I have this quirk: When I see someone struggling to breathe, whether in real life or in media, I start feeling short of breath myself. It could be an empathetic response to an extremely stressful situation for the character. You can imagine how I feel about water levels in games, then. At the very least, I’m not alone. Enter Narcosis, which is quite literally one giant water level, but this one is entirely immersed via VR. My experience was jarring, though for unexpected reasons.
Not too long after the Oculus VR mask went on, for the first time since I’ve started trying VR demos, I felt a little queasy—not quite like I was going to hurl, but more like you don’t feel like eating or moving for a long while. This, of course, could’ve been due to any number of factors: the computer, the GPU, the VR headset, or the game itself. Honor Code writer, David Chen, who sat with me and answered questions after the demo, seemed unsurprisingly apologetic once the mask came off, and I wiped a ton of sweat from my brow. Regardless, given how I am usually unresponsive to horror, I suppose this unease lent itself to the overall mood.
The first part of the demo placed me in a drowned laboratory, looking for oxygen, flares, and a way out. The level itself was fairly linear, but it was not without its tricks. You play as an industrial diver in a facility at the bottom of the ocean after a terrible accident, cutting you off from your colleagues. Stress and occasional oxygen deprivation contribute to a waning level of sanity, at least as games like Eternal Darkness have engaged with it. While rummaging through the rooms, you’ll occasionally encounter other diving suits, potentially with bodies inside, and your breathing pace will quicken, consuming oxygen faster.
While the scenery itself can be spooky, as previously stated, Narcosis has more in store. Near the end of this first level, I had to go through a room that seemingly had no door. Instead, the walls were covered with diving suits. When I turned around, there were more suits instead of the entrance I had just passed. I kept turning and turning until these figures cleared a path for me to proceed. Clearly that whole ordeal wasn’t real, but with my supply of air rapidly depleting, I knew I had to snap out of it somehow.
Apparently, that often means just going with it. In the second level, I was exploring the cliffs along the ocean bed, occasionally batting away a giant crab, basically the giant spiders of the sea. After passing through a gateway of dark water, I found myself in a repeating maze of tunnels. Each time I’d venture “further,” whatever that meant in context, the space would be populated by random objects like floating pieces of paper and an entire bookcase. During my escape, my character, voiced by Jeff Mattas, recounted childhood memories of his father daring him to hold his breath underwater for long periods of time.
On top of feeling almost nauseous, having my head coated in sweat, and listening to this tale, I, too, nearly ran out of breath. Despite the questionable physical experience, Narcosis felt like a dark kind of VR experience I’d like more of. The final product, which should run about four to five hours in length, should be released in Q2 for Oculus, Steam, and Xbox One. It may be without the mask, but I see myself checking it out, too. I just won’t hold my breath…hopefully.