Indie Games That Don’t Suck: Depth
I began this article by attempting to review all of the entries in the “Experimental Game Pack 01”. This failed when I realized my utter incompetence at reviewing that half of the games were literally unplayable and the other half were barely worthy of even noting. Some were interesting, many were worthless. Yet one stood far above the others: Depth, a first-person puzzle game. Yes, I know you’ve played Portal. This game’s notion is even better.
In Depth (I don’t doubt the creator wanted reviewers to use the game’s title in order to praise it, but he has earned it) you encounter rooms with exits you can’t normally reach, and special blocks. When you click on one of the blocks, it changes—in a dynamic fashion—depending on how you were viewing it. To be more specific, it acquires the dimensions and location of what is visually appeared to have when you first clicked on it. So if you shove your face right in front of one of these blocks to make it take up most of your vision, you can make it that size for real. (Well, still within the confines of a video game, but its properties change.) Now you can use that larger block to climb, or revert it if you got it wrong. You decide (for the most part) the size and position of these blocks and use them to reach your destination.
The potential of this idea is clearly enormous. Your perspective can (in-game) physically alter your circumstances in a uniquely creative manner. It’s a first-person puzzle platformer that works, and it’s significantly better than most others of its ilk. I’ve not been so impressed and baffled by the visual perspective trickery present in any form of media since Equinox for the SNES, and it’s much better done here.
There are certain blocks with special properties (bouncing, actually obeying gravity, or reversing gravity for the whole room) but honestly the game would stand alone quite well even without them. They add to the inevitable comparisons to Portal (especially the goo fountains in Portal 2, which have an equivalent here that can change the colors and properties of blocks) but they make for a small bit of additional complexity in some of the later levels.
The strange mental gymnastics that Depth demands the player perform are difficult to comprehend without seeing it in motion. I was stretching the limits of my imagination just as much as if I were playing Scribblenauts, but with topography instead of vocabulary. Solutions to the puzzles are not always immediately apparent. For every level that’s obviously “get this block to cover this gap so you can jump across it”, you have another with odder instances of level design such as an array of lasers that you need to get a ball safely pass by strategically placing various block types and altering gravity at the right moments.
There is a definite sense of wonder to walking into a new room and gazing at the ersatz placement of the objects within. Do I need to crawl up to one block in order to turn it into a huge one, or is a more subtle touch needed? None of the levels have extraneous features, as far as I could tell. You can count on a tiny, obscure blue box that you can barely see to be of utmost importance to the completion of the puzzle. The design of the levels is tight, practical, and beautiful.
There is a refreshing lack of wacky narrator, one area in which Depth breaks free of the standard Portal imitation mold. Not to say that being inspired by that game makes your game a bad one, and this was probably done due to financial concerns rather than a deliberate aesthetic decision, but the end result is much more pleasant without someone “drily” yammering in my ear. I can figure out the game’s mechanics on my own, and I’ll have much more fun because of it, thank you.
Depth is an indie game and the budget is low; the graphical level is on par with the first Half-Life. Dying from pits or lava results in a fade to black and restarting the level rather than some glorious death animation, objects clipping through each other is commonplace, the final level is intended to be a lush verdant series of vegetation-covered cliffs but the low-poly textures make it more closely resemble an ambitious Team Fortress Classic level designed to teach a player how to grenade jump. But ignore all that crap; the technical level of the graphics is irrelevant compared to the intensely rad idea of the manipulation of blocks based on your own visuals.
At a paltry but highly enjoyable 15 levels, the game is over too quickly. This is the best game involving blocks since The Adventures of Lolo and there needs to be more of it. I pitted my brains against the challenges of Depth and came out victorious, but it’s not enough. This game is too good to languish unknown by the public.
Perhaps the main concept of Depth had existed for years or decades but was not possible to create until current technology was available (or at least available to poor indie game makers). James Cameron’s statements in regard to the T-1000 from Terminator 2 come to mind. But regardless, what we do have is genius in plan and in excution. I’ll be keeping a close eye on creator Vince Mckelvie to see if he can expand on Depth’s fantastic beginnings and craft it into something even more spectacular. If he ever has a Kickstarter, I’m contributing.