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Telling emotional stories through evocative scenes in Rhett Tsai's How Deep Is the Dark Water?

By chasing a mysterious figure through almost dreamlike vignettes, How Deep Is the Dark Water? creator Rhett Tsai wants players to understand the emotional stories of communities and individuals displaced by war.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 6, 2023

6 Min Read
How Deep is the Darkest Water
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This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.

How Deep Is the Dark Water? sees players following a fleeing man through visions and memories born out of war, exploring what those memories and moments mean for individuals, cultures, and nations along the way.

New media artist Rhett Tsai, the game's creator, explains that the project came to be in late 2022, a year filled with more than its share of war, chaos, and global uncertainty. Game Developer spoke with Tsai about the project, exploring why they placed a fleeing man at the heart of the work and what drew them to use the medium of games for their art after previously working on items for art exhibitions.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing How Deep Is the Dark Water??

I’m Rhett Tsai (Yuxiao Cai), a lecturer from the Open Media Department at the China Academy of Art. I am a new media artist and experimental game developer based in Hangzhou, China. The game How Deep Is the Dark Water? was developed independently by me alone.

What's your background in making games?

This work is the first game I created. I have used game engines a lot in the past to create my works, but that was basically not in the form of games. My past works have been in the context of art exhibitions.

How did you come up with the concept for How Deep Is the Dark Water??

I came up with the whole concept in late 2022, a year with a lot of chaos in the world. The wars that had broken out and the potential geopolitical crisis made me think that I had to do something. I came up with the idea of "water" as a geopolitical zone that divides territories, and I saw it as a metaphor for war and those who fled, and the work slowly began to develop.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Unreal Engine 5.

What drew you to explore this side of war? To try to capture this sensation of the suffering, fear, and violence?

I wanted to convey the stories of civilians who have lost their families on social media, of diaspora communities around the world who have long since left their homes, and of older generations who have been unable to return home because of the geopolitical wars in Asia.

Why was the back of the fleeing man the central element of the game? Why set this as the heart of the work?

This fleeing man is the only guide of the whole game. I hope it can bring the audience some deeper thinking, such as: if he is a fleeing man, then who are you (the player) chasing him? Are you his brothers and sisters or enemy soldiers? If he is not a specific person, is he a symbol of something more macroscopic such as an invaded nation, an innocent human being, or a ghost of the past?

What thoughts went into the designs of the fleeing person? How did you decide on how it would look and move?

The fleeing man is actually my own 3D-scanned model, but only the back can be seen. I do not want the player to see his front, because the truth of the war and the dead and wounded masses is impossible to be fully known.

In the game, the fleeing man will guide the player where to go next, but it is impossible for the player to approach it, which is my intentional design.

What drew you to have the player seek meaning in the words and environments while running after someone? Why mingle a search for answers while scrambling and hurrying after someone and feeling terror?

Today, the various crises appear to the masses as simple performances of good or bad, yet underneath these representations are immensely complex historical emotions, national issues, and a contest of forces.

I wanted to bring this connection into the game. Thus, while playing the game, the player may feel like they are dreaming or simply chasing someone, but once they start to read the text hidden in the scenes, they will start to think about the meaning behind it.

How did you decide on the various places people would explore? What ideas went into the way they looked? The way they would sound?

The whole scene design starts with an old dwelling, which represents the homeland, and the subsequent scenes show the process of escaping from the home.

While envisioning the scenes, I was inspired by some true events and created scenes around the themes of "nostalgia", "culture and nation", "shelters", "old conventions", "social media" and other themes.

Each scene is created with a different concept - some are historical, some are surreal, some are purely atmospheric, etc.

In order to give the work a sense of unity, I wanted the sound of each scene to be coherent and unified.

How Deep Is the Dark Water? stirs up many powerful emotions as you run through it? What feelings do you hope your work evokes?

I hope that those who cannot really understand the content of this work because of cultural differences will also be able to feel strong emotions directly.

How Deep Is the Dark Water? is largely in black and white save for several things. How did you choose what would be in color? What did you want to make the player feel in bringing color into this world at certain moments?

Those parts that are colored mean focus. They are mostly the main idea of the scene, and I hope that the player will be aware of this through the colors, while this color design also makes the picture not look boring.

After largely placing your work in galleries, what drew you to using the structure of games for this piece?

My background is as a new media artist and the game was a new venture for me. I find that games as a form allow more people to experience them directly on their own computers in a way that artworks in galleries or museums cannot bring.

I see games as a creative medium to express my views and feelings about the world. So, in this work, I didn't want to be limited by the media art system and most rules for creating games, I wanted to convey my feelings in a relatively simple way.

As long as the player can feel the spiritual world I created, it is not really important what the game's story is about.

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