Submerged: Hidden Depths Art

Interview

How Uppercut Games Designs Chill Experiences

April 20, 2022

By: Lee Mehr

More Info About This Game
Release Date
December 03,2020 (Calendar)
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During the early 2010s, a time of tremendous indie growth within the console, mobile, and PC spaces, Uppercut Games was founded. Their humbler origins on mobile blossomed into something more with their first console/PC release: Submerged. Fast-forward to 2020, a sequel was announced, and it was a timed exclusive release for Google Stadia. It's through that vantage point I began my Q&A with Ed Orman, Uppercut Games Co-Founder and Submerged: Hidden Depths' Lead Game Designer.

The catch with both Submerged and its sequel is in a similar vein to walking sims: the removal of violence and minimization of traditional mechanics in service to the calmer atmosphere. The nuance with this series is the heightened emphasis on boating through submerged cities and climbing specific landmarks. Aside from having an investigative attitude for some hidden items, their goals have always been focused on "relaxploitation," as Hidden Depths’ marketing put it. Given this esoteric vibe, it’s still surprising to think of Google pushing for this sequel.

 

Submerged Hidden Depths Boating
Still proudly standing.

"We were pitching some other games to Stadia when they pointed out that Submerged was the perfect game for their platform and the types of experiences they wanted to provide to their players," Orman said. "So Stadia were the ones who suggested we do the sequel, and Submerged: Hidden Depths wouldn’t exist without them!"

That suggestion also made the most sense from a technological viewpoint too. It's relatively easy to consider a modest indie team tackling a casual experience for Google's nascent streaming platform and their established demands. 

 
 

"Getting the game to run at 4K and 60 FPS consistently was a huge challenge, especially for an open-world game where the player can turn their camera and see pretty much everything at any time," Orman said. "So optimizing for the platform was a priority right from the start, but the result was worth it."

Submerged Hidden Depths Platforming
Automatic platforming.

For those who aren't aware, the Submerged series has always been a curious one specifically for subverting standard expectations for a post-apocalyptic environment. When was the last time implicit danger from monstrous beasts or humans wasn’t a part of it? Naturally, the issue of no dopamine-inducing combat scenarios is maintaining player engagement. If you just toss a scenic boating mechanic and some climbable stuff without something else, that storefront’s refund policy is going to look quite tempting.

 
 

One of Hidden Depths’ best tricks is by tempting players with various trinkets, like sea creatures to discover or Ubisoft towers to surmount. Rather than cobbling up some limited mechanics and setting players on their merry way, Uppercut was mixing its immersive goals with traditional ideals. "It’s a very tricky balance to provide players with enough interest without making them feel like they’re having to work too hard," Orman said. "Part of that balance is making it clear to players that, while they can go anywhere they want at any time, there are key locations that they can visit if they want to progress the story."

Another neat aspect about the series is its approach to storytelling. The central methods of communications are twofold: the spoken gibberish of the siblings and the Aztec-like pictographs that provide backstory. Hidden Depths made a few alterations that many seemed to appreciate.

Submerged Hidden Depths Building
One of many daring heights.

"I’ve always liked the pictograms that we use to convey the backstory in the game, because they are universal and open to interpretation," Orman said. "However we did find that players were finding them a little too vague, so we added some more explanatory text to steer their understanding. I’d also say the cutscene interactions between the siblings go a long way to showing what’s going on inside their minds."

On top of wrestling with timed exclusive development on Google Stadia, Hidden Depths was in production when COVID-19 hit. Fortunately, they were ahead of the curve.

 
 

"We have experience working in larger teams from our time before Uppercut, so that wasn’t really a worry for us -- we just had to be careful to grow at a reasonable pace," he said. "COVID was the curveball for everyone, but thankfully some of our staff were already remote, so the transition to everyone working from home wasn’t too jarring. And thankfully, the people at Stadia were extremely supportive and offered us extra development time to compensate."

Even with all the new gameplay and narrative avenues available, the one thing Orman was excited to share was the improvements in the ocean.

Submerged Hidden Depths Exploration
Remnants of those long past.

"Creating the best-looking water we could was literally one of the first major goals we set for ourselves, because players spend so much time on it," he said. "We wanted it to be almost its own character, with different moods depending on where you are in the city."

When considering the rough intersections Hidden Depths dealt with - a bigger team for a bigger sequel, exclusively developing on a new streaming platform, and COVID-19 - it's an incredible feat to see it win over so many. It’s also telling just how humble its goals are.

"I hope players can use Submerged: Hidden Depths to just … take a break," Orman said. "Give yourself some time to just chill. I think we’ve all earned it." Some games excel by playing a guitar riff with the volume cranked up, others excel by playing a soothing melody.

While there are no current plans for a Submerged 3, I'm hopeful for Uppercut Games' next project - and the chance to pick Ed Orman's brain again. A very special thanks to Orman for taking the time out of his schedule to chill and answer some questions. Submerged: Hidden Depths is now available on Google Stadia, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC.