In The Deep End: Narcosis Hands-On

Pipes, lovely safe pipes

Although not specifically an Oculus Rift game, it’s hard to imagine playing Narcosis without the headset. The game is an underwater survival story which demands the player manage his or her oxygen supply as they navigate the ocean depths when an incident leaves them stranded.

“The perception is that it’s a horror game and that’s cool,” says David Chen, part of the development studio Honor Code. “But we’re definitely hoping for some moments of beauty.”

The atmosphere is one of claustrophobic tension as I try to follow an oil pipeline armed only with a flare gun and, I think, a diver’s knife. Vast underwater stalagmites suddenly rear up as they’re caught in the glare of your suit’s light, as do strange and hostile creatures which must be crept past.

“You’re an operator on a deep sea energy lab; basically an oil rig worker at the bottom of the ocean,” says Chen. “There’s some sort of catastrophe but we don’t try to make it some conspiracy. All that matters is this person’s journey – physically and emotionally – to the surface. What measures does he have to resort to to survive?”

The deep ocean is an alien landscape, its colours bleached and the darkness intense. The basic business of survival depletes your oxygen supply, while panic significantly hastens the process. Managing your oxygen consumption is key.

Scenic! And also you might die soon.

While exploring my character I nearly run out of oxygen and the display becomes fuzzy and indistinct. There’s a crate nearby from which I can salvage some more, although the return of clear vision doesn’t stop me from immediately losing my bearings and falling into some kind of an abyss. Surviving further into the game, your character can also experience the titular narcosis – altered perception, hallucinations and so on – as a result of breathing under elevated pressure.

In real life the pressure would be intense and any malfunction of your diving suit a matter of extreme urgency. In Narcosis that latter source of stress has, at least, been removed, but that fact becomes slightly less comforting when David Chen tells me they refer to the suit as a “walking coffin”.

Oculus Rift’s contribution to the experience lies in the sense of immersion it can generate. It’s a word so often used to describe all manner of videogames and Rift’s effect but I’m using it here deliberately. Firstly, because given the underwater setting it’s pleasingly apt. Secondly, because wearing the Rift in concert with over-ear headphones generates a very similar experience to that of actual scuba diving.

When underwater for real your diving mask limits your field of view and forces you to turn your head the way using a Rift headset does. The headphones then muted the noise of the Game Connection conference hall (where I was having this hands-on) turning it into an indistinct pulsing ocean-esque hiss.

It's not horror so much as creeping constant dread

One of the less pleasing side effects was it left me with the same headache-y nausea that I’ve also had after diving. I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a sign of some top-notch immersion or whether my body simply still hasn’t got to grips with the Rift. It’s a fascinating project so far, though and the tension it generates is impressive.

Honor Code have been working on Narcosis for over a year now but have only just taken the game on as a full-time project. The developers will be fleshing out their plans for the game over the coming weeks but the aim is currently to release it on Steam sometime in autumn of 2015.

9 Comments

  1. aterriblesomething says:

    does the rift control the player’s “head” or does it control the orientation of a helmet? in my ideal brain version of this, i imagine turning my head freely inside of a fixed helmet, locked to the suit’s facing.

    i imagine panicking as something slips out of view behind my blocked periphery, struggling to turn the awkward diving suit around…

    • IndieJeff says:

      Right now, the rift controls the player’s head, so you can move one way while looking a different direction. Pretty much exactly how you describe. ;)

      • Honor Code says:

        Listen to IndieJeff; he knows what he’s talking about. On several levels.
        And: “locked,” “blocked,” “panicking” and “struggling” are all perfectly apt words to use in the context of Narcosis.

  2. Archipelagos says:

    Deep/Dark water is my primary fear so this game looks like 100% unadulterated nightmare fuel. Bring it on (even if it might kill me.)

  3. Jake says:

    Amazing, really looking forward to trying this. Hopefully there will be some intense, partially hallucinated confrontations with humpback whales.

    • Honor Code says:

      Thanks, Jake. “Partially hallucinated confrontations with humpback whales” sounds crazy…
      …and not too far from what we’ve got planned.

  4. Geebs says:

    Is “Easy” mode in this game called “Heliox”?

  5. bp_968 says:

    I have a question for other Rift owners. I received my DK2 last week and it’s amazing, but I’ve had a recurring issue with nearly every demo and game I’ve tried it on. It’s a weird “judder” that only happens during head movement and not during movement using a controller. In other words, make your avatar walk forward or strafe left or right and its silky smooth, turn your head left or right, even slowly, and it stutters. I’m running windows 8.1, a Intel i7 9something (3.4ghz I think, not sitting at it right now) 12gb of ram and a GTX 660. It doesn’t seem to matter how strenuous the game, they all have the effect.

    I tried it at my dads house, windows 7, 16GB ram, i5 2500k, GTX 970. Flawlessly smooth. It’s certainly possible it’s simply that he has a 970 and I don’t, but I’m first going to try a fresh windows 7 install on a spare drive. My windows 8 install has VMware workstation, eclipse, Arduino, DIPTrace, and many other services, Utilities and applications installed, so any number of things could be buzzing away in the background causing problems.

    Has anyone else had similar issues?

    • bp_968 says:

      Well it’s not windows 8 or a weak video card. I tried the rift on my Wife’s PC, an i5 3570k with 16gb ram, SSD drive and GTX 460 (I think about half to 2/3rd the speed of the 660 I have) and the demos I tried were flawless. So apparently it’s a specific hardware device or software I have installed on my PC. Back to testing.