Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sunday: Iron Lung
In the bleak darkness of a hopeless future, humanity has been taken to the brink of extinction. In an event called the Quiet Rapture, every inhabited planet disappeared. All that remained were those who happened to be in space stations. Without any planet to call home, humanity has turned towards a mysterious and unsettling anomaly; a planet whose ocean is entirely made of blood. Iron Lung has you playing as a convict, given one final chance at freedom. Encased in a rickety submarine, you are dropped into the depths of this ocean, and sent to investigate some sights of interest. Succeed in acquiring the data, and you will be released.
A lot of horror, especially in the first person, relies on the player being able to frantically look around. Even the darkest lit games allow you to investigate what is happening around you, and in doing so, inspires a feeling of dreading the unknown. Is there a creepy goon hiding in this corner? Is a poltergeist plotting in that room? But rarely do we see a game with as absolutely minimal visibility as we get in Iron Lung.
The submarine which holds the Iron Lung namesake is without a doubt the pinnacle of space travel. A tiny, rusty tomb, with no more walking space than a coffin, is so primitive in design that the player prisoner has had the door literally welded shut behind them, and the nadir of polaroid technology to see the ocean floor. Even the front window is sealed shut. This complete lack of visuals gives this otherwise open world (open ocean?) game a sense of terrible claustrophobia and helplessness.
Non-Wanky Game Recap:
Iron Lung is a first person game. Except you may only see the inside of the sub in the first person, which is about ten square feet. Check the map, set in the desired coordinates on the arrow buttons, avoid the blinking lights, and when you’re ready to see what awaits you on the other side, walk to the back of the vessel and click the camera button. In a few seconds, you’ll get the grainiest photograph of all time to detail what is near your ship. But I imagine, even with a high def photo, the surrounding ocean floor would be just as difficult to comprehend.
As previously stated, Iron Lung gives you a great feeling of helplessness. The whole of the game takes place entirely within a box, and only a set of coordinate numbers and one photo every few minutes give clues as to what is going on. The ever-present feeling of pressure is on you, literally and figuratively; the blindness of the situation is one thing, but the creaks of the sub as well as occasional malfunctions, and above all the limited oxygen, all add up into some serious dread.
Unfortunately, the downside of holding back on giving clues as to what is happening makes the game a bit harder to interpret. It took me a while to get the hang of what Iron Lung was asking of me in regards to navigation, and even the photos were often a little too esoteric to interpret what it was I was in the presence of. While this is, of course, the point of the game, the initial third of the game was a little slow, and the terror certainly lessened a bit for an extended period.
How To Fix It:
Without visuals, I think a lot could be done with sound. Directional sound design could add some interesting elements. Iron Lung could add some mysterious scratching or deep distant roars to the ambient soundscape. Additionally, a more detailed view of the ship’s status would make navigation more immersive. A while diagram of the Iron Lung’s damage status would make for some interesting data on any damage the ship receives. These are, of course, not exactly necessary. The experience as a whole is fantastic as is. Perhaps for Iron Lung 2: Baro-Anemic.
Truly you never know what you have til it’s gone. Iron Lung requiring you to act without visual input is a terrifying challenge, giving the player acute thalassophobia without ever showing them a deep dark abyss. It does show us, however, that horror game devs may go to even the most extreme lengths to subvert the player’s expectations. I came in expecting blood-red Subnautica, and instead experienced submerged solo Guns of Icarus. An incredible concept.
You can buy Iron Lung for $6 (on sale now!) on Steam by clicking here.