Silver Lining: Hydrophobia and the fearless mingling of ideas

Taylor Cocke
T. Cocke|06.28.12

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'Silver Lining' is a column from freelancer Taylor Cocke dedicated to highlighting moments of real potential in less than perfect games. This week he examines Hydrophobia from (the now defunct) developer Dark Energy.

Hydrophobia has all the makings of a great game, but where it fails is commitment. The Dark Energy Digital-developed game attempts to do too many things at once, but never succeeds at any of them. What's frustrating is the clear potential each idea had, and the huge divide between what its characters are ostensibly feeling and the gameplay itself.

Exemplifying this lack of commitment is the amount of times Hydrophobia shifts between genres in the first act alone. Opening with a dream about drowning, Hydrophobia transitions from a platforming section drawing heavily from the Uncharted series, into a physics puzzler, before finally settling into a cover-based shooter.

Hydrophobia doesn't execute any of its selected genres well enough to warrant the middling amount of time a player will spend to learn each. In some cases, the design decisions made in some sections undermine some of the game's good ideas, which only led to disappointing critical reception.
%Gallery-103404%Oh, the Horror
Maybe I'm just being thrown off by the game's name, but before playing I figured that Hydrophobia would be a horror game. Interestingly enough, the first moments of the game did nothing to change my perception. Protagonist Kate Wilson dreams of a decaying, drowned man floating up towards her, implying her issues with water. I love the idea of a horror game based around how straight up terrifying water can be. I mean, drowning is a pretty darn scary way to go, what with the being unable to really move, breath, or even see to any great extent. Frankly, Kate has a lot to be afraid of.

But then, Hydrophobia's mechanics don't match Kate's supposed fear of H2O. She dives right into deep water with no hesitation, wades through the liquid with ease, and even gladly uses it to take care of enemies in a variety of ways. There's no sense of her being even remotely scared by the surging of streams around her, no feeling of being trapped by the ever-encroaching flood around her. By sacrificing some of her mobility to express how terrified she is during water sections would have been a great way to build tension and return the game to its horror beginnings.

Up From the Depths
Since the Uncharted and Assassin's Creed games have popularized the parkour-style climbing sequences, a ton of third person games give it a shot. Often, however, that style of mobility doesn't make sense in the context of a game. There's no reason why Kate should be able to climb huge, complex structures. She's not trained for fixing up the ship, not climbing around in it. As she and her ever-chatty pal "Scoot" continuously and frustratingly point out, she's nothing more than an engineer put into a bad situation. Remember that old and cliched saying "show, don't tell"? This is a perfect example of a game breaking that rule.

What could have worked was allowing the main character to struggle, at least on a superficial level. Kate sometimes comments "My arms hurt" during a climb, but the way she's moving doesn't change. If she's afraid of the flooding water below her, she should look frantic. If there's enemies on her tail, she should fumble and react. This isn't a hardened combatant we're talking about here, this is someone more valued for their technical expertise than her combat.

Technically Speaking
Kate is working as an engineer on the Queen of the World, a gigantic luxury cruise ship, when the terrorists attack. The ship is falling apart around her, presenting an interesting problem: how do you respond when the boat you're tasked with keeping afloat begins to sink, passengers and all? The feeling of guilt and helplessness would have to be horrifying. Like Isaac Clarke in Dead Space, she's running from place to place trying to keep a massive ship from going down. But unlike Clarke, there are thousands of people left alive on the ship.

Hydrophobia barely touches the protagonists mental anguish. Throughout the campaign, Kate and Scoot exchange quips and jokes that don't exactly establish a feeling of fear or pain in watching people around them die. She kills cultists along the way, never breaking her jovial conversational stride. She should be breaking down with her ship, losing her grip on reality as the ship loses its buoyancy. Matching her deteriorating state with that of the ship's could have been the most disturbing and compelling part of this story. And yet, we get supposedly clever jokes and trash talk.

Too Little Too Late
My first experience with Hydrophobia was recent, after the game was given a major update and re-titled Hydrophobia: Prophecy. Rather than fix the game's issues, turning something from middling to great, developer Dark Energy Digital simply added new mechanics, story, and polish.

Kate has new abilities, more puzzles have been added, and there are extended levels. Though an update of such magnitude may not sound too bad on paper, the developer didn't address any of the more glaring issues. What would have helped was paring down and only focusing on what was absolutely necessary to tell their story, rather than packing more into it.

Hydrophobia is a perfect example of what happens when too much stuff gets shoved into one game. Kate Wilson's feelings are lost in jumbled game mechanics that don't match what those characters are going through. In a game with a strong, traditional narrative, it's absolutely vital that gameplay works with the story to get a feeling across. Because of its lack of focus, Dark Energy drowned Hydrophobia in a sea of avoidable problems.

Taylor Cocke is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who has written for 1UP, Official Xbox Magazine, Playstation: The Official Magazine, VG247, and more. Follow him on Twitter @taylorcocke.
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