I was never good at Operation. That poor clown nose guy got stabbed more than saved whenever my turn came up. Delicate movements aren’t my specialty. Neither is patience. As a result these are things I normally avoid testing when possible so as to avoid embarrassing myself. But when David Szymanski (he of Dusk and Dread X: The Hunt fame in case you get your Szymanskis confused) offers review codes for a game about a prisoner piloting a submarine through a lunar ocean of blood for a shot at freedom, you throw your name in the hat, clumsiness be damned.
Szymanski is a horror game vet. Between his own output and his colab work there’s a large body of spooky work to contextualize Iron Lung with. For those familiar with the Dread X collections, Iron Lung feels like a slightly expanded riff on a game that would be right at home in a hypothetical water-themed collection. The specific game of his I had in the back of my head throughout my playthrough was Squirrel Stapler from Dread X Collection 2. Both feature you scooting around a map, locating elusive waypoints, tagging them (in this case with a camera as opposed to bullets), and moving on to the next objective. Granted they play nothing alike, but the emotional arc from start to finish is remarkably similar. “What am I doing? What is happening? Is this progress? OH MY GOD NO–“
When they say they’re welding you into that sub with no training they’re not kidding. Tutorials ain’t happening here, not that you’ll need much time to get to grips with your tiny rusty coffin. There are only a handful of buttons to press: forwards, backwards, turning, and your photography setup on the opposite end of the sub. There are a couple other things you’ll find laying around, my favorite being the emotional support fire extinguisher, but that’s mostly it. It’s tiny, intentionally so.
You also can’t see. Did I mention that? That’s important.
When I told my co-writer Kyle about this particular detail he replied with a brisk “nope”, and I think that reaction is where a major chunk of this game’s potential appeal lies. Your single porthole is stuck shutter-down because the sub isn’t rated for this depth. Part of the whole punitive mission angle, I reckon. You’re forced to get by entirely via coordinates, a sonar display pinging away, and your gut. Iron Lung checks many a phobia box: you’re submerged, slowly using up your limited oxygen, stuck in claustrophobic conditions, unable to use all of your senses, and perhaps most terrifying – plunged into the unknown. And the unknown is making noise.
Expect to crash that sub at least once or twice. That’s not an indictment of your skill, it’s just gonna happen. You’ll get disoriented, try to scoot past a particularly angry blip, and get a lung full of blood for your trouble. Accept this and move on. Iron Lung is short so needing to start over isn’t the end of the world. Given time and map familiarity you’ll eventually be able to zip past blips at max speed because you’re confident in your navigation. It transforms from oppressive and seemingly impossible to simply requiring focus as your mission status grows progressively more dire. Yet despite allowing you to build confidence in the face of the void, the game never lets up on its relentless rising tension.
Tension, that’s the word of the day. Iron Lung is a masterclass in it. I talk about the importance of tension and suspense a lot on here, especially with regard to horror games, and Szymanski has demonstrated time and time again that he knows exactly how to hit his players with a quality rug pull at just the right points. Which is to say, not quite when you’d expect one or how you expected it. Small sound effects. Gradual changes in your sub’s condition. Other things I won’t get into here, all of which are well executed. You probably paid money for your entire computer chair but you’ll only need the edge.
You know what Iron Lung reminds me of, now that I have the benefit of hindsight? This game is an theme park drop ride, except you need to operate the ride yourself while blindfolded. You’re strapped into your seat, you know there’s gonna be surprises, but you have no idea when or what. You pull, adjust, and strain constantly to progress, not knowing if it’s going to end due to your own lack of finesse or…some other way. And eventually it does! Then the ride is over, and you walk off alive with your brain firing off those good “I survived a dangerous thing” chemicals because we’re still animals and very easy to trick.
I feel like most people are gonna finish Iron Lung exactly once, and that’s for the best. A significant amount of the experience is made possible thanks to the opaque iron curtain drawn around you, and that gets pulled back a bit once you’ve seen the game through to its conclusion. Replaying it reveals some of the seams; you’ll start to put together exactly how your actions actually affect the sub and the world around you, and the horror fades a little bit. This is fine. Like a quality magic trick or any good joke, just because your enjoyment is partially derived from uncertainty and surprise does not mean you’ll be any less entertained on that first run, nor unappreciative of the craft that went into making it work so well in the first place. Its the kind of experimental, experiential game that you’ll talk about far longer than its duration, ideally with other people that “get it”. But you shouldn’t play it for them. This is not intended to be played with an audience, that defeats the entire purpose of a game so centered on isolation. Iron Lung is a game meant to be played yourself.
In the dark.
Review code provided by publisher.