Getting hooked by Fish Cymophis, a PSone-like underwater horror

Hardware limitations have long forced developers to come up with creative workarounds, with the horror genre being a particularly fertile ground in the days of PlayStation and Nintendo 64. Titles like Shadow Man, Nightmare Creatures, and the original Resident Evil used their host platforms to haunting effect, with technical restrictions such as poor draw distances, long load times, and low-resolution textures all adding to their scares. It’s exactly this vibe that solo developer Jonny Richards has tapped into for his suite of short horror games. His latest is Fish Cymophis, a sinister fishing simulator where you explore a lake full of deadly wildlife.

“I really liked the concept of a horror game that takes the guise of a different genre and uses their mechanics in clever ways,” Richards says of Fish Cymophis’ unique genre fusion.

Beginning life as a simple game jam project designed to follow the theme ‘fear of submerged objects’, Fish Cymophis was originally inspired by a broader selection of hunting games before Richards opted to concentrate purely on fishing. This allowed him to keep the game’s scope manageable, with the story focusing on the horrors that lurk in the depths of Cradle Lake.

The lo-fi look of Fish Cymophis gave Richards free reign to get creative with the creature designs

The environment’s broken up into four distinct areas, each one comprising different creatures that the player will have to confront and catch. “Each level’s environment is mostly underwater,” says Richards, “which the player can’t see from their boat. But by casting their lure into the water, the player’s able to explore each level’s creepy environment through the fishing lure’s point of view as they fish.”

True to its horror theme, the act of fishing is fraught with tension, too. “While fishing, the player’s also vulnerable, as they can’t move or drive away from danger,” Richards explains. “This can create tense gameplay and allow for some unique ways to scare the player with what they see or catch in the water, and what might attack them on the surface.”

Big fish, small pond

Where most fishing games are at least somewhat relaxing, Fish Cymophis will instead use its angling mechanics to build suspense. Equipped with just a rod and a small but manoeuvrable motorboat, you’ll need to work out how best to use the game’s wide selection of lures before you even think about navigating the dangers of the lake. Fish Cymophis won’t see your character drown (swimming isn’t even a mechanic here), but water’s depth still plays into the fright factor.

“The game’s primarily a horror, and each level will have a shift in gameplay to ramp up that part of the experience. But fishing is still at the game’s core,” says Richards

“As you drive the boat, there’s an in-game tool that displays the depth of the water you’re floating over,” Richards says. “I’ve found it can give a really immersive feeling of being over deep waters when you see it reaching its max value of 32-plus feet. It may be unsettling for people who have a fear of water.”

Like those low-poly nineties games mentioned earlier, Fish Cymophis also uses its retro look to scary effect: uncovering Cradle Lake’s mysteries will mean journeying through darkness and thick digital fog. Richards says the final game will include plenty of graphics settings to let players mimic the look of older consoles to their desired degree, but however it’s tweaked, Fish Cymophis will always retain the look of an angular, underwater haunted house.

But what is it about the low-poly aesthetic that’s so scary? Often, according to Richards, it’s to do with what players can’t see. “It can leave more to the player’s imagination,” he says, “which usually ends up being scarier than anything the developer could make.” The retro look also allows for more outlandish creature designs, he adds. “I believe the style also allows for exploring crazier ideas or monster designs which would be more difficult to explore in a more realistic style without breaking player immersion – especially for lower budget games.”

In between the routine frights, players will be able to use different types of lure to attract specific fish.

Richards has been hard at work on Fish Cymophis for six months now, honing the horror skills he first gained working on his earlier work released on the Christmas-themed Tornuktu, and the playground chiller, Slide in the woods. With Fish Cymophis, he hopes to scare a wider audience by bringing the game to Steam. And while its unique pairing of survival horror and fishing simulation might seem like an odd one at first, Richards insists that the end result will be as terrifying as it is unusual. “I want people to be surprised by how much a fishing game was able to scare them,” he says.

Getting the PSone Look

Making a game look retro is common practice these days‭, ‬but making‭ ‬Fish Cymophis‭ ‬look authentically PSone-like posed a few challenges‭. ‬“One important element is putting all the details into the texture rather than the model‭, ‬which are kept as low poly as possible‭,‬”‭ ‬says Richards‭. ‬“The textures are then also kept at a low resolution and made using photos‭, ‬painted by hand‭, ‬or a little of both‭. ‬Using post-processing can‭ [‬also‭] ‬get you really far‭: ‬making the screen a slightly lower resolution‭, ‬lowering its colour depth‭, ‬and adding dithering‭. ‬Otherwise just keep the lighting simple and turn off shadow casting‭. ‬For‭ [‬the‭] ‬PSone-look specifically‭, ‬there are some other fun effects such as vertex jitter or wobble‭, ‬UV warping‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬textures distorting when you get close‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬and vertex lighting‭.‬”

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