When Insomniac Games talks about its new title, Song of the Deep, the developer frequently uses the phrase "passion project."
"Throughout development we've tried to create moments of awe-inducing wonder," said Brian Hastings, chief creative officer at Insomniac Games, when revealing the studio's new title. With Song of the Deep, Insomniac hopes to transport players to a world they've never been to, giving them "a sense of amazement and awe," Hastings said.
Song of the Deep is a side-scrolling, undersea adventure rooted in Irish mythology. It was also inspired, in part, by Hastings' own 10-year-old daughter. He said he wanted to give her a heroic character to look up to, one who would inspire her through her courage, love and resourcefulness.
The game's hero is named Merryn. She's the daughter of a fisherman who goes missing at sea. In an attempt to find her father, who's told her salty tales of adventures and monsters and cities of gold, she cobbles together a makeshift submarine and journeys to the deep to find him.
"We get a lot of letters from fans, saying they identify with our characters," Hastings said. He described Merryn as a heroine "defined by her will to go on in the face of impossible obstacles."
Song of the Deep plays out like a "Metroidvania." It's a 2D side-scrolling adventure teeming with the puzzles and exploration of a maze-like Metroid or Castlevania game. Merryn's submarine comes outfitted with a few weapons, like a sonar blast and a grappling claw, but over the course of her adventure, she'll gain new skills and abilities. One, a diving suit, is Song of the Deep's equivalent of a Metroid morph ball; it lets Merryn explore the deep outside of her submarine, allowing her to traverse narrow tunnels and solve certain puzzles.
"Everyone on the team has grown up on these [kinds of] games," Hastings said. "They were a part of our childhood. It's just something we've never done and we wanted to."
Song of the Deep focuses more on exploration and puzzles, Hastings said, rather than a specific mechanic or combat skill. The game is also threaded with cutscenes that tell its tale by way of a narrated picture book. (Incidentally, Insomniac is also actually working on a companion children's book, to be published by Sterling Publishing.)
Throughout her adventure, Merryn will encounter strange, ancient worlds. She'll battle menacing creatures. She'll encounter a friendly hermit crab who will sell her new gear. And players will, Insomniac hopes, get lost in Song of the Deep's underwater fantasy world, uncovering its secrets and mysteries.
"We don't want this to be just a world of beautiful background," Hastings said. "We want it to be interactive, like a children's science museum on an alien planet."
We played about an hour of Song of the Deep on a PC. (The game is also coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One when it's released sometime this spring.) We encountered a series of puzzles that were designed around flowing currents, around switches and gates, and around mysterious statues that hinted at a long lost civilization.
One of the game's more difficult puzzles involved angling a series of colored light beams at sensors. To redirect those beams of light, Merryn had to exit her submarine and play with a cluster of switches and lenses until everything lined up correctly. Only then would the art deco-style machines that blocked her path grant access to new areas.
Throughout our hands-on time, we saw collectibles and power-ups scattered about, many of them just out of reach. We knew that the obstacles could eventually be overcome, the hidden tunnels would eventually become accessible — Merryn just needed to discover the right tools on her journey.
Song of the Deep is being developed by a small team — about 15 are on the team, Hastings said — at Insomniac Games. The developer owns the rights to the intellectual property, thanks to a surprising partnership.
Insomniac is working with retailer GameStop to bring Song of the Deep to market. While the game will be distributed digitally on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, it will also be available in physical form exclusively at GameStop's retail stores. And though GameStop is being careful to stress that it's not a "traditional" publisher, well ... GameStop is effectively the game's publisher.
Ted Price, CEO of Insomniac Games, said the developer's partnership with the retailer came about as part of a conversation with GameStop's Mark Stanley, who pursues "new ventures and diversification" at the company.
"This all started with a casual conversation ... about a year ago where Mark was talking about his vision for how GameStop can talk more directly to players," Price said. "And we happened to be working on this concept and were really excited about what we can do with [Song of the Deep's] world. I described the game to Mark, we showed what we had, and ... everyone at GameStop was excited about the story and we formed a non-traditional, developer-publisher relationship."
Price explained that while GameStop has been "incredibly and supportive" of the title, Insomniac has "full creative control" over Song of the Deep.
"We've been fans of Insomniac for a long time," Stanley said. "When we saw the concept and talked to Brian [Hastings] about it, it was clearly a passion project and we definitely wanted to be associated with it and bring it to market."
Stanley said GameStop is using its fleet of 6,200 retail stores "to try to get more and more gamers throughout the world to be able to discover this game" and "expand the IP beyond the game" with a full line of merchandise.
"We've been really happy with the collaboration," Stanley said. "It's our first time working this closely with a developer."
But it might not be the last, Stanley added.
"This is the project we're completely focused on right now, and it's the first time we've done this," he said. "There are a lot of [things to learn] along the way and a lot more to be had. But based on this [game] we'll obviously consider all options. One of the reasons why we dove into this project is that part of my role is to look into different ways of expanding our business and bringing more value to our customers. How do we give them more content, more exclusives and different kind of games in our store, beyond just the traditional AAAs? ... This is a different way to bring added value to those customers.
"Once we get this project to market we'll look back and say, ‘Should we keep doing this? What could we do differently?' And maybe there will be more opportunities in the future."