The fishing game Dredge flirts with Lovecraftian horror, but its engaging mechanics mean we never truly experience the helplessness of dread. By Jini Maxwell.
There’s an eldritch monstrosity in Stellar Basin that destroys my boat with one tentacle strike. A nearby researcher suggests it is the cause of the violent monsters and aberrant fish that teem in the waters around Greater Marrow. She offers me a device that will briefly calm it, allowing me to fish up from its grotto some deep-sea creatures that she requires for her research.
I use the device and the creature’s attacks abate. When I return, she thanks and rewards me, and continues her work. Quest complete. That’s it? I think, looking over the calm water where the beast once presided. No terrible cost for plumbing the forbidden depths?
Dredge is a fishing game with an undertone of cosmic horror. You play as a fisherman who is stranded in a small seaport named Greater Marrow. Townsfolk hint at tragedies and disappearances. A frightening fog rolls over the water at night, and with it come monstrous creatures. I am warned not to sail at night but then asked to collect a squid that only appears after dark. With mounting curiosity, I find myself more willing to explore, soon realising the game will let me go anywhere – and that the consequences of dying are never significant enough to deter me from trying.
I find myself immersed in tricking out my boat with specific combinations of nets and rods. I pore over the encyclopaedia to find hints of the whereabouts of rarer creatures. Slipping over a telltale patch of bubbles without the appropriate rod to hook whatever dwells in those depths, I immediately want to refit my boat and return. Each object you dredge up occupies a different number of spaces in your cargo hold. Common fish might occupy one or two spaces, while sharks and eels are large, irregular shapes that require some finessing to fit. Each trip out necessitates fish-Tetris, which is further complicated by the fact that they rot over time. While the minigames for catching fish or dredging materials are simple, the challenge comes from maintaining a well-organised cargo while ensuring you return to a dock before your quarry decays or night falls.
Around the map, quests are meted out by a host of ominous figures and they can be taken at the player’s pace. Time only passes in-game while the player is active, either fishing or sailing, which makes these simple minigames of fishing and dredging materials fraught with danger: while you’re occupied trying to dredge up a steel plate for your new hull, the sun will start to set, and the game’s night-time monsters begin to hunt.
Sailing at night makes your character begin to panic, a status that is indicated not by filling a gauge but through an eye that opens at the top of the screen. In extreme panic states the eye turns red: your view of the game begins to distort and monsters are drawn to you more frequently. Panic can be subdued only by sleeping at a dock, but if you have strayed too far from safety there is nothing to be done but sail and hope.
Hypothetically, you can leave Greater Marrow and sail immediately to the far side of the map; realistically, you won’t be able to catch much if you do and will likely be killed on the way. Even then, the game autosaves frequently, and if your boat is destroyed, you are respawned at the last dock you visited. As a fishing and exploration game, it is challenging but not unforgiving: every element of its design encourages and rewards curiosity. But where is the dread?
Curiosity is not typically a trait that is rewarded in cosmic horror. In H. P. Lovecraft’s work, it’s a fatal flaw: humans are transformed, driven mad or annihilated by their exposure to the secrets their curiosity uncovers. His novella The Shadow over Innsmouth is also set in a seaport, with an unnamed protagonist who is an outsider to the town. As in Dredge, the source of the evil that infects the town is located in the deep sea – “the cursed place of all wickedness, whar the deep water starts”. But in Innsmouth, the protagonist’s inquiry into the mystery completely transforms him. He is plagued by dreams of the depths that inexorably draw him back to serve the Deep Ones, having lost all the faculties that would allow him to resist. This powerlessness is the horror – the more someone tries to understand the problem, the more they are overcome by it.
References to horror classics abound in Dredge, from a hooded figure dressed in gold, an oblique nod to Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow, to tentacled beasts that recall Lovecraftian Old Ones. But unlike the horror classics, curiosity in Dredge is consistently rewarded with more quests, a stronger boat, better fishing tackle – a design sensibility that might be engaging but that is fundamentally at odds with the genre. Nobody in Dredge is at risk of this kind of powerlessness. There are characters who are already mad, dotted around the landscape like cosmic horror set pieces – but nobody is going mad, least of all our curious fisherman.
This dissonance manifests early, when the fishmonger asks you to bring him an aberrant fish. Each breed of fish has a rarer, more horrifying form, and it’s not uncommon to reel in one with extra heads, flayed skin or vicious teeth. Upon delivering him his aberration, his sense of fear and urgency is palpable; he locks you out, sliding iron bolts across the door in order to “deal” with the thing. But this ultimately comes to nothing. Next time you visit, he is selling crab pots and nets and buying your fish as usual, including aberrations, without comment. It’s just another quest, something you the player are empowered to achieve and will be rewarded for. While the game flirts with sinister set dressing, none of these elements cohere to convey a sense of real powerlessness or dread.
Lovecraft believed successful horror re-created the paralysis of a nightmare, writing “the best weird tales are those in which the narrator or central figure remains (as in actual dreams) largely passive, & witnesses or experiences a stream of bizarre events which … flow past him, just touch him, or engulf him entirely”. In Dredge, the player is never truly powerless. Its world is composed of a series of actions to take, problems to solve and quests to be completed. Monsters are disabled with tricks and traps, and research provides an uncomplicated benefit. The player acts on the world; it rarely acts on us. As upgrades to your boat offer faster motors and a stronger hull, and story progression unlocks an ability to warp out of sticky situations, the monsters totally lose their scariness, functioning more as annoying roadblocks than manifestations of a dark, inexorable power.
The same elements that make Dredge’s gameplay involving and approachable create an environment of safety, meaning it can never extend past spookiness into actual cosmic horror. If you’re in the thrall of an eldritch beast and can simply manifest your way back to safety, are you even in the thrall of an eldritch beast?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "Dredging the depths".
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