Silence. Nothing but silence and the ever-present, inky darkness. I’m still standing somehow, but I have no idea where I am. I’m tempted to stop and figure-out what happened, but that’ll need to wait. My oxygen is running low, and I can only proceed at a slow walk. If I don’t get moving right now, then this lonely corner of the sea floor will become my permanent residence. So I head out, all the while watching with baited breath as my oxygen level continues to tick downward, breath by shallow breath.
This was just a short-snippet of my experience with Narcosis, a horror game about being trapped at the bottom of the ocean. It’s a tense experience that, like many recent horror games, doesn’t just settle for disturbing visuals and startling jump-scares. Rather, it understands that a successful horror game always takes things one-step further. An effective horror game doesn’t just present a scary situation; it also provides real reasons for the player to fear it. How can a game accomplish that? Well, in the case of Narcosis, all it really took was stuffing its players into a bulky, heavy, diving-suit.
“The suit keeps out what you need to be afraid of. Only, the fear is trapped in there with you and it’s…thriving.” Players will spend the entirety of their time with Narcosis in a modern deep-sea diving suit. It’s the vital piece of equipment keeping your diver alive, but it’s also an awkward, lumbering hulk that can’t help but inspire all-manner of anxieties. The very first thing to notice about the suit is that has all of the maneuverability of a depressed tortoise. It takes several seconds to turn around, its top speed can’t even match a brisk walk, and its defensive suite features consist of only a small knife. Whether stomping through flooded corridors or trudging along in the utter blackness of the ocean floor, it doesn’t matter. It can’t move fast enough, cannot easily defend itself, and can’t deal with crabs at all. In that suit, all one can do about the fear and terror induced by their surroundings and ever-depleting oxygen is sit back and take it. This is a lesson the game teaches its players early on. After making a few navigational mistakes, my diver found himself with little air left and the game’s titular narcosis settling in. As his vision narrowed and more guesswork was introduced, a very real sense of panic wormed its way into my thoughts. The desperation of it, that all-encompassing need to move faster, actually felt real! The suit may not have been what I needed to be afraid of, but it most definitely succeeded in translating the terror of the situation into real anxiety for me as a player.
“So yeah, maybe you’re safe and dry, but inside…you’re drowning.” While the suit’s limited mobility mainly inspires moment to moment anxiety, it also has the side-effect of making the game’s unknowns that much more terrifying. There’s no way to tell what’s going to be over the next ridge, and you’re not going to be getting there very quickly. So, there’s plenty of time to think about all the things that could go wrong upon arrival. Exertion and disturbing sights deplete oxygen quickly, so thinking about having to deal with either becomes scary all on its own. This is true from almost the very beginning of the game, but there are a few moments that heavily reinforce it.
One of those moments came as I stomped up to two doors while exploring my diver’s former base. I wanted to just leave them be, but my low oxygen level kind of forced the issue. So after slamming the first door in a crab’s face, I opened the other one hoping that the next sight wouldn’t be panic-inducing. I was foolish to be so optimistic, because panic is exactly what I got. I was greeted by a grizzly space, filled with blood, dead squid, and a corpse thrown in for good measure. What was left in my tank was now getting rapidly expended in a flurry of choking, haggard breaths due to what I’m sure was wide-eyed panic on the part of my diver. It was too late to turn around though. There was a spare tank in there that I could no longer afford to ignore. So we went in, watching the air level tick down step-by-quaking step. I only just managed to refill in time and book it out of there. The rest of my time in the base was spent braced to quickly look away every time I opened a door, fearful of suddenly breaking into a panic at the sight of whatever horror could have been lurking behind it. Once again that diving suit managed to inspire terror; this time as a conduit for the game to get inside my head.
“There’s nothing to be done beyond accepting it and trying to make peace with it.” An effective horror game is one that supports its scares through gameplay. Narcosis understands this, and it succeeds in making its players share in the diver’s fears through the limitations of its so-called “walking coffin.” It’s limitation that’s the key. Virtual or otherwise, limitation can always inspire real fear. Narcosis, Resident Evil 7, Outlast, they all seem to get this and explore through through everything from limited resources to unstoppable horrors with the freedom to hunt players down as they please. Horror games are in a great place right now, and it’s vital that we all understand why if we want them to stay there. Otherwise it’s right back to the days of Resident Evil 6, and I don’t think any of us want that.
What else do you think goes into a successful horror game? What’s your take on the genre as a whole?
For those interested in checking out Narcosis, it’s currently available on Steam.
Lede image from the Narcosis steam page.