If you’d asked me in a pre-Internet world what ‘deep sixed’ means, I’d probably have guessed that it was some sort of slang I’m already too old to understand. Like, maybe it’s what you call it when law enforcement arrests you for a case you figured had long gone cold. “Man, Ted just got deep sixed for what he did last summer!” Or maybe it means that foreign intelligence agencies pushed through your fake identities and have a read on your real location. Or maybe it means that you just flushed an unruly employee out an airlock.
But since we live in a post-pre-Internet world instead, I can just look it up and see that ‘deep sixed’ means two things. One, it’s a term for destroying incriminating evidence irreparably, taken from ships tossing things overboard in places where the water was at least six fathoms deep. And two, Deep Sixed is a recent ‘roguelike space sim’ by Little Red Dog Games.
I wonder if the two meanings are connected? Nah, that seems unlikely.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium. Mechanical, medium.)
(Game source: Review key.)
Deep Sixed opens on a dilapidated-looking space station spinning lazy circles in the void of space. It’s the kind of space station that would have looked new in the 60’s before being subjected to fifty years of interstellar abuse with not so much as a lick of paint for upkeep, and I resist the mental urge to call it ‘America’.
Befitting the station look, there’s honestly not that much to do on Deep Sixed‘s title menu. The audio options are sparse, the visual options are absent, and mappable keyboard controls are always a plus, but I don’t know what any of this does yet. Honestly, the most pressing decision I get to make right now is starting a new game — do I want to play on the default ‘normal’ Deep Sixed mode, which lets me unlock achievements and presumably feel very cool, or on the ‘easy’ mode, which includes such amenities as saving the game? The option to enable the tutorial mission is thankfully available in both settings, but still, this hardly seems like a difficult choice.
I mean, I love achievements.
Deep Sixed‘s intro cutscene is an interesting style of semi-animated splash screens. I’m introduced to one nameless character, goes only by the name of ‘Involuntary Employee 6584’, who… Let me make sure I get this straight. She was an AI overseer, ‘basically a babysitter’, who fucked up by not overseeing one AI well enough, causing it to misinterpret its parameters to terrible effect.
Woman gets convicted, but instead of going to jail, a company called Astra Interstellar Solutions ‘buys up her corrections contract’, and sends her to the aforeshown ratty space station in the ass end of nowhere in order to do cartography work. ‘Pay her debt to society in a constructive way’.
I double-check, after the intro finishes rolling, to see if I’m actually playing a game in which a black woman gets excessively punished for minor offenses against capitalism and enslaved by an evil corporation bent on mapping (and presumably exploiting the riches of) an uncharted area of the galaxy. It’s not necessarily surprising, given that I live in the same 2018 as the rest of you, but… well, let’s just say I’m going to hope against hope that this works out in a way that involves little to no eye-rolling.
Anyway, I’m on-board the space station now. It’s more colourful on the inside than I’d have expected.
My character, who hasn’t actually been named so far but who I’m going to call ‘Jane’ until further notice, is greeted into her space prison by a talking bear. Icon. On the computer. The computer bear introduces itself as Universal Remote Sentient Avatar, or URSA, to which Jane responds that that’s painfully shoehorned — both fully voice-acted, and not terribly voice-acted to boot, which is still a nice surprise in this day and age of game development. There’s some banter to set up the scene: We’re here to do work for Astra, the space station is totally safe and fit for habitation, and if anything out of the ordinary ever happens, we’re probably doomed.
Interestingly, in order to do anything, I learn I have to click on objects on the screen, point-and-click style — or maybe hidden-object style, whatever paradigm you prefer. In favor of the former over the latter, I also learn I can hold down the middle mouse button to highlight clickable objects — though I still have to actually mouse over them to see what they are.
I click on the window, and Jane muses about space for a few seconds. I click on the bed, and the screen slowly goes black, then back to colour. Off to a good start to my extended prison sentence so far.
The computer screen has slightly more to offer.
At the computer, I can read my emails, like the one from my AI partner, who’s also literally in the space station with me. I can ‘upgrade’ my ship, which takes a currency I don’t have to make changes I don’t understand the value of yet. I can ‘repair’ my ship, which mostly seems to involve ordering crates of spare parts, again using that unknown currency. But let’s not kid ourselves: The primary reason I’m here is to work. Off. My debt to society. Or so I’ve been told.
I select the one mission I can select, such as it is, and when I back out of the computer a giant door behind my bed slides open. There’s a part of this space station I’m on that travels into the nearby nebula, and all my missions are going to involve getting on that part, hyper-jumping into space, getting the mission done, and then hyper-jumping back. I don’t know whether to think this is efficient and safe use of half the space station, or a needlessly lethal risk to the other half, but then again, whatever. I’m not a stockholder.
My screen blurs into a single point, then back out, and both me and Jane simultaneously comment on how nausea-inducing hyperspace travel is. But then we’re off! I’m no longer on the cramped space station jail now: I’m in a place with lots to do!
The tutorial mission that I presume to be in takes me through what I presume to be the ropes. First part of the mission: Find a defective comms buoy. I do this by assigning power to the scanner on a panel screen in my spacecraft, power that could otherwise also go to the hyperdrive, targeting systems, or up to five lasers. I increase the scanner power to the maximum of five blips, and it immediately fails.
But, no worries, says URSA! Let’s go to the scanner room and diagnose what the problem is! To which I reply, muttered to myself, “wait, scanner room?”
The scanner room is its whole own bundle of cards and colours.
Bad news: The scanner isn’t working. Clicking on the big monitor displays a large ‘Error 106’, and a set of incomprehensible buttons. Good news: I’m apparently carrying around a giant space station manual. No, seriously, this thing is massive. Hitting the Tab key immediately opens the index page, which links to: Specialized pages for each of the space station’s four room types, lists of immediate mechanical failures and routine maintenance procedures, and lessons about mineral mining, chemical compound manufacturing, and comms buoy placement. Time does not appear to be standing still while I take all this in.
Okay, okay… On the tutorial’s behest, I select the Scanner Room page. It’s a pretty cool page: It has a picture with all interactive elements of the scanner room highlighted, and clicking any of them links to assorted pages for whatever could be going wrong with that thing at any time, and how to fix it. There’s also a sub-header at the bottom that directly links to an overview of scanner malfunction codes, saving me some hassle. It’s like this manual was designed by people who actually understand what manuals are good for, fancy that.
Okay, okay. Code 106 means… hardware failure. Which means I have to locate the scanner’s hardware entry point in the room, open it, and replace the faulty control board with a new one. Which I don’t have. But there’s apparently a locker in every room on the ship, and surprise: The scanner room locker just happens to have what I need.
With the scanner back up, I poke into the surrounding space hexes and quickly find the old buoy. Then I move to the hyperdrive room, and allocate more power to the hyperdrive so it charges faster — not that that matters much, since it’s miraculously already at full charge. I select the hex, click the button, and one nausea-inducing jump later…
Well, it’s not immediately there. Hyper-jumping moves me back into the space viewing room I was in earlier, except there are actually five viewing rooms. Which are all mostly similar but also meaningfully different. I have to use the radar to discover that the buoy is in front of viewing room 5, then move there, and then do what I came here to do.
Which is take control of the lasers with this cool-looking joystick and blast it to space-dust.
Hah! That’s mission accomplished, then. Let’s head bac-
Suddenly a space monster flies into view.
Okay, well, now I get to go back. Good news here: I completed the mission! Better news still: I’ve gained four units of that weird repair/upgrade currency! Best news yet: The news has caused Astra’s stock price to go up!
Back on the prison ship, it seems clear I’m now pretty much out of the tutorial. URSA and I talk about the space monster a little, which is to say that I ask a lot of questions and URSA gives pre-programmed dodgy answers. But fine, whatever. I’ve got an actual choice in missions now, sort of, not to mention I can freely use my currency to repair and/or upgrade my ship as I see fit! And I think I’m seeing the shape of Deep Sixed at this point: I’ll mostly be doing ‘optional’ missions, in order to gather upgrade currency and work through my sentence, while occasionally a non-optional plot mission will come along. Who knows, maybe this game will even address its own highly messed-up starting thesis. Or maybe it’ll just spin a sci-fi story about evil AIs, or about how man is actually the real monster in this nebula full of weird space monsters; either way works, really.
Check back in with you after I’ve effortlessly worked my way through this horrible work-release program, in which nothing will ever dramatically go wrong!