I had a breakup with the horror genre years ago when I was banned from the spooky Halloween hayride because I accidentally, on impulse, punched one of the actors who jumped out to scare me. That was the proverbial last straw, as I had previously taken swings at the empty air when something leaped out at me on the movie screen, and at one point, I even reacted to a sudden reveal in a video game by hurling my controller at the television screen. I didn’t expect to be diving into the horror-survival genre again any time soon, but the premise of Narcosis, a narrative-driven virtual reality psychological thriller where you must fight for survival at the bottom of the ocean drew me in, and by God did it deliver.
While there were plenty of jump-scares seeded throughout the game (and yes, I did try to punch a few cuttlefish which decided to try and eat my face), the real meat of this game involves a more primal, psychosocial approach to horror. While isolation is supposed to be one of the primary themes, I actually found it kind of quiet and peaceful at the bottom of the ocean, which probably says more about me than it does the game itself. The real stress came from a sense of claustrophobia, the darkness, and the the fact that I often had to turn around, knowing that there was something terrible waiting behind my back.
There really aren’t any branching paths in Narcosis, though it’s all too easy to wander off in the wrong direction, which usually results in a quick death by lack of oxygen or depressurization. The correct path is not marked, and you generally only know that you’re going the right way because narration starts, or the game indicates that it’s saving. Narcosis is not a simple, straightforward path through scary things, observation and problem solving are critical to your characters survival. You have to maintain your oxygen supply, which is something you tear through surprisingly quickly. Oxygen consumption goes up whenever you are in dangerous or stressful situations, such as when giant sea creatures try to kill you, or when you are in close proximity to dead bodies… and there are lot of dead bodies. Also critical to your survival, but less challenging thanks to there being an ample supply of them, is maintaining a healthy supply of flares, which allow you to light up the dark part of the deep and avoid falling to your death inside trenches.
Narcosis is especially powerful in VR. The narrative is about isolation and mind games, and virtual reality makes it much more powerful. The story revolves around being inside a pressure suit, and the game often ends when the integrity of your helmet fails. Given that you’re strapped into headgear to play, this already immersive experience becomes all the more real, and makes you feel like you’re cheating if you scratch your nose. Everything feels that much closer when you’re inside the visor. I could feel myself trapped within this reality, I could really feel how cumbersome it was to turn my pressure suit-laiden body. Only adding to the effect was the fact that my character’s breath fogged up the inside of the visor, and his exhalations matched my own breathing with shocking regularity.
Part of the brilliance of this game is how well it plays with primal human instincts. Low ceilings and small spaces touch upon claustrophobia you may not have even known you had, a feeling which is only amplified by the fog of character’s breathing reminding you of just how close the faceplate is. Darkness and the unknown awaits you, and the truly alien landscapes at the bottom of the ocean combine with otherworldly, often bioluminescent flora and fauna further stress your subconscious. Combine that with the pressure of trying to survive, to navigate and to maintain your oxygen supply, and there’s already plenty for you to deal with. Then there are the deep sea predators. Their exoskeletons click and creak as they approach, they fill the already murky waters with their ink and blood, further limiting your vision, and they will all compromise your pressure suit in order to make a meal of you in the darkness of the ocean depths. Sometimes they’re just in the distance, you catch a brief glimpse of them and remember how fragile your pressure suit is, sometimes they’re braced and ready to attack, but you’re constantly aware that they’re nearby, lurking just out of view.
As if the task of surviving this hostile environment, finding other survivors and reaching the surface was not challenging enough, Narcosis takes it all one step further and alters reality itself. Isolated, stressed and often oxygen deprived, your character’s mind starts to slip. Hallways change, ghostly figures in pressure suits shimmer in the distance, reality itself warps before your eyes, turning rooms upside down, making exit doors vanish, distorting your sense of time, space and direction, forcing you to collect and reorient yourself under pressure. It’s incredible some of the unexpected changes the environment within the game takes, and those of us who played it found ourselves eagerly chatting, rehashing those parts, wondering if that really happened, or just the result of the character’s mind slipping.
The heart of this game is the story behind it: A beautiful, twisted tale of tragedy and survival. The voice acting is stellar and genuine, which helps further draw you into the world of Narcosis, providing context for what you’re seeing, and using empathy to anchor you to the experience. The shifting reality means that you often have to rely heavily on the the narration of your character for context, further binding you him. The sidequests within the game also draw upon your humanity. As you try to make your way back to the surface, you collect ID chips from corpses, which provide you with photos and profiles of your fallen coworkers, building a comprehensive database of those who died at the bottom of the ocean. You are also challenged to collect personal objects, such as plush toys, presumably to bring back to the family members of the deceased.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the motion sickness that comes from this game. The motion sickness I most commonly encountered in this game is more subtle, not the kind of stomach churning event I’m used to experiencing in VR. After a couple hours in the visor, I felt… off. Because my body was not entirely sure what was wrong, and the game itself had me hyped up on adrenaline, I was restless, unable to sit still, and getting really odd signals such as being chilly despite being in a warm room.
You play Narcosis with a standard controller, and use the left thumbstick to move and the right one to turn. Because I knew I was in a pressure suit, and I could see the controls of the suit in the visor, my brain was ready to accept this reality, and this should have eliminated all of my motion sickness, much like how feeling like I was inside a helicopter cockpit banished my motion sickness while playing the Archangel demo. The problem stemmed from the fact that there are a lot of odd outcroppings of rock and coral which you have to move around. The game tries to be kind by letting you edge around smaller outcroppings without requiring you to perfectly navigate with the right stick, but it turns your point of view as it does so, and when you’re expecting to go straight forward, it can cause that funny tickle in your brain and belly. It’s minor and not bad on its own, but it can build up over extended periods of play.
The really nasty kind comes from the fact that turning your head also turns the direction of your body, something which feels completely counter intuitive to the right thumbstick controls. This is a huge trap for anyone who has played a first person shooter, because it’s such an easy, common thing to move straight forward while looking left and right. In this way Narcosis seems to violate its own in-world physics. Because you are inside a bolted-down helmet, turning your head feels like it should have no impact on your trajectory. You have to be aware of your surroundings, and upon seeing something out of the corner of your eye, it’s only natural to turn your head and look that way. Unfortunately, doing so causes what is supposed to be straight forward movement to turn suddenly twist that direction, causing your stomach to go spinning off to be lost in the ocean currents.
I also made the mistake of playing in a chair capable of turning from side to side, something I strongly advise against. Your body will react in primal, instinctual ways to what you experience in this game, and it’s all too easy for you to, unknown to you inside the visor, physically turn slightly to the right or to the left while lashing out with your knife or flailing away from a scary figure or an underwater predator. Even a slight reorientation of your body can cause your field of vision to start slowly spinning out of your control, which is a pretty miserable, stomach churning experience, especially if you are already a little unsteady from playing for a while.
You’ll be turning your head a lot, because there’s plenty to see in Narcosis, from amazing underwater landscapes to bioluminescent plants and fish to destroyed machinery, equipment and dead bodies. The graphics are good, though natural landscapes and sea life are noticeably more believable than humans. This game was designed with its own limits in mind, and while things may not be believable or highly detailed in all places, the developers did a great job of combining just enough detail and just enough of the darkness and the unknown at key moments to produce some truly thrilling, terrifying visuals.
It’s hard to put Narcosis down. It offers three to four (or if you die as many times as I did, possibly six) hours of gameplay, but it sends you on a truly unique journey and carves out a place in your psyche. It strikes an impressive balance between psychological horror, exploration, jump-scares, story and problem solving. You want more, you want to know what happened, you want to get to open air again, and you’re left rehashing events over and over again. Hours after you’ve taken off the headgear, you find yourself wondering what’s real and what was the creation of your characters overtaxed brain. Narcosis crawls under your skin, it tingles in the back of your brain, and it leaves you wanting to learn more, to explore more and to be scared more.