Horror Highlight – Narcosis Review
Space is such a frightening setting for a horror tale because it reinterprets social disillusionment through a celestial realm. Alienation lies just beyond the sky, the border which separates the familiar from the unknown. Stars shine impossibly bright, light years away, but at any moment they might be collapsing in on themselves without us even knowing.
The sea is quite like outer space. A dark, foreign environment where alien entities are as intimidating as the pressure levels are high. But whereas space is illuminated by natural starlight, in the ocean no one can hear or see you scream as you struggle for self-preservation. The ocean is a vast hellscape that lies below the known comforts of the world, a hellscape engulfed not in flames but water.
Narcosis immediately demonstrates to the player how vulnerable they are, just how overbearing that water can be. The game’s first stage performs a balancing act, teaching them the mechanics of the high-tech diver’s suit in a laboratory testing pool while seamlessly transitioning the scene back and forth into the actual ocean depths, where disaster gradually unfurls.
This ambitious introduction perfectly establishes the rift between the comforts of simulation and apprehension stimulated through actual experience. Technically, the entire game may be considered a simulation for its audience, a metaphor for how social individuals often distance themselves from the foreign natural by disregarding it as supernatural. An intense slowness propels this introductory sequence forward, and continues to do so as the game progresses.
Inside, you’re drowning.
Every moment in Narcosis is a desperate, suffocating struggle to keep moving forward, even as an escalating darkness continues to promise little salvation.
And that deficient promise extends outwards into the realm of the universal. The game is primarily a philosophical treatise on mankind’s propensity towards chaos, in the midsts of danger and habitual distinction. Thus, the guiding narrations delve into the obscure though thoughtful, recalling a Malickian ability to bridge theoretical fiction with reality.
In this sense, the storytelling is more akin to SOMA than BioShock, establishing the underwater setting as a dark, menacing metaphor for the grueling pressures faced in efforts of primitive survival instinct. But while SOMA attempts to humanize its cast of AI carnivalesque freaks, Narcosis nearly strips away all modern technological development to bring the player closer to their naturalistic human roots, erasing the very notion of identity even as it surrounds you with distinct faces and figures — now ghosts haunting their proverbial limbo.
The weight of the protagonist’s sickening mortality is ceaselessly apparent through the cumbersome controls and harrowingly slow pacing. Doors slide open with menacing force; the player’s footsteps deafeningly reverberate with every movement; combat (which boils down to swinging a knife) reels with the energy of cutting through the thickest of fabric. The game deliberately reminds its audience of their vulnerability, both within and without the contexts of the game itself.
Simulation versus reality is a guiding theme throughout the entirety of the deep sea venture. The narrator may “believe in what [they] were doing,” but “Was it worth the cost?” The significance of human development, the sake of all mankind over the lives of individuals; these political ruminations emerge from the depths as the player dives deeper and deeper into the dark caverns below the sea. The terror of being left alone to fend for one’s own Life are hypnotically realised within Narcosis, the exotic setting serving as the wasteland through which all Men suffer implacably.
I do wish there was more humanity visible in the game’s central mechanics. A large prompt will pop on screen to indicate more taxing O2 intake whenever the player comes upon a dead body. But what is not illustrated is the protagonist’s actual mortal fear; he never demonstrates his grappling with mortality as he faces death in the face, not through verbal cues nor physical.
Similarly disappointing is how “gamey” the level design comes across as throughout. Platforming segments and monotonous reveals (usually occurring whenever the player turns around to find a monstrous though non-hostile figure) plague the otherwise dreadful venture through its otherworldly ocean depths, as though the developers at Honor Code fear losing players’ interests.
Ultimately, Narcosis feeds on the collective fear of isolation. More specifically (and importantly), an isolated death. Corpses of various crewmates are found scattered amongst the flooded underwater stations, their loneliness accentuated by collectable info regarding their professions and personalities. They serve as an important reminder, a mirror of sorts to the player, a necessary motivator to continue forward and resist a similarly fruitless Fate.
The overwhelming dread is established through instinctual responses to danger. The protagonist does not merely lose oxygen when in sight of retired colleagues, he understandably panics at the thought of his own demise.
Narcosis is deeply invested in its evaluation of the human body’s claustrophobic parameters. The flesh traps the soul, and itself is housed within a space suit primed for elemental catastrophe. Though the body subsequently grows reliant on that fortified state of being, ignorant of its very vulnerability. This treatise on the vulnerable state of all mankind aptly leads to a chilling conclusion, which posits that we are all indebted to the well-being of others, and the real horror lies in our inability to uphold such compassionate cooperation. Tragedy begets tragedy, the endless cycle of impermanence.