I’m pacing the dank, red-lit command deck, haggard even before the voyage starts, and worrying about my crew. They’re an untrained bunch; a mob of roustabouts I hired at the last waystation because I couldn’t afford anyone else. And in truth, I’ve got barely more experience than them - but I can’t let them sense my weakness.
Even now I can hear my schlubmariners clanking around in the bilges, bumping into things and giggling like schoolboys as they drop their tools. Behind their racket, however, there are other sounds. Deep groans as the hull contorts under the immense pressure of the water outside, and metallic ticks that could be rivets settling, or could be claws testing the weld-lines of the hull from the outside. This isn’t our ocean, after all.
But I’ve got more immediate concerns than phantoms out in the black. My medical officer, Lt. Lamp, was meant to report to the bridge minutes ago, and despite my increasingly irate demands for him to report his status, he’ll only offer foolish excuses. “Nearly there, sir” he’ll say, in his calm Welsh baritone. “Just two ticks, skipper”.
Eventually, Lamp reports that he’s ready for duty, and the bridge’s door opens with a greasy hiss. Sure enough, there he is. But my medical officer is dressed as a clown. And he’s playing circus music on an acoustic guitar. I raise my pistol, fearing that the madness of spending months beneath the ice has caught up with me at last. But then Lamp speaks up.
“Why sir,” he implores, thinking I can’t hear the smile in his voice, “whyever would you point that gun at me? I’m here, just as you asked.”
“I asked for a fucking doctor, Lamp. What the hell is this?”
“A doctor, sir?” he says, with the dry amusement of a 1970s policeman. “Oh no. I’m afraid you’re quite mistaken, sir. I’m the ship’s jester, you see.”
This is my first proper game of Barotrauma, the co-op science fiction submarine sim that entered Steam Early Access yesterday, and it’s completely baffling - in exactly the way I was hoping it would be.
On the one hand, here’s a game absolutely loaded with atmosphere: it’s about working together to crew intensely vulnerable, grimy submarines, on voyages through the hostile darkness beneath the ice of an alien world. Played straight, it’s got the potential to be a unique blend of tense, everyone-has-their-job co-op play, and visceral SF horror.
But then, there are also clown outfits, aren’t there.
Five minutes later in the game described above, The sub is plunging down into the depths of Europa, taking on water through a dozen punctures in the hull, as the chief engineer haplessly tries to weld the breaches shut. Lt. Lamp, meanwhile, is strangling me, all the while reassuring me that he would never do a thing to hurt me. I think he’s injected me with an alien parasite, too. Our mechanic has picked up Lamp’s discarded guitar, and is playing us a dismal shanty as the lights flicker and die.
The icy water rises past my character’s head, the filthy paws of the clown still clamped round his windpipe. The screen blurs as he begins to drown, and I feel rather than see the detonation of an explosive charge somewhere towards the stern. As blackness rises, the last thing I hear is Lamp’s rich Welsh voice, as satisfied as a beano character receiving a reward-meal of bangers and mash, saying “mission accomplished, sir”.
Of course. I know where I’ve felt this exact sensation before. While playing Space Station 13, the theoretically straight-laced space station management game whose community turned it into a masterpiece of dadaist immersive theatre. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for BYOND, its unforgivably shit, borderline unusable engine, SS13 might have been my favourite multiplayer game of all time. Bartorauma developers FakeFish have made no secret of the fact they were looking to bottle SS13’s lightning with this game, and if the few rounds I’ve played so far are any indication, they’re in with a good shot at managing it.
Barotrauma is played from a side-on perspective rather than a top-down one, and the levels are neither as vast nor as varied as SS13’s - while in SS13 you could cook food, grow genetically modified cannabis, put a man’s mind inside a robot and generally achieve any atrocity your imagination could fathom, here the range of possibilities are much more geared towards the task at hand. That is to say, you’re broadly limited to interacting with things that could conceivably be found on a submarine, or at least in the nightmarish sea that surrounds it.
That still leaves huge room for creativity, however (as the good Lt. Lamp proved), and I get the feeling that now Barotrauma is in early access, we’re just at the start of the potential nonsense gradient. Better yet, the game already looks very decent - although it's so dark and hectic, it's bloody hard to get decent screenshots. Also, it isn’t built on the BYOND engine, which was a tool designed by a malevolent god to punish mankind. As things stand, it seems like it’s got a well-motivated team, a solid idea of what it wants to be, and a lot of room to grow into.
The next game I play happens to be with the FakeFish team themselves, as there aren’t many other people to play with in the pre-release build I’m using. This time, I’m the medic, and the game starts with an altogether different air. These are a group of mariners who feel like they’ve been sailing this alien abyss their whole lives. They’ve got that uniquely Finnish sense of jovial grimness to them, and I can genuinely imagine them as a crew of steely-eyed, cableknit-sweatered roughnecks running cargo missions through a sea on the bleak edge of space. It's reassuring.
This time, our mission is simple - we’re going to hunt down one of the sinuous, bioluminescent predators known as Tiger Threshers, and we’re going to harpoon the shit out of it. Since nobody’s injured yet, I’m sent to one of the sub’s coilgun turrets to watch out for hostile sealife as we travel. As I man the gun, the camera shifts from my character to the water outside, lit by the turret's searchlight, and I scrutinise every flake of marine detritus for hostile intentions. Peering out into the hadal gloom, I pass the time by listening to the crew go about their routine. Although things could go to shit at any moment, it’s weirdly calming hearing them maintain the reactor, switch sonar modes, and climb ladders to maintain the boat’s faulty wiring.
Needless to say, that’s when things go to shit. It all starts with a flicker in the water at the edge of my lights. Something nasty, with puffy grey skin and a glint of red eye. It’s a creature called a Mudraptor, and before I can react properly, it’s clamped down on the hull and trying to chew its way in.
I blast it full of holes, but since it’s already on the submarine, the boat ends up full of holes too. A deafening alarm echoes through the hull as red lights slam on and water pours in, but the crew are laughing even as they scramble to patch up the damage. Apparently, this is a classic schoolboy error.
There’s no time to reflect, however. Lead designer Ezra Jämsen - aka head of security Chad Husk - is calling me to the topside airlock. There’s another one of the bastard creatures on the front of the boat, and it’s going to need dislodging by hand. So I suit up, grab the revolver he throws me, and follow him out into the pitch-black water.
When we manage to cancel the beast’s life, and watch it sinking into the deeps in a cloud of blood, I’m genuinely exhilarated. Much like SS13, Barotrauma makes ordinary tasks difficult and complex enough that when you achieve something without causing grievous injury or damage, you get to bask in an illusion of hypercompetence. I feel like the smooth-faced protagonist of a YA science fiction story, who’s just proved themselves to a crew of hardbitten veterans.
The mission proceeds, and we harpoon the Tiger Thresher with surprisingly little fanfare. Job done, right? We prepare to head on to the next waystation to pick up our reward - only to be set upon by a full swarm of Mudraptors. This time, the vile things manage to force their way into the ship, and a hideous close-quarters battle ensues. There’s fire, and flooding, and a horrible moment of freefall before the sub clangs into the bottom of the sea.
At one point, I find myself desperately trying to resuscitate Andy - the other token englishman and the ship’s mechanic - who’s collapsed in waist-deep seawater with horrific burns on most of his limbs. I have to work fast as he’s bleeding out, and things aren’t helped by the fact that chief engineer Jauhiainen (FakeFish's CEO) is beating back a Mudraptor with a crowbar just twelve feet away. Nevertheless, after a brief bout of frantic mousework (Barotrauma has a surprisingly excellent medical minigame), Andy is back in the land of the living, and I feel like I’m an actual qualified trauma surgeon.
The mudraptors are seen off, but the damage has been done, and conditions on the sub go from bad to worse as systems drop like dominos. In the end, things get so dire that the entire vessel is flooded, and the only surviving crew are the Captain (the game's original creator Joonas Rikkonen) and I. We’re swimming around with diving masks, desperately trying to bring the reactor online and pump a compartment dry before we run out of oxygen.
As it happens, we manage, but it soon becomes clear that we’ll never manage to pull the sub out of its death spiral - at least not without dragging the game out to the point of tedium. And so we abandon ourselves to the passionless embrace of Europa, to join all the other dead sailors in its depths.
While this second round of play was less ostensibly ridiculous than the Clown Affair - we played it relatively straight, after all - it was no less laughter-inducing. Something about the ragdoll animations of Barotrauma’s characters, and the sheer chaos of the game’s inevitable catastrophes, turns every crisis into a desperate farce. Stressful though they might be, they’re inescapably laden with pure slapstick. I'm not sure how Barotrauma manages to blend such a heavy setting and such comedic play while keeping both intact, but it somehow pulls it off: it's pure bathyscaphic bathos.
My second game also showed me just how far Barotrauma still has to go before it reaches its full potential. It’s clear that the game’s enemies, its system simulations, and the balancing of its various hazards are still nowhere near their finished state. And it seems all too easy for subs to get drawn into long, drawn-out doom cascades, which can only be averted through long, finicky struggles. That might actually be quite accurate, but it’s not that conducive to rapid-fire, round-based co-op play.
There’s also still little functional single player content (the campaign is little more than a shell), and - at least in the week before it launched into Early Access - it was very hard to tell as an outsider to the game’s community, just which of the game’s historical features were still present, which had been removed, and which had been overhauled. Oh, and multiplayer server management was janky as hell last week, although I know that was due to improve by launch.
In short, it's still got some seriously rough edges. But the developers are perfectly open and aware about what's still broken, and - just like a team of stoic Nordic sailors wrestling a battered vessel from the sea floor, they seem to have a solid plan for bringing it to the surface. At the risk of stating the obvious, this sort of gradual, iterative design-in-flight is what Early Access is for.
Regardless, even if Barotrauma was abandoned tomorrow, it would still be worth the asking price of £22, just to recapture that Space Station 13 magic during the occasional round with friends (once we've finished the Wastes of Space series, I'm almost certainly going to be using Barotrauma for the next RPS multiplayer diary, too).
And if it keeps being refined at its current rate, it could grow into something monstrously compelling, which I could see myself losing many, many evenings to. Hell, even if all the silliness dropped out of the game (as one might expect in single player), I’d still be on board - a game about mariners under an alien sea is like something straight from my subconscious wishlist, even without all the panic-welding and strangleclowns.
Suffice to say I’ll be following this one closely, like a pack of ghoulish albino predators in the wake of a damaged submarine.
Barotrauma is out now via Steam Early Access
[Disclosure: When he's not writing for RPS, Nate Crowley is a science fiction author with a thing for nightmare alien oceans, so he was clearly going to love this]