Deep Sea – building a lonely, intense, extraordinary experience

Courtesy of Robin ArnottThe friendly old man at the army surplus store wasn’t enjoying our conversation.

“So, how easy do you reckon it’d be for me to close off the airways in this one?” I quizzed him, holding up a hard-rubber Canadian military gas mask.

“I wouldn’t be the right person to ask, I don’t think…” he tailed off, carefully placing his cup of tea under the counter. Presumably to keep the boiling drink out of my reach.

“Hmm, it seems pretty good. Once I get it blacked out and filled in, this should work perfectly. I’ll take it.”

“Oh… right. That’s good. Yes.”

One slightly used gas mask purchase later, I happily walked back out into the chilly sunshine, leaving a man, who I’m pretty sure was a veteran of at least one war, slightly shaken at the thought of how I was off to enthusiastically suffocate myself. He probably thought it was for something sexy.

In reality, I was working towards recreating Deep Sea, a game that I’d wanted to try ever since it was first demoed at South by Southwest 2011. I wasn’t going to be able to ignore something described as the “scariest game ever”. From the descriptions of every one who tried it, Deep Sea sounded horrible. It sounded disturbing. It sounded perfect.

While I was eager to get my hands on it, Deep Sea isn’t something you can just download from Steam and take for a spin. First of all, it doesn’t have any visual element at all. Relying entirely on sound, Deep Sea is a game that takes the basic turn-out-the-lights horror premise and fully commits to it. The only way to experience the game is in total blackout, within the confines of a modified gas mask and headphones to block out the world.

It’s a very simple game: you’re underwater and on your own. A voice on the radio gives you instructions as you track down and shoot at monsters out in the dark water, which you have to locate by zeroing in on their clicks, moans and gurgles. You pivot and fire on them using a joystick while two microphones feed back your own breathing through the headphones, drowning out the other sounds. The more noise you make, the faster the monsters are able to find you, which ends the game. It doesn’t help that the mask also restricts your breathing and you find yourself taking big panic breaths, making everything even harder to cope with. The instructions warn you to play with someone else in the room, just in case you pass out.

Homemade maskDeep Sea is an utterly unique, intense, and compellingly unpleasant experience. While other games rely on storytelling or visual design to convey a sense of isolation, Deep Sea and its creator, sound engineer Robin Arnott, use nothing but some incredibly unnerving sound design to generate a game that takes place largely inside your own head. You never see the monsters down there, which forces your imagination into overdrive. As I was finally devoured by some unknown horror, my entire body tensed up and I froze. I sat there for a few minutes, finding it hard to breathe but desperately not wanting to take off the mask. What if the dark, hostile world didn’t go away when I could see again? All of a sudden, I was five years old again and paralysed by the fear of what I’d made up in my own mind.

Eventually, someone helped me take off the headphones and my homemade mask and then I had a small anxiety attack.

Arnott has done something brilliant with Deep Sea. He’s stripped horror and suspense down to their bare elements, using them to put together something so purely focused that it works every time. I’ve played through the game several times in the past week and haven’t found myself getting much better at it. I still struggle to control my breathing, strain my ears to pick up where the next monster is swimming and feel the same inevitable sense of dread as they close in on me.

You can’t play anything else on it, but you can find instructions on how to build and experience Deep Sea for yourself over on TechHive. Make sure you check out his current project, Soundself, as well.

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