Fantastic Fest Day 4

The annual Fantastic Fest film festival is taking place in Austin this week. It’s the largest genre-based film festival in the United States. We sent special correspondent Brennan Foster to hunt down the weirdest films, the coolest parties and the biggest star sightings he could find.

It's sweltering. Normally, I would go see a movie and escape the heat--but halfway through a film festival, I need to escape the theater.

Fortunately, the HighBall bar across the parking lot hosts the Fantastic Arcade, a sidebar event showcasing independent video games. When I get inside, there’s a string quartet playing stirring soundtrack selections to a demo of D-Pad Studio's upcoming Owlboy.

You can play the games on old-school arcade cabinets, which is cool; but I’m drawn to something very different, called Deep Sea. I’m drawn to it because I can’t see the game at all.

I just see a near-motionless man sitting at a back table, wearing a blue gas mask and holding a flight simulator joystick, which he occasionally taps left, right or on the fire button. It looks very fetishistic.

I arrive in time to nab the final play. Robin Arnott, the game’s designer, wipes the mask down with antibacterial towelettes and fits it snugly onto my head. There are no eyeholes, just black cloth. Then he puts noise-canceling earphones on me. I’m ready to submerge.

The mask is outfitted with surround sound and monitors my breathing. I hear a sonar ping, try to orient myself and shoot in the direction of the sound. This will unleash a series of deepwater monsters; I’m to listen for their roars, toggle the joystick in the creatures’ direction and kill them.

Whenever I make a noise, I attract more monsters. Each exhalation creates a stream of bubbles that overwhelms all other sounds. It’s like breathing through a Jacuzzi air hole (although I enjoy that).

People react very differently to sensory deprivation. Some misfire and blame the game’s design; others navigate the world with a Zen-like quality and develop unique tactics to help them reach the final level; others panic.

I've got one finger on the trigger and another hooked beneath the mask, ready to rip if from my face as my hopeless attempts begin to sink me. I try to breathe slowly. I end up breathing heavily. This is Arnott’s intention: "Survival … require[s] the player to focus intently to the point of suppressing their own breathing, further reinforcing the sensation of claustrophobic isolation."

The mask sucks closer to my face with each intake. Any attempt to hold my breath only makes the sensation worse. The mask’s material is making me sweat and I can’t make out any of the AI. I am totally disoriented.

Then the blackness becomes a new entity--a palpable presence; deep, serene, multi-hued blackness.

Yes! I think. I’ve reached my Zen point.

But I'm not actually playing the game anymore, so I yank off the mask and abort my mission.

Breaking the surface, I am happy to see a bucket of Shiner beer tokens and a Starcade competition underway with arcade favorites Mr. Do and Tapper.

That’s a better way to beat the heat. I’ll put on a cowboy hat and storm the bar. Tap, sling, chug, sling ...