Johnson on sister site Gamasutra.]