On January 16, 2015, BSK Games released Anoxemia for the PC and two years later, the game received a version for the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. This side scroller allows fans of the BioShock franchise to return to a familiar setting — the bottom of the ocean. There is a twist; however, as instead of exploring the ruins of a fallen underwater utopia, you swim through the ocean itself.
This production features 38 levels to explore, where players must avoid armed weapons. Failure do to so will result in an instalkill. This setting presents players with many questions. Will the diver survive? What are weapons doing in the bottom of the sea? Who exactly is the diver? Combined with the tension of knowing that a single mistake can cost your life, the core concept of Anoxemia holds plenty of promise, but does it keep up with the expectations?
Strap inside your diving suit. Let's head to the bottom of things to find out.
Anoxemia is available for $7.99 on the PlayStation Store.
The game starts after a diver, who had been tasked to collect samples from a contaminated submarine field, loses contact with the surface. You control his drone and must use it to guide him and navigate through the environment, as you discover weapons that were installed for a war that took place decades ago.
The narrative begins with an introduction 2D cutscene (above), describing the events that led the diver to become stranded in the bottom of the ocean. While this sequence does a good job in providing the information needed to dive into the story, it fails to deliver it in an exciting manner. This occurs, because this scene happens strictly in the past, thus making it lose its sense of urgency. One technique developers could have used to make this sequence more interesting is mixing present and future.
The scene could start in the present, with the protagonist receiving his mission briefing and shortly after the image could transition to him in the middle of his assignment, exploring the ocean Tthis would give an insight into the future, known as foreshadowing, as it would introduce the player to the universe of the game and the type of activity that will be performed therein, once the playable session starts.
This change would potentially make the introduction more interesting, as it would deliver a higher sense of urgency, because the player would witness an action that is happening now, as opposed to being lectured about an event that has already ended. Additionally, showing to players a preview of the actions they will perform in a game, through the intro, is paramount, in order to hook them from the start. The intro used in Anoxemia fails to do that. In case you are interested in learning more on how to craft a successful intro, you can watch the episode below from the YouTube channel Extra Credits.
As for the remainder of the narrative, the game relies heavily on environmental storytelling, which consists of telling a story through the environment. The game makes it clear right from the start, when you encounter the first weapon trying to kill you. The fact that there is military machinery underwater tells something about the nature of the place you are exploring. As you continue to navigate through the levels, you see on the background images of abandoned buildings. These visual clues allow you to put the puzzle of the narrative together and are intended to maintain your interest level high. However, this is not the case.
Due to a lack of differentiation between the levels, the sense of novelty with each new landmark discovered quickly becomes insignificant, thus making environmental storytelling lose its effectiveness, resulting in a uninteresting story. The approach of using the world to tell a story worked well in other side scrolling games, such as Inside and Limbo, because in these titles, the setting changed constantly, thus ensuring players remained interested in the story. The opposite happens in this game.
In this story, there are only two characters — the diver and ATMA, the drone you control. Creating characters that resonate with an audience is a challenge to any writer, but in Anoxemia this plight is even tougher, as during the story players never see the face of the diver, thus making it harder to humanize the experience and make him relateable to the audience. The only instances when you see the personality of the diver is in brief moments, when he comments on his situation, in the form of a soliloquy. Considering how rare these moments are, the writer should have deployed every possible technique to create a compelling character. This did not happen; however.
The lines of dialogue written for the diver fail to convey a personality, because they sound more as a mere description of the situation, instead of actual thoughts. This is worsened by the fact that the diver does not hint to his personality or his background story, thus making him have no depth as a character. This results in players not connecting with him in a significant level. There is a technique that would have prevented this from happening. It comes from theater and was employed successfully in another game.
BioShock faces a similar dilemma, because players never get to see the characters of the plot in person; however, it thrived in creating likable personalities, because of its highly stylized dialogue, which ensures that every character has a distinct voice that allows players to have have a good grasp of their personality and background. For instance:
"Ryan's handed the keys to Fort Frolic over to a guy named Sander Cohen. Cohen's an artist, says some. He's a Section Eight, says I. I've seen all kinds of cutthroats, freaks, and hard cases in my life, but Cohen, he's a real lunatic, a dyed-in-the-wool psychopath." – Atlas
Ken Levine, the writer of BioShock, opted for this style, because in audiovisual experiences, actions, body language and dialogue are the means to convey characterization, but in BioShock players do not see these first two items, as players only listen to the characters through a radio. The solution to create memorable characters; therefore, was to compensate this in the dialogue, hence the decision of using highly stylized writing. If Anoxemia had followed the same modus operandi, it would have created a more memorable experience, as players would resonate better with the diver upon getting insight on his personality and background.
"She [the character] speaks like no one we have ever met before. Her language style not only sets her apart from all other cast members but also, if the writing is masterful, from all other fictional characters."
Considering that players must use ATMA to guide the diver, this creates a co-dependency between these two characters. This is a requirement to use one of the most effective techniques available in gaming to make players connect with a character — the Yorda effect. In his book Level Up! The Ultimate Guide for Game Design, Scott Rogers describes it.
"Named after the non-player character from Ico, Yorda is a young girl that Ico has to protect from enemies and help transverse the environment as the pair attempts to escape a mysterious castle. Yorda is portrayed as a (mostly) helpless character, and her survival is critical to the player's success. If Yorda dies, so do you. This co-dependency between characters creates a protective relationship, in which the player comes to genuinely care about the welfare of the NPC."
With this said, if ATMA had a personality and could communicate with the diver and vice-verse, Anoxemia would have all the tools it needed to develop a meaningful bond between the player and the characters on screen, using the Yorda Effect, but as the diver could not display a strong personality and ATMA had none, the game missed this chance and crafted a narrative with little emotional impact.
Despite hooking players with an interesting premise, the aforementioned factors will ensure players forget about the story and focus exclusively on gameplay. Despite the game being sold as a "narrative driven experience", if you wish to play a production that will keep your eyes glued to the screen from start to finish, you will find better alternatives elsewhere.
The main objective of Anoxemia, just as any other side scrolling game, is to reach the end of the map, but this does not mean the path is linear. You can use dynamite to explode walls and unlock new areas, thus emphasizing the element of exploration in this title.
As you explore the maps, you must avoid the deadly traps placed therein, which range from mines to torpedoes. You often need to time your moves properly and have a steady hand to make your way through the map without touching one of the many traps. Failure to do so will often cause an instakill. The developers describe their game as "very hard" and they are correct. This game will appeal to those who wish to find a challenge. One of the most notorious aspects of the gameplay of this title is the millimetric precision of your movements, thus making it possible for players to reach a satisfactory level of accuracy, which is paramount when a slight mistake can make you touch the wrong place and set off a mine.
Despite the polished mechanics of this game and the precision in its controls, the level design hurt the overall experience. The lack of diversity in the maps not only arises due to their visuals, but also because of their structure. The challenges players face have very little diversity. After few levels, the sense of novelty starts to wither and this problem because apparent, as the lack of diversity in the layout of the maps and the objectives you perform therein leads Anoxemia to become a monotonous experience.
Another element that is detrimental to the enjoyment of the player is the lack of sense of progression. Giving to players the sensation that they are moving forward is a key part of making a successful game. As Daniel Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, mentioned in an interview for the Harvard Business Review:
"The great study of worker motivation showed that the biggest motivator at work by far, by far, was the sense of making progress."
Anoxemia, unfortunately, counters this premise of human behavior and by providing players with little variation in the maps and the activities performed in them, it gives the impression that no progress is being made and that you are simply running in circles.
While the gameplay mechanics and controls of this title are satisfactory, the developers presented them poorly, designing; therefore, an experience that may seem interesting in its early stages, but will lean towards monotony after some levels.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO
The graphics of Anoxemia are not of cutting edge technology. This may seem as a problem, but it is not, because the art direction of this title alone is enough to provide a dazzling visual experience to players. The developers designed most of the maps using a blue palette. This decision is crucial to communicate the desolation they want players to feel. According to the field of color theory, blue is associated with cold and calm. These two elements are emphasized by the fishes and jellyfishes swimming on the background. They swim in a steady and smooth manner. On screen you will not see sharp and sudden movements, only smooth ones. This works in tandem with the art of the setting to create the tone of calm and desolation. The result is an experience that had potential to immerse you in it, but it was wasted, because of one element that deviated from this pattern and broke the immersion — the diver.
Contrary to every asset in the game, the animations of the diver seem unpolished and the result is that he does not move smoothly. His movements are stiff. It does not appear that he is moving, instead, it seems he is being moved by an external force. This leads to a sensation that he does not belong to the same composition as the other objects on screen. Another element that is detrimental to the animation of the character is the fact that his body does not seem to interact with his surroundings. For instance, when he lands on the ground, his knees do not bend to suggest the impact of his body with the soil, thus enhancing the illusion that he is an entity separated from the map, as opposed to being a part of the overall composition.
The soundtrack of Anoxemia, on the other hand, works in tandem with the tone the direction of art develops, as it features audio scores that are subtle and maintain a constant rythim throughout the game and changes in pace happen gradually. This is crucial, as the audio score matches the flow of the objects on screen, thus making the audio and the visual portions of this game work together in order to create a more compelling audiovisual experience.
Anoxemia is a game that features an interesting idea for a story and coupled with its competent game mechanics and controls, developers at BSK Games could have created a memorable title. Unfortunately, the lack of character development and variations in the levels halted the potential of this production. This is one of many games that makes us wonder what could have been, but to be fair with the developers, we all know how game development can be a treacherous territory, specially for an indie team that does not rely on the dozens of millions of dollars of an AAA studio.
Perhaps creating more diversity in the maps was not viable due to financial and/or technical constraints. Either way, the team of BSK Games has talent and this is evidenced by the good ideas they had, but unfortunately these were never fully explored. Perhaps they suffered from a lack of experience, but considering the quality of the core concept of this game, we should give them a second chance if they ever develop another title.
|+ Precise controls||– Lack of diversity in the maps|
|+ Strong visual identity||– Lack of depth in the story|
|+ Serene soundtrack||– Unpolished animations|