Dark Star was John Carpenter’s 1974 riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Imagine 2001 without Kubrick’s visionary serenity, where the astronauts are the hippies, stoners, and surfers a USC film school student would have known in 1974. That’s screenwriter Dan O’Bannon in the foreground as Pinback. To release a planet-busting bomb, he twists his arms inward to grasp two dials or levers. It doesn’t look very comfortable. He holds it for the countdown from 10, and then for the release, he sharply rotates his hands outward. It’s the gesture a magician would do to reveal which hand the quarter is in.
You can watch the scene here. This is how actors pretend to interact with complex avionics, and it works just fine, because who am I to say how to drop a planet-busting bomb? In this scene at the end of Dark Star, the bomb doesn’t drop. To shut off the “bomb didn’t drop” alarm, O’Bannon toggles all the switches that he’d just toggled to arm the bomb and then toggles them again. The piece de resistance in his performance is four finger jabs on a panel, as if he were pressing buttons. I don’t think there are any buttons down there. I’m pretty sure it’s just a panel with dots painted on it. But he commits to a little galloping right-left-right-left jab with his index fingers as part of the process. Then it’s back to the dual arm-twisting dials or levers. The idea is that the final stage of the process takes the commitment of both hands and therefore your complete attention. You don’t want to accidentally drop a planet-busting bomb.
Deep Sixed also loves that moment in Dark Star. Maybe not specifically that moment, but that kind of moment. Actors pretending to interact with complex avionics. It loves the idea of having to toggle switches before getting to some unwieldy dual arm-twisting dials or levers. Sometimes you have to remember to bring the screwdriver because the retro-booster valve is underneath a panel. Sometimes you have to whack a recalcitrant door with a wrench to get it to shut. Sometimes you have to put duct tape over a leaking coolant pipe. Sometimes transistor boards burn out for no discernable reason. Oh, the inanity of inanimate objects! Sometimes in Deep Sixed, you even have to reinstall drivers, which often requires uninstalling other drivers first.
I know what you’re thinking. “But Tom, I do that often enough in real life. Why would I want to do it in a game?”
But is that how you think about driving games? Do you ask, “I steer often enough in real life, why would I want to steer in a game?” Of course you don’t, because driving games present something familiar — the act of steering a car — as a way to connect you to something exciting — a race or car chase. That’s how Deep Sixed plays with avionics, and computer panels, and thermostats, and awkward dials, and leaking pipes, and the sort of stuff homeowners dread every day. It’s presenting something familiar and mundane — surely you’ve had to go down to the basement to flip breaker switches — as a way to connect you to something exciting — in this case, a doomed space mission to explore the mysteries of an uncharted nebula.
There’s a puzzle element to Deep Sixed, because it’s not going to hold your hand as you figure out why the room is getting really hot (hint: check the coolant pipe first, then see whether any of the temperature control drivers are corrupted). This is a game about interacting systems and you having to figure out their interactions. “What does this button do?” is the basic gameplay. It’s not an actual puzzle, though. Everything you need to know is presented in the spaceship’s manual, a single mouse click away. If you play long enough, you’ll flip quickly to the page that lists error codes for the scanner display or the best settings for firing lasers at a tarbat. The puzzle element is figuring out how and where to resolve a crisis, and then the gameplay is a tactile time management game about flipping switches. It’s like interacting with the antiquated machinery and electronics on the Sevastopol, the space station in Alien: Isolation that so cannily captures the feel of the 1979 movie’s production design. Deep Sixed isn’t as grimdark, opting instead for colorful satire. But it’s just as tactile.
The story conceit is that you’re forced prison labor sent out on hazardous missions in a deteriorating ship that needs constant attention. You are not at the helm of a sleek starship crewed by hundreds on behalf of a federation’s starfleet. You aren’t even snuggled into the cockpit of a YT-1000 freighter next to a furry co-pilot. You’re in a ship that hasn’t had the maintenance it needs, and that’s furthermore short about six crew members, and that’s in dire need of more replacement parts than you currently have. When you say “Hear me, baby? Hold together,” she definitely does not hear you.
Your mission actually spans several missions, and Deep Sixed plays smartly with various upgrades. But it also forces you to make hard choices between cool upgrades and boring replacement parts. Universal transistor boards and thermal regulators aren’t important, until you need one and you didn’t bother to order replacements and now the radiation scrubber shorted and the thermostat fried in viewing room 3. It’s no big deal if it gets really cold in viewing room 3. Just don’t spend too much time there. However, a non-functional radiation scrubber. That could be a problem. Now you can’t afford the additional radiation of bringing home any of the ore you needed to upgrade your lasers. In fact, since you didn’t buy more anti-radiation pills because you opted for that scanner upgrade, you’re probably going to have to cut this mission short. Don’t forget to order more transistor boards when you get back. Fancy upgrades will have to wait.
Playing on easy is the best way to learn how to interact with the ship and manage the longer term tension between resupply and upgrades. The easy difficulty will probably take you through the storyline, which is unfortunately hard-coded into every playthrough. Deep Sixed is too welded to its narrative to live up to its claim that it’s a rogue-like. Since it does lean heavily on its story beats, at least the story is intriguing enough. Suffice to say there’s an AI, an evil corporation, and something out there in space.
But once you’ve sussed out all the necessary “What does this button do?” questions, playing on “normal” (ha!) is a gratifying exercise in crisis troubleshooting in outer space, story or no story. It’s an absurdist take on Apollo 13, in a broke ass Millennium Falcon, cruising into a nebula with a beater version of the Discovery. When the puzzle elements fall away and you’ve established a rapport with the hardware, and perhaps even an affection for its idiosyncrasies, you’re sitting in Dan O’Bannon’s chair. Now you’re Pinback. Now that galloping finger jab — right-left-right-left — actually does something.
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