Deeper Gaming: Fathom

By Jim Rossignol on May 19th, 2009 at 12:03 pm.


I just spotted this exquisite little game by Adam Saltsman over on Offworld. Fathom starts with blistering chip-core-fuelled platform battling and… well, there’s a little surprise waiting in there, which I couldn’t possibly spoil. It might seem a little confusing, and it is cryptic, but all the clues are there. Oh, just go play it – and beware of spoilers in the comments, please.

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78 Comments »

  1. Dood says:

    Ooh, that’s tragic

  2. dr_demento says:

    I don’t get it. The first thing that happens is cool, but then there’s the second thing, which I don’t understand, and then the ending, which I also don’t understand.

    I wish we had [spoiler] tags like the EG comments forums.

  3. apocalypsecow says:

    +1 to the “I don’t get it” crowd
    I don’t understand what it’s trying to say, how I completed it or what went on during proceedings.
    Dreadful.

  4. Biscuitry says:

    Huh. I’m genuinely not sure if I won or lost.

  5. bob arctor says:

    First time round I got stuck by the tree and had to restard.

    It’s about dying?

  6. Bruut says:

    no comprendo senor. It must have some deep, philosophical meaning

  7. Chis says:

    Cave Story, anyone?

  8. Evets says:

    Okay, I’ll be that guy.

    So, did I miss anything?

    1. boss you can’t beat
    2. find fishes
    3. find item
    4. cause thorny vine
    5. open floor
    6. enter light

  9. Zetetic Elench says:

    Neat.

    Someone in the TigSource comments mentioned An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and that is basically what you should be thinking of, if you don’t get it.

  10. Helm says:

    Evets, I don’t think you missed anything.

    I really liked this, I’ve told Adam. I do think the middle puzzle section doesn’t service the narrative but I might be missing some significance myself also.

    I guess I’m the ‘it’s evocative even if I don’t necessarily understand it’ type of person.

  11. Evets says:

    Zetetic, that does help with what’s going on in the game. Thanks.

  12. dr_demento says:

    It makes a bit more sense, but still not very much…. at least Braid dropped hints, this is just surreal.

  13. MC says:

    Eh? That made no sense and was boring to play.

  14. Dorsch says:

    This was really good. Thanks.

  15. Idle Threats & Bad Poetry says:

    I also didn’t understand the point. I usually enjoy something artsy, but this was bewildering. It left me feeling that it didn’t really have a point, or that it was trying too hard to be tragic. It was like a good idea that didn’t go anywhere. Other games have been much more successful in this regard.

  16. feitclub says:

    The first thing it does is say “Click for Instructions.” But clicking goes to the title screen. Is that them being clever, or are there actually instructions?

  17. Rosti says:

    I’m sure there is a meaning to everything, but I didn’t even feel a hint of a mental direction to explore. Which isn’t to say that moments didn’t work, just that it feels a little to ‘mysterious’.

  18. BooleanBob says:

    @Chis: One of the creators worked on the Wiiware version of Cave Story. Which goes some way to explaining the obvious liberties the game takes with Pixel’s trademark style.

    As for the game itself, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it, or found it particularly thought-provoking, or emotive. Mostly I just felt frustration at the absolutely diabolical combination of mechanics present in the underwater section.

    Reverse steering + narrow, uneven corridors (ie bits to get stuck on) + inertia + a light source that only illuminates where you’ve just been + completely arbitrary requirements for, and means of, progression? Seriously?

    It doesn’t make me feel big or clever to diss what is clearly the result of a lot of hard work, especially considering the experience was novel enough (and free). But when you consider the game it draws most of its inspiration from was also free, well… it’s a comparison that would perhaps be impolite to continue. Sorry. Just not my cup of tea.

  19. Lewis says:

    Huh. I’ll have to think about that one. I’d be tempted to give it another go to try figure it out but I just found it deeply irritating to play once it got to the watery bits.

    It seems to revolve around that first boss bit. As if the “game goes wrong” and everything dramatically changes as a result.

  20. Martin says:

    SPOILERY:
    An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, of course. You didn’t really go down, collected fish and solved a puzzle, that’s just what you are imagining as you drown. Beautiful.

  21. a rob amongst many says:

    I think it was trying to subvert the notion that videogames have to let you win; that whatever situation the narrative puts you in is somehow ‘winnable’. It therefore necessarily begins by appearing to be a pretty standard platformer where you’re killing stuff and collecting things for no obvious reason.
    The assumption that the boss is unwinnable and that therefore the next section is simply part of the narrative leading you to a win state is natural for anyone who’s played similar games. Without spoiling, the actual ending then twists this assumption – instead you’re lead to an extended lose state, although this is obscured by the presence of an irritating puzzle. That’s all I got from it anyway. It’s like that bit in Cave Story only this time Curly doesn’t save you.

  22. Helm says:

    rob: yes, exactly. Thank you for the post.

  23. Richard says:

    It reminded me of Doom 3 as I couldn’t see anything for half of the game.

  24. Jazmeister says:

    I liked the arty elements, but the actual gameplay was annoying in the later section. You can extrapolate meaning from the annoying elements too, but really, frustrating much? I can’t see where I’m going and keep knocking into walls? Really?

    It’s gorgeous, though, and I liked it. I just wish I could say “ah I see what u did there” and then go and play the actual game, the shooty game that looked awesome. Y’know?

    Also, true story: The Cortex Command guy knew about this before Offworld, called it a “GAMING ORGASM”, and linked to it, but it wouldn’t load for me until I followed the RPS link. Unless that was part of the metaphor.

  25. apocalypsecow says:

    So the only winning move is, not to play?

  26. EGTF says:

    What the hell am I meant to do in fathom? I couldn’t kill the giant snake boss and I’m now swimming by blowing bubbles with a torch and some fish. :/.

    Damn, I haven’t been this stuck in a platformer since Burn the Rope.

  27. Lorc says:

    I would have enjoyed this a lot more if i could see during the underwater sections. A weak flashlight that shines only in the direction you are not traveling does not help.

    Having said that, I liked the idea and the craftsmanship. It was just the play experience that let it down.

  28. LionsPhil says:

    Well, I found an ending. Best thing about it was easily the boss music.

  29. dmauro says:

    Yay, I managed to make myself explode…. o_0

  30. Daniel Rivas says:

    Wow, this game is pretty divisive. I personally really liked it, though I can see why others don’t. The idea of “repurposing” mechanics in a game is really appealing to me, and the fish thing I thought was really clever.

    The controls *are* finnicky though, and I have to admit the tree made little sense to me.

  31. Rostov says:

    What the fuck? People get all worked up over a stupid make-feel-good tearjerker like Today I Die but go “Durr I dungetit” over this?

  32. Robin says:

    It’s a nice technical exercise, regardless of whether it has any deeper meaning.

    (Is there some law that states that every artsy fartsy indie developer has a rip-off of the Metal Slug Mars People on their homepage?)

  33. Lewis says:

    @Rostov: I found Today I Die to be more overtly clever than this, especially in how intrinsically it linked the mechanics into the story. Elements of this seem a little arbitrary by comparison. As people have said, there’s a whole section in the middle that seems incongruous to anything, and there’s very little flow between the sections. The abruptness of that to start with is effective, but after that it’s just a bit awkward.

  34. moyogo says:

    I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    [espoiler] someone mentioned the tree, well it got into the rocks and messed up the foundation somehow. SO that’s why the next thing happened.

  35. _Nocturnal says:

    I think the headline fits the game quite nicely. As I understand it, this is basically a metaphor for gaming. I’ll consider everyone warned by that last sentence and start to explain now:

    In the begining you have your health meter, your collect-a-thingies and your big bad boss – all of them well known, traditional gameplay elements. But you cannot win this way. Those elements just limit your possibilities (the falling foothold during the boss battle). You have to experiment and search for meaning, which is represented by diving in those dark waters. Your light points backwards, because as you break new ground, you can never know what’s ahead of you, only what is already known. The fish represent inspiration, intuition or insight that you pick up and that’s the only thing capable of guiding you. I could continue, but my point should already be clear, so I’ll leave the rest to you.

    Whew.

  36. Xercies says:

    I’m sorry but thats just artsy masturbation to me, the light means this and the falling on the ground meant this

    What i thought was there was a good game at the start and he ruined it by putting a crap oceon thing there which i didn’t know what to do, and gave up because there was nothing there.

    The people who are putting this art masterbation up is really looking deeper at something not there or I coudn’t see it at least.

    Its rubbish actually waste of 5 minutes trying to play it. And it looked promising at the start as well.

  37. Dead Fish says:

    rob’s explanation makes sense to me, but I wouldn’t have understood it otherwise. Its an interesting little thing, but for some reason I would have preferred the pretend-game in the beginning. :/

  38. Half Broken Glass says:

    Last level of the game(After you plant the seed and go through the “door”) is really the first level, exactly the same in structure, minus the enemies. The last chamber in which you swim up towards the light is the same chamber you fought the boss.

    Makes sense now?

  39. Chis says:

    Thanks for the clarification, BooleanBob.

  40. Solar says:

    Stay away from the light! Has no-one ever wondered what happened when you say ‘no’ at the continue countdown; consumed with despair and accepting defeat at trying to beat an impossible arcade boss? What did happen to your hero, left in the lurch with a Drillaconda?

    He swam with the fishes, that’s what. Didn’t you know that happens to all your abandoned heroes?

    Also of interest; the entire fish section is randomly generated and the boss is impossible.

    Feitclub: The instructions are: z+x. Must say I sat in the dark for a while till the idea to press z crossed my mind.

  41. Eternal_newbie says:

    Played this twice and found two game breaking bugs.
    [possible spoilers]
    First time I got to the ‘area of light’ with the item I heard a ping but nothing happened. Now this could be because I accidently skipped the boss fight. However there was no indication of this nor anyway to go back.

    Second time I got passed this to the next section, but I couldn’t find the way forward. I found that you could go around the level, I thought perhaps this might be what you are meant to do. as you could still just about see your character I hit one end and couldnt go further so i tried the other direction, eventually you couldnt see the character anymore and the darkness was removed from the level and at this point you could no longer return to the level.
    I dont mind the wandering around so much, esp as its an art game.
    But the complete lack of indication of whether your going in the right direction + bugs = fail

  42. juv3nal says:

    let’s try something here…
    spoiler

  43. Rhygadon says:

    When you re-enter the final area — the underwater repeat of the first zone — if you immediately swim back up and sideways, you can swim off the screen, and eventually the mask of darkness that surrounds you follows you, leaving the level visible again. Which is actually a rather nice, if almost-certainly inadvertent, bit of metaphor. (Ultimately you hit hidden edges and nothing happens.)

    Overall, though … yeah. Too many elements that seemed like they might lead somewhere but didn’t. (Most obviously, the tree. Also, the fact that none of the things you’re beating up for parts in the first stage are trying to hurt you.)

    In the end, I played through twice, found no variation, and shrugged. I still have hypotheses I’d like to see tested — Does anything change if you don’t shoot anything or collect any sprockets? Are there places you can only go with the light off? But it’s a sign of the game’s failings that I decided that testing these would be too tedious. Instead, I came here, knowing that a game like this would be catnip for the RPSers …

  44. Zetetic Elench says:

    A surprising number of people seem to have missed that the fishes show you where to go.

    Also, I think reading anything into the light/fishes/direction mechanic is a bit far, but Rob’s interpretation seems spot-on to me.

  45. Dorimant says:

    I have to say that, once I had the entire thing explained to me, I really liked it.

    The problem that a lot of games with messages have is how to make the meaning understandable without whacking you over the head with it. It seems to me that Bioshock and other AAA games do it by sheer length, Fathom and other smaller games have a lot less leeway, to get it right. It’s the difference between a novel and poetry.

    The other problem is that playing a game is a very goal-orientated process and people rarely play games with their literary-critical hats on.

  46. Zetetic Elench says:

    Addendum: On replaying this, how did I not notice that the final area is an underwater copy of the first? That is a really nice touch.

    As is the rather beautiful second title screen.

    And the telling clue that when you go underwater, your health bar is empty.

  47. Dominic White says:

    Anyone else pick up on the fact that your ‘enemies’ are non-aggressive flowerpots and sprinklers? They don’t do anything to harm you unless you run into them.

    And yet you run and jump and shoot and kill them and take their stuff, because that’s what videogames are about, right? And you’re a guy with a gun! That’s what Gun Guys do!

  48. fishmitten says:

    It was OK, but I wouldn’t spend too much time stroking my chin over it personally.

  49. TCM says:

    @Xercies

    You are the cancer that is killing videogames! [/indie]

    (In all seriousness though, giving up that easily is an indication of…something, I dunno what.)

  50. Jeremy says:

    I don’t think it’s necessarily supposed to be incredibly thought provoking, but just an interesting twist on a medium where winning is the goal. It is also done in a charming and creative way I think, because I compulsively went about doing something that actually had no impact on the game whatsoever. At the very least, it was clever :)