It’s not quite October, but it’s close enough. So begins another Indie Horror Month!
There’s something wonderfully meta about a game premised on exploring the deep, dark depths of the sea, that can only be found by exploring the deep, dark depths of Steam’s discount dollar game bin. Pricing itself at a measly $1.00, Reveal the Deep willingly burdens itself with low expectations, and then effortlessly swats them away. Save for the weirdly sparse main menu, this is a game that is smartly designed and polished well beyond its price point.
You start the game in an old-timey diving suit, already at the bottom of the sea, and already on the deck of a sunken ocean liner, which is about as in medias res as you can get. Who are you? What is the ship? Where are you? When is it? Why are you here? How did you get here? No effort is made to explain the situation, but even with all these questions up in the air, one thing is clear: something is wrong. There’s no air hose attached to your diving suit, which means that there’s no team on the surface watching out for you. Whatever your reasons are for being here, you’re here alone, and that isolation is made palpable through the art and the sound.
The only light comes from your helmet. It shoots a wide beam that you can turn on and off by knocking your head with a fist (a funny animation that helps sell the lie this is a low stakes exploration game). Turning the light off plunges you into darkness, but turning it on doesn’t exactly light up the world. The wide beam is dim, casting hard shadows, and only in the direction that you’re facing. The light only makes you more aware of the darkness as you can never see all around you at once. Your back is always exposed.
Then there are the ghostly lamps. Throughout the broken ship, you’ll find some rooms with intact wall lamps. If you turn your helmet light off in these rooms, the lamps turn on, transforming the immediate area into a vision of the past when the ship was whole. Tables repair themselves, holes are patched up, voices are heard, and old journals appear from nowhere. Naturally, these journals give us clues as to the ship’s fate, told from the perspectives of three different passengers.
The back story starts off innocently enough, keeping up the charade of casual exploration. It’s impressive how much the game holds itself back, yet the slow-burn horror doesn’t feel as slow when the environment itself is this oppressive. Reveal the Deep could be effectively scary if it was just Us vs. the Ghostly Environment, but when we encounter our first petrified human husk, it’s clear that this is no ghost story.
A little black thing bursts from the husk and flees from our light. It’s a shocking moment because it represents a change in genre. The game switches from low stakes exploration to survival against unknown creatures, a switch that makes us even more aware of our isolation. There’s so much that we don’t know about our situation, and we’re so ill-equipped to deal with any of it. What the hell are we doing? There’s actually a good reason for everything. You’ll understand your situation by the end of the game, and it’s impressive how the story circles around on itself, saving your first question to be answered last. The storytelling is simple, but efficient.
The story, however, is not particularly scary. Spooky for sure, but the scariest thing in the game is its use of sound. It’s unusually noisy down here on the ocean floor. There’s your own heavy breathing that emanates as a metallic echo thanks to the diving suit. There’s the creaking and settling of the ship, a jittery orchestra that makes every step feel dangerous, like you’re breaking the busted up hull even more. There are the ghostly voices from the past; crying, murmuring, or the din of an old party. Then there are the footsteps and the banging of doors, too loud to be ghosts but too infrequent to be from the ship itself.
It all works to create a symphony of creepiness that never lets up. It’s noisy, but it’s all a specific kind of noise that emphasizes death, emptiness, and danger. Our heavy breathing echoes so loudly because the space is so empty, the ship’s creaking is so constant because it has been destroyed, and the ghostly noises are, of course, coming from dead people. Footsteps come from creatures that literally jump out of a human shell. As a result, every sound is like a bullhorn reminding us of our isolation.
Reveal the Deep asks whether it’s more frightening to be the only living thing around or to be the only human thing around. Either way, we’re alone, and either way, our solitude brings with it added danger. So, either way, we’re kind of screwed.
Reveal the Deep is available on Steam for only a buck.