Indie games, eh? The best of them make gifted millionaires out of curious programmers knocking out a proof of concept in their underpants for an hour every saturday night. The worst are seldom heard of, because there are millions of them. Trace the roots of Banov, the lone Assassin Blue dev, for example, and you’ll find the Game Maker community, where about three hundred games await you. One is DEATHWORM, which has either ravaged your life for weeks, or you’ve never heard of it. Some are almost as good. Most are ugly trash, drawn in paint, begrudgingly animated, programmed with haste. If an indie game doesn’t break the mould, it sort of dribbles out through the cracks in the mould before the oven’s really got going. It’s easy for a gem to be overlooked.
Which is why it’s lucky that Adam Saltsman (Adam Atomic), one of the programmers working on Cave Story Wii and co-developer of the indie games Gravity Hook and Paper Moon, is friends with Brandon Boyer. It meant that when he released Fathom, it drifted into the Gaming Daily sensor grid. It took ten days to make, and will probably take you about ten minutes to play, so you should go do that, especially if you’d rather I didn’t spoil everything.
Yes, that was your only spoiler warning.
Fathom toys with you constantly. It takes a hefty swig of the Cave Story juice, sharing controls, similar protagonists, distant scrolling backdrops, gorgeous levels composed of hundreds of tiles, a satisfying shmup-blaster, and bouncy, colourful pickups. Yeah, you pick up these blue machine nuts from fallen enemies, most of whom die in a few hits, and are… cute. There is no explanation for why you’re doing all of this, but surely there will be eventually, right? The first level is wonderfully constructed as a piece of gaming, with memorable geography and a scripted collapse sequence conveying excellently the sense of your urgent escape from… somewhere or other.
This effect (and indeed, every scene in the game) is bolstered masterfully by Danny B‘s trademark adrenal chiptune sorcery, which propels you succinctly to the first boss. This guy isn’t frustrating or difficult to fight at all, but you quickly realise that you can’t even take half of his health away before he destroys the floor. You can’t possibly win. While masters like Valve and Myamoto have made use of this feeling to enhance the thrill of victory, Adam Atomic isn’t manipulating you by tailoring the apparent difficulty of the fantasy he’s created. It’s apparent that Fathom attempts to subvert a good deal of our assumptions and preconceptions about games in general, and specifically, 2d platformers like Cave Story. It asks questions. Questions like, “Hang on, who am I? Why am I shooting these harmless sprinkler things to get pointless blue machine parts? Why do I assume that this boss fight is winnable? Because I’m a protagonist? Do I now rely on the feeble tropes I’ve often smirked at, such as the vilification of flower pot sentry bots?”
A quick blunder off into the chasm below the boss fight reveals the true face of Fathom. You sink anti-climactically into a muted underworld, where your gun now shoots harmless bubbles to propel you backwards. Darting around in this ominous, melancholy world, you’ll probably collide with some of the many groups of curious fish, who become interested in your descent and follow. As you get deeper, it gets darker. As it gets darker, you realise that your only source of light is your gun – which, as with most methods of propulsion, is pointed behind you. So… yeah, you can’t see where the hell you’re going. -10 points!
This labyrinth is another lovely piece of procedural programming, generated anew each time you play. This stems more of a necessity to save development time than from any effort to improve “replay value”, according to the development blog. What it is not, however, is a lovely piece of level design. You know how I just mentioned that you’re scooting around backwards in the dark? Let me append to that: You’re scooting around backwards in the dark, collecting fish and getting stuck on blocky crags, wondering if mother ever loved you and wishing you could blow up more flower pots.
Which isn’t… bad, not really, it’s just annoying. And weird. And long. It’s quite beautiful, though, and as you bolster the ranks of your great army of harmless tropical fish, there’s a mounting sense of serene importance, accomplished again with a great debt to the excellent score and soothing visuals. You’re miles away from the hyperactive first area, and when you finally realise the fish are more than just a pretty particle thing, when you eventually discover the little green pod collectible thing, there’s hope.
So, I’ll stop describing everything there, because blundering around in the dark is the crux of this game, and if that doesn’t sound fun, there’s a bittersweet surprise waiting at the end of this bizarre puzzle sequence (which I won’t spoil). Suffice it to say that the remainder of the game is not spent marauding down corridors and gunning for cute robots. But is it all shite, though? A very divisive game that takes about ten minutes to play, and yet many are still battling over it on forums, Fathom is definitely going to raise one or more of your eyebrows. It just might cause small bouts of disappointed swearing afterwards; as a beat-the-levels, shoot-the-dudes game, if we’re holding it up to the glaring fog lights of Cave Story and the mind-melting brain-buggery of Braid, it’s going to seem flaccid, short, and entirely unsatisfying. There’s no real way to win, and yet, no real way to fail, so if you’re defining a game as a set of goals to be achieved, then you should give this one a miss. Or a tentative play followed by venemous, scathing diatribes in the comments (you know you want to).
I must award it my personal seal of approval, however, because it attempts something lamentably under-attempted in our current indie scene, and I really haven’t talked about an indie game this much since DEATHWORM (tell me when I’m linking it too much). The music is an 8-bit work of art, and the little repeating details in the tiles and backgrounds, the layered majesty and the ending are all unified in an expertly cohesive whole, steeped in ominous importance, soaked in sombre melancholy, drenched in expert craftsmanship, and gently whiffing of arty-fartiness.