Video games frequently allow you to travel across a huge and wonderful world, encountering both beautiful and terrifying scenes. But how can you recreate that sensation when you only give the gamer a little room to play in? In Iron Lung, David Szymanski, creator of the vintage FPS Dusk, takes on just that challenge. After every known star and planet in the cosmos has vanished, humanity's final survivors send a prisoner, the player, to a mysterious moon covered in an ocean of blood to discover what secrets lie beneath its surface. However, none of that will ever be seen. All you can see is the inside of the little submarine you've been welded into, as well as the low-resolution photos you can shoot from inside.
There is no time to train the prisoner on how to operate the submarine, according to the opening text. And this is certainly true in the Iron Lung game. Figuring out what to do and how to maneuver the submarine without being able to view the outside world is a big part of the early game excitement. Due to the increasing pressure at your depths, your viewport has been welded shut. As a result, it leaves you with only a set of coordinates and a map of the ocean floor to determine your whereabouts. Besides, your sub's only two points of engagement are a steering control panel in the front and a huge button in the back that captures a photo of the outside world so you can inspect it on a grainy screen.
What's more, a lot of this is haptic and crunchy. Rather than using a more user-friendly interface, you must physically move around the small room to press the numerous buttons. The image appears after a wait, much like a dot matrix printer putting together this grainy, black-and-white image of the ocean floor. The player's ability to roam around encourages you to confront the claustrophobia of your predicament. Then, immediately it creates a tense environment and the clunkiness of the technology adds to the mission's danger and desirability.
Some may find the game's simple gameplay restrictive. But it is actually one of the game's best design decisions. There's a simple tension that comes with blindly piloting your submarine and continuously checking at the map to figure out where you are so you don't crash. In short, it is a picky process, but focusing on the details helps you settle into a routine and avoid anticipating unpleasant surprises. Iron Lung keeps your head busy with numbers and course changes just enough that it can sneak up on you.
When the game makes you rethink the rules it has established, it is at its best. There are times when you are looking at the map and realize you shouldn't be so close to a wall. But your motion sensor starts blaring at you for no apparent reason.
Iron Lung, more than other horror games, creates tension through excellent sound design. Specifically, you will hear more jumbled dialogue from whoever is sending you on this assignment, which gradually degrades as you reach critical depth. As you begin to suspect there are creatures out there that you can't see, the sounds of the ocean around you shift from mundane to alarming. As your sub continues to break down under duress, audio signals alert you to the situation. In addition, the droning score, according to Szymanski, was inspired by is simple, but discreetly highlights critical events, thanks to the talents of Doom 64 composer Aubrey Hodges. Every element of the soundscape contributes to the already amazing ambience.
In the best feasible way, the limited playspace is drawn in chunky polygons with poor fidelity textures. The blurriness of the pixels gives everything a dingy air, portraying the rusted deathtrap you're in, complete with awkward controls and screens that barely appear good enough to drive with. While playing, I couldn't tell if the low-res textures were just getting fuzzier or if my control panel was truly moving, which made me doubt my own perception of what was going on. Iron Lung illustrates once again that low-resolution graphics may help horror games by allowing you to fill in the spaces on your own.
Many games on the market struggle to keep their size under control. Feature creep leads to projects spiraling out of control and losing sight of what makes them work in the first place. The antithesis of that is Iron Lung. It takes a small palette and squeezes every last ounce of gameplay out of it before calling it quits. It lures you in, builds suspense, then concludes with a boom in under one hour.
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