It’s Shark Week, the time of year when everyone’s thoughts go out to the most terrifying creatures of the ocean – the bane of surfers, swimmers, frantic beachgoers (and smaller sea life) everywhere: the blood-sniffing, bone-crunching hunters of the deep.
If you think sharks are scary, you haven’t seen anything yet. Rather, the correct term in this case would be “heard”, since today we’re talking about Robin Arnott’s infamously terrifying sound-only game, Deep Sea. In the game (which was featured at the Indiecade booth at E3 2011), players don a World War 1 era gas mask that essentially acts as a sensory deprivation chamber, and plunge into the intensely scary sound-only world of the game.
You are a lone diver, armed with missiles to defend yourself against invisible sea creatures – that are attracted to the real-life sound of your breathing. Hold your breath, listen hard, and try not to scare yourself into a literal blackout – and you might “win”.
We were able to catch up with Arnott and chat about how he created his terrifying creatures, their cinematic inspiration, and his take on why we find horrifying sea monsters so fascinating.
Deep Sea is definitely the scariest game I've ever played, since it so accurately captures the feeling of being hunted. How did you create the terrifying creatures (using only sound) that are scarier than anything a traditional horror game can throw at players? What was your inspiration for making them?
As long as it's shark week, let's talk about JAWS. On production, the robo-shark broke, so they were forced to shoot most of the scenes with the famous shark... without the famous shark. And now we have a whole generation afraid to go in the water! There's a lesson there that has stuck with the horror genre in film ever since - that imagination will trump production every time. That's the inspiration.
Can you dip into a few tricks of your trade? What sounds actually went into making the "creatures" sound so terrifying?
This was a huge design challenge in the game. Sound carries much more energy through water than air, it just plain sounds different, and while I could have used the Hollywood trick of EQing out the high-end and adding some reverb to air-based sounds, but that wasn't the game I wanted to make. Almost all of the sounds were recorded by a contact microphone - usually taped to my neck while I either vocalized or stuck a flexible tube down my throat, which carried an amplified sound.
To give it a little extra space, I'd take that sound, and pump it through 7 feet of PVC pipe.
What is it about the ocean and undersea creatures that we find so fascinating and scary? Is there an inherent sense of danger about that world?
I think there is. We're land mammals - we're not exactly fit for an underwater environment. It's not a safe place for us, and I think over the evolution of our species our bodies have internalized a fear and respect for the ocean.
On another level, we've come a really, really long way in the last 5000 years: our collective human knowledge now extends to a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the big bang. That's frickin' ridiculous! But you can't point telescopes into the ocean to learn her secrets, you have to actually go there. There are untold secrets in our deepest oceans that titillate our imaginations and baffle all logic. I think, culturally, the confidence we have in our mastery of the universe doesn't extend down there.
Danielle Riendeau is a freelance writer, digital media professor, and nonprofit communications ninja in San Francisco.