Video games often give you the chance to explore a vast and wondrous landscape, bringing you to beautiful and horrifying sights. But how do you simulate that feeling while only giving the player a small, room-sized space to play in? That’s the exact challenge David Szymanski, developer of the throwback FPS Dusk, undertakes in Iron Lung. After every known star and planet in the universe has vanished, the last remnants of humanity send a prisoner, the player, to a strange moon covered in an ocean of blood in order to explore what secrets may lie beneath the surface. But you’ll never actually see any of that. The only thing you see is the interior of the tiny sub you’ve been welded into, and the low-resolution pictures you can take from within.
The intro text states that there’s no time to train the prisoner on the operation of the sub before launch, and that’s definitely the case in the game. Part of the early game fun is figuring out what you are supposed to do and how to move the submarine around without being able to see the outside world. Your porthole has been welded shut due to the mounting pressure at your depths, so your only way of knowing where you are is a set of coordinates and a map of the ocean floor. The only two points of interaction in your sub are a control panel in the front to steer, and a big button in the back that takes a photo for you to examine the outside world on a grainy screen.
So much of this is a very tactile and crunchy experience. You have to physically walk around the cramped space to press the various buttons rather than just doing it through some slicker user interface. There’s a delay between hitting the camera button and the image popping up, almost like a dot matrix printer putting together this grainy, black and white image of the ocean floor. Having the player walk around forces you to confront the claustrophobia of your situation, immediately setting a tense atmosphere, and the clunkiness of the technology makes it feel that much more dangerous and desperate of a mission.
The minimalist gameplay here may seem limiting to some, but it’s one of the game’s smartest design decisions. There’s a simple tension that comes from blindly navigating your sub, constantly looking at the map to try to figure out what you are to make sure you don’t crash your sub. It’s a finicky process, but focusing on minutiae does a great job of lulling you into a rhythm and keeping you from bracing yourself for surprises. Short horror games often have a habit of devolving into jump scares, but Iron Lung keeps your brain busy with numbers and course adjustments just enough that it can sneak up on you. The game is also at its best when it’s making you question the rules it has set up. There are moments where you’re looking at the map and you feel like you shouldn’t be close to a wall, but for some reason, your motion sensor starts beeping at you. Do you have your calculations wrong, or could it be something else?
Even more so than most horror games, Iron Lung builds tension through exceptional sound design. Right off the bat, there’s some increasingly garbled dialog from whoever is sending you on this mission that slowly breaks down as you reach critical depth. The sounds of the ocean around you range from mundane to worrying as you begin to suspect there are creatures out there that you have no way of seeing. Audio cues clue you into the breakdown of your sub as it continues to fall apart in the pressure. The droning score, which Szymanski says was inspired
by the work of Doom 64 composer Aubrey Hodges, is minimal, but subtly emphasizes key events. Every bit of the soundscape succeeds in enhancing an already wonderful atmosphere.
The tiny playspace is rendered in chunky polygons with low fidelity textures, in the best possible way. The blurriness of the pixels gives everything such a grimy feel, painting the rusty deathtrap your travel in, with clunky buttons and displays that barely look like enough to drive with. There was even a moment while playing where I wasn’t sure if the low-fi textures were just getting fuzzier or if my control panel was actually moving, making me question my own view of what was going on. Once again Iron Lung proves that sometimes horror games can benefit from having lower detail graphics to allow you to fill in the blanks on your own.
So many games on the market have trouble controlling their scale. Feature creep causes projects to spiral out of control and lose the core of what makes them work in the first place. Iron Lung is the opposite of that. It takes a small palette and squeezes every ounce of game out of that and ends before it wears out its welcome. Clocking in at only an hour, it draws you in, ratchets the tension, and ends with a bang. As someone who finds themselves wanting increasingly shorter experiences, this is the type of video game I carve. I generally only know Szymanski because of Dusk, and Iron Lung definitely makes me want to dive into his back catalog and try out some of his other horror shorts.
Iron Lung is out now on PC.