With my claustrophobia, my girlfriend’s fear of the ocean, and our shared dislike for horror films, a game set entirely in a diving suit, on the ocean floor, with jump-scares perhaps isn’t the greatest idea for date night. One thing we both enjoy, though, is a good story, and with a tightly focused plot and short running time, Narcosis seemed like a good opportunity to get through a game from start to finish in a couple of evenings, and perhaps go someway to combatting our fears.
Narcosis comes from developer Honor Code, and though it is VR compatible, I played it on a standard TV, which I found more than immersive enough. You play as an employee of Oceanova, a deep-sea mining company, and a massive underwater earthquake has just caused major damage to your facility, leaving you trapped underwater and in search of rescue. The entire experience of Narcosis takes place in first-person, with your surroundings viewed through the faceplate of a diving suit, and by finding your way back to base, you hope to escape from this nightmarish situation.
Narcosis is labeled as a horror game, but aside from a couple of startling moments, I didn’t find myself leaving my seat at all. The horror refers more to the sense of atmosphere that the game creates, and the general feeling of unease that pervades throughout the experience. You don’t have a health meter, per se, but you do need to keep an eye on your oxygen levels, which can be replenished at stations dotted along your path. Oxygen is the main indicator of your well-being, as it will deplete at a faster rate during stressful experiences, and will constantly drain as you explore.
Much of Narcosis plays out like a fairground ride, as there isn’t much opportunity to wander off of the path that the game intends for you, and it sometimes feels as if you’re just following a corridor until the game throws its next event your way. There are a few fairly simple puzzles to cause your brain to work a little bit, and a couple of levels do have some larger areas for you to explore a little, but for the most part Narcosis is a pretty linear experience. This actually works in the game’s favor, both narratively and mechanically, as I found that the areas in which you’re given more freedom were the weakest parts of the whole experience. In fact, during one section about halfway through the game, the temporary lack of direction caused the narrative pacing to grind to a halt, and left me seriously considering whether I wanted to continue.
I’m thankful that I persevered, however, as the narrative that Narcosis offers is intriguing and well delivered. This isn’t an experience that will win any writing awards, but the game delivers brief story hooks well through environmental clues and collectibles, and provides a pay-off at the end that makes the experience worthwhile. While Narcosis isn’t the kind of game that begs to be replayed, as it’s pretty much going to be the same experience for each player, its story has enough layers that it’s entirely possible to still be thinking about it a couple of days after finishing.
With its underwater setting, and the fact that the protagonist spends his time inside a diving suit, it might be understandable if Narcosis drew comparisons to the Bioshock series. While it doesn’t offer up anywhere near the freedom of choice that Bioshock does in terms of gameplay, it isn’t far behind in terms of atmosphere and story presentation. Obviously, with a shorter running time, there’s less opportunity for world building than Rapture had the opportunity to do, but I came away from Narcosis more than satisfied with what I’d seen. It’s not action-packed, and it’s not truly terrifying, but I found the story engrossing, and it was linear enough that I actually found the experience reasonably relaxing, in a strange way. If you’re looking for a shorter game with a decent tale to tell, then Narcosis is certainly worth a look.