Loneliness can be a horrible thing, but it is especially horrible when you’re alone under the sea with a limited oxygen supply, trapped in a bulky diving suit that is keeping you alive, but is also horribly claustrophobic. To continue our running series where we examine Honor Code’s debut game ‘Narcosis’, we got to play two demos of the game which offered a taste of what is to come, and that sense of being alone in a huge landscape is just a little bit of it.
The premise is simple. Your character is left, seemingly alone, in the husk of the facility that he worked at. Stranded and without much to help him your character needs to return to the surface before the oxygen runs out or, not much more comfortingly, the bleakness of the situation crushes him in to losing his mind.
As you can probably guess, ‘Narcosis’ isn’t a game for the light-hearted. When I spoke to the lead on the project, Quentin De Beukelaer, he referred to the diving suit as “a walking coffin.” Weirdly enough, even though the thing is what is keeping you from what would probably be a horrible death, it doesn’t feel like your friend. It’s an unwieldy machine that makes movement difficult, even torturous, making even small tasks a bit of a slog. When you’re playing a survival horror game, these difficulties just serve to amp up the tension. There’s nothing like making what should be simple difficult to increase the sense of unease.
Gameplay is also straightforward. Your suit is decked out with flares and thrust compatibility to make movement slightly easier, and also keeps you informed of your oxygen levels and what tools you may have at your disposal. You have a flashlight, which often provides the only real means of being able to see what’s in front or to the side of you. This has the two-pronged effect of making you feel more secure about your immediate surroundings, but even less secure about what else there could be out there, just out of the reach of your feeble light.
You do have a knife, to fend off any immediate threats, but because of the awkward nature of your suit the movement is laboured so you have to time your strike for it to be most effective. All these things, together with the sense of unease created by an atmosphere that can at times be terrifying simply by looking menacing in the background, makes for a veritable cornucopia of tension.
The first demo takes place within the closed confines of the facility, meaning that the vast expanse of the deep sea isn’t your enemy here. What you do have to do though is carefully negotiate through a set of different rooms, picking up supplies and trying to figure out the way forward.
At the beginning, the game provides you with a voiceover. Delivered very matter-of-factly, this voiceover is essentially our only means of getting to know the situation and piecing together anything we can about our character. This is particularly reminiscent of games like ‘Amnesia’ that make character development as much of a mystery as your surroundings, meaning that the more you explore what’s around you, the more you’re likely to find out about what’s going on.
There are a number of understated chills in this demo. Discarded diving suits are a particular culprit, especially when they just pop up around the next corner and appear like they’re looking right at you. They’re creepy things when you know (or would like to think) that they’re empty and their ominous appearance makes them disturbing, especially when they turn up out of seemingly nowhere.
The animals that lurk in the facility are also deeply unsettling. Quite aside from the gigantic crabs that roam the halls and dare you to come near them, an attack from one of the vitriolic squids that patrols the area is particularly intense the first time round. Sadly I don’t have access to an Oculus Rift, but I can imagine that the moment when the squid wraps itself around the screen is particularly effective with the VR set, which would catapult you right in to the action.
You also get a sense of the mental fragility of your character with a couple of befuddling moments where what seems to be actually isn’t, throwing a lot of what you think you are seeing in to doubt. This is another great mechanism that serves to build the atmosphere and make you question your surroundings.
The second demo follows a similar formula, but gives us a larger space to explore as we’re plunged in to the deep sea itself. The sheer expanse of blackness that engulfs you makes your character and his diving suit feel insignificant, and against that background your measly flashlight is but a candle. In this environment, things that were chilling inside are definitely starting to escalate to being straightforwardly terrifying, and it’s hard not to breathe heavily along with your character as you negotiate particularly tense areas.
It’s also quite difficult to ensure that you don’t accidentally just walk off one of the deep sea cliffs and down to a dark, watery death, so being careful just where you’re standing is also important, and this is where your thrust capability becomes invaluable as you move from cliff to cliff in an effort to reach your destination.
From my experience, ‘Narcosis’ is set to be a tense, thrilling and really quite scary game that offers you a glimpse in to the realm of the deep sea in a way that ensures you’re always on the edge of your seat.
It’s hard to argue that the game would probably be boosted by virtual reality, with some moments in particular feeling particularly suited to a medium where you’re entirely engulfed in your surroundings, but it still makes for an engrossing experience without it, which is a mark of its potential to be an incredibly effective survival horror game.