By: Brandon McCartin (BMcC)

On: May 18th, 2009

Play FATHOM here, online, for free (whoa)

FATHOM, the latest collaboration of Adam “Atomic” Saltsman and Danny “B” Baranowsky, is your standard 2D action-platformer… or is it? The game throws some fun surprises your way, which I don’t want to spoil here, and is definite food for thought. I give it 33 thumbs up!

Like their hit Gravity Hook, FATHOM uses Adam’s Flixel framework for Flash-based 2D games to great effect. (The entire game took about 10 days to make.) Which is cool, because Flixel should see a public release “in a few weeks.” (!) There’s also a bunch of procedural trickery going on in the background which the player may not notice, but I think is worth mentioning in case Adam wants to talk about it more in the forum thread.

  • Dezmonik

    Fantastic beginning, then an unnecessary and confusing water level. Useless bolt pick-ups and absolutely no instruction underwater (I went around picking up fish before realizing that that was useless, and I generally any other complaints have been listed by Flamebait.

    The beginning was fantastic though!

  • Phil

    When will developers realize there’s more in the world than just QWERTY keyboards… “Press Z+X to play” – well, thank YOU. Damn…

  • Archagon

    I found the underwater controls extremely frustrating, to the point where I almost didn’t finish the game — which is a shame, because the atmosphere is amazing.

  • Archagon

    Also, how do I get my hands on this flixel framework? I’m interested in making 2D platformers in Flash, and having a framework like this would make learning about 1000x easier for me.

  • jimmykane

    Nice to know people shared my initial problems with the game. I thought I’d be outed as some kind of idiot!

  • Kobel

    Visually, musically, and technically excellent, but I just don’t see the point. If there’s a thesis behind it I don’t get it. Sorry, I know this probably took a lot of work, but just didn’t click for me :(

  • Toom

    >>When will developers realize there’s more in the world than just QWERTY keyboards… “Press Z+X to play” – well, thank YOU. Damn…

    Probably when they – or indeed, the majority of their target audience – stop using them.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Fathom, although I agree that the underwater section was a little frustrating; for me though, this would be completely fixed by simply upping the player’s rotation speed a bit. Any chance of a downloadable standalone for those of us on shit-tastic slow connections?

  • Pyabo

    Interesting game.

    I found a bug… when the water gate opened and I went into the second water area, I tried going back up… Well, I got caught on the left bricks and pushed to the left side of the screen, then fell to the bottom. (it was almost like the old Super Mario Brothers -1 world trick) Player sprite all the way off the screen, but flashlight and mobility still worked. Moved all the way right to the “exit” before quitting out.

  • Xander

    I don’t think I quite understood the intention of the piece, but purely from a technical standpoint it really shows off a variety of things I really hadn’t expected to see in flash. The underwater lighting was very cool and I really liked the overall solid feel of it.

    I guess my interpretation of the ending is that you thought Quote should’ve long before been destroyed by water pressure back in Cave Story. How cruel.

  • http://0xdeadc0de.org Eclipse

    i was like “OMG AWESOME AWESOME!” ’till the boss battle, then i got underwater, with an awkard control system : so i was like “ok maybe it’s something small… i just need to resurface somewhere.. but let’s go deeper first.. then the screen got totally black and i got stuck somewhere >_<

  • Robin

    WTF! No flamethrowers OR cars! This sucks! All good videogames have flamethrowers and cars – game design 101. Simple.

  • Quetz

    Eclipse: push z to turn on your flashlight, unless that was a bug or something.

  • Pyrrhon

    The change between awesome oldschool platformer to boring fish-collecting seems weird at first.

    But i guess you’re trying to say that “art games” only work because the player does not expect traditional gameplay beforehand?

    If you had only released the water part of the game and labeled it as an “art game”, people would probably prasie it instead of bash it in the comments.

  • Porl”

    This is ace. I really enjoyed it, obviously i was a little confused with what to do underwater but when you get your flash light on and start collecting fish you start to figure out what to do. Really enjoyed it. Really polished feel too. :)


  • http://0xdeadc0de.org Eclipse

    played again, this time with the flashlight on XD
    But i got bored quickly after finding an huge gate i couldn’t open in any manner

  • Galaxy

    ***Warning spoilers***

    I was a bit baffled at first by the game when I finished it… thinking ‘what was the point of that?’ but then I was reading the comments here and it just clicked that it does make sense and works very well if this is a reference to that Owl Creek Bridge story (which I haven’t heard of before) because when you begin the game, it throws you directly into the center of action with music pumping heavily and makes you go ‘Wow, this is great!’ but then you face the boss and eventually you see that you are not going to win, then your expression changes and you think how are you going to get out of this one, and then you loose. Then when you get in the water you think ‘oh that’s okay, I’ll get up again and finish him’ then when you get to the ascension you think ‘here I go! now on to the cool stuff again!’ but just like in the Owl Creek Bridge story when the character is about to reach his house, reality jumps in and you realize it was all already over. So I think though deceiving, the game does convey better the message if you think it’s ‘real game’ :P Well at least that’s my opinion. I loved the music and graphics very much though ;)

  • http://www.datarealms.com Data

    Wow, what a sniveling bunch of… I was sold after 10 seconds of playing this, and then sold again after hitting the water.

    So much is distilled into a couple of minutes of gameplay, it blows my mind. Chunky, lush pixel art/anim/effects and INCREDIBLE music presents the delicious contrast between the hectic action/hopeless boss battle and the super eerie dark underwater exploration.

    The game was exactly as long as I’m willing to play any flash game, and it gave me such surprisingly strong feelings of atmospheres and powerful experiences in that short amount of time. Never seen anything like it before in a browser.

    So, two more thumbs up for it, and 65 thumbs down for every whiner who didn’t get the whole point because they’re fixated on the flashlight beam pointing in a direction less than ideal for navigation (but way more atmospherically powerful)

    5:30 am rant over

    – D

  • Kvalsternacka

    I like it. Graphics, sound and atmosphere is ace. And I was quite satisfied when I finished it.

    It’s painfully obvious that there’s more to it than you see on a first play through though. There always is in these kind of games. An extra area, another ending or something like that. I just can’t figure out how to get to experience it. Played it through 5-6 times while trying a bunch of different stuff, but nothing.

    Or I’m just deceiving myself *shrug*.

  • http://www.datarealms.com Data


    It saddens me that people can’t deal with not having their hand held throughout the entire experience. No, the game just “sucks” without those friendly (read: annoying, experience-interrupting, fun-destroying) tutorial popups for every new element or needed button press.

    We’ve been brainwashed by moronic “quicktime” sequences and fucking God of War tunnel gameplay to not have to think at all – just mash buttons (preferably the ones shown on screen with HUGE icons) and you’ll arrive at the end of the game sooner or later! Then, that ending better be a REALLY sweet cutscene, because you worked so hard for it with all that mindless inconsequential mashing.

    Bah! You should have been exposed to something like Exile growing up, where figuring out subtle clues and actually needing to THINK about what to do to progress mattered. Oh, and discovering the deliciously complex controls: part of the game, bitch.

    ~ D

  • papa

    wouldn’t it be politically correct to have called it Rotund Gay?

  • Kevin

    I found my way out I think, and I died. Then the game went back to the title screen, with fish floating around.

    He should turn FATHOM into a full out platform game. The first part before falling into the water fighting boss was fun as hell.

  • http://metanetsoftware.com/blog raigan

    @Data: no, I hate those sort of things even more than random unexplained stuff!

    I guess for me there was just a huge feeling of disappointment, because of how well-made the entire game was — the graphics are amazing, the little touches like the flashlight and particles when blowing up robots — I expected an actual full game rather than just a riff.

    Someone suggested that the unwinnable boss fight should have clued me in that this wasn’t going to be a “Cave Story” type experience, but I just thought it was a really smart appropriation of an RPG trope in a platformer.

    Anyway, it’s not bad at all, just VERY disappointing because you want the experience to keep going and it just ends, that’s the worst part.

    The underwater bits are definitely frustrating — just adding a map would have made it obvious to me where I had been/etc, so that I could have backtracked systematically to make sure I didn’t miss anything (which apparently I did, since the dirt didn’t really seem remarkable when I first passed it). The movement is great, it’s just the whole “lost in a very uniform-looking labyrinth” that gets frustrating.

    And also the game just ending when you want it to continue, that’s a bit of a pisser! :)

  • Arne

    I think the problem with the water part is partly that of the terrain appearance. The tiles are figurative and ‘man made’ with different motifs, but the level design is not figurative. It’s just a big meaningless maze with the content diluted kind of evenly about. If rock/cave/coral terrain had been used then it would be easier to accept the haphazard feel to the level layout.

    The cave felt a bit… filler now. Given its size, I would’ve preferred to have some more things to do in it (even if it’s just playing around/exploration), and some variation in terrain. E.g. from top to bottom: Corals with fishes, sunken temple, Sunken robot/ship/vessel with some treasure inside/nearby (and a guardian life form?), dark lifeless abyss then bam(!) at the bottom there’s some glowing life form stuff all of a sudden. Or something which jumps at you. Perhaps a glowing treasure-like item on the floor, and the player walks up to it, then bam(!), a big jaw thing comes up from behind, or the front, depending on whether you want to illuminate it or not.

  • toastie


    Well it’s like Kojima said, video games can not be art because they are a service to the player’s expectations of entertainment.

    You are expecting it to be a fun and entertaining game so when it’s not, it’s a big disappointment.

  • fabamatic

    There is a bug int he game that was VERY frustrating, the first time I palyed it when i dropped the seed in the underwater dirt it didn’t grew a tree, it just passed tru. Not knowing what else to do I wandered around aimlessly with fish pointing me toward the dirt. Thank you playtesters!!

  • Diverse

    Is Edmund serious? Can you really beat the boss?

  • cm

    This was beautiful and more than a little subversive. I think the full impact may have been lost on me, though, since I jumped in the small pit immediately just to see what would happen, finished the game, replayed to see that stuff to the right of the screen that I missed and went “ohhh”. I have to wonder why the first pit leads to water at all (I suppose our robot hero can have a hallucinatory death dream during a mundane drowning too, but it seems a lot less impressive). You should make it a spike pit or something and then have visible water at the bottom of the screen during the boss fight so players have an idea of what’s coming. As for the underwater part, I think it could have benefited from being more linear, since I spent enough time wandering aimlessly that the mood of the game started to wear off a little. But overall, I love it :V

  • cm

    PS I like how the game encourages you to collect tokens that turn out to be utterly pointless in the end.

  • http://www.datarealms.com Data

    Raigan: Did you pay attention to the motion of the fish at all? There’s your minimap, man.

    That’s exactly what I’m talking about regarding being handed everything on a platter vs. having to look for interesting/subtle/contextually meaningful clues built into the gameplay and actually figure out what they mean and how they can help you progress.

    That’s what bothers me – since we’re now conditioned by huge icons, tutorial popups, and HUD displays showing exactly what to do next, we tend to not even pay attention to more subtle game design. Thus, if a designer tries to be subtle and clever it is immediately punished by feedback like “it all turned black and then i gave up!”. DID YOU TRY THE OTHER OF THE TWO POSSIBLE BUTTONS?!

    I’ve been playing a lot of NES roms on my Dingoo handheld recently, and I’m really enjoying just jumping into a game after game and exploring the control schemes. Having only two main action buttons helps, but studying the controls is almost always more fun than the actual gameplay for me.

    I admit, it took me the second playthrough of Fathom to think: “hey, what is the actual purpose of the fish?”. It gave me a real nice ‘aha’ moment when I confirmed that they were trying to lead me.

    I’m looping my day – didn’t sleep so ranting is all my sleep deprived brain is capable of doing atm! Enjoy!

    ~ D

  • http://www.adamatomic.com/ Adam Atomic

    Hey guys, yea for some reason every like 1000 plays or something the seed totally F’s up and I still haven’t tracked down why, it makes NO sense…I will keep looking for the cause though!

    And thanks again to everybody for playing and leaving their feedback and thoughts!!

  • http://josephkingworks.blogspot.com Joseph

    He must be serious cuz the author yelled at him not to spoil it :P So basically the underwater section is just one long gameover screen? BRILLIANT :D

  • Dustin

    “It saddens me that people can’t deal with not having their hand held throughout the entire experience. No, the game just “sucks” without those friendly (read: annoying, experience-interrupting, fun-destroying) tutorial popups for every new element or needed button press.”

    Yeah, destroy that straw-man! Smash it up! What saddens ME is everyone here is apparently incapable of deciphering simple (simple) metaphor. It’s another hip, “emotional” look at retro gaming (like braid). The game character dies on a boss, and instead of respawning and trying again, he journies through the underworld and into the light at the end of a tunnel.

    Mulholland Drive is also not a touching story of 2 lesbians finding eachother and falling in love, by the way.

  • TCM

    It’s a very simple and easy to understand thing, for anybody at all acquanted with literary tropes.

    Played it again this morning, noted that the seed was in a different position, and the seed was the thing on the “Click for Instructions” screen. Also noted that the HUD disappears as you descend, indicating that it’s not important and you shouldn’t worry about it.

    The music is fantastic and melencholy (I enjoy that kind of sound, but still not sure how to describe it, melencholy is as close as I can get), but as good as the art is, I can’t get over the lack of variation in that maze.

    Here’s a suggestion: In the upper, ‘bright’ parts of the maze, things should look nice, organized, and not at all decrepit. As you descend, rust and cracks should set in, with a complete erosion of all evidence it was man made at the bottom, outside of the vine door.

    Or something like that.

    (sidenote: Being destroyed by health loss=extra life, being destroyed by falling into pit=Owl Creek Bridge. What a harsh world this is…perhaps you could do an above water/flight version for health-based destruction, or an alternate ending? It’s kinda contradictory that one form of death is permanent, while the other is shrugged off.)

  • Evan

    That’s because Mulholland Drive is really a story about a director and a cowboy finding each other and falling in love.

    Great game. People are impatient, and they don’t take responsibility for their failure to notice clues like the fish. Personally, I took forever to notice the fish, but I don’t blame the game designer for that, I blame my own failure to adapt to a game that was clearly throwing me curve balls from the start.

  • whiskey

    Well I figured out that right after dieing, you can jump and move to the right before you fall, and you’ll jump above the upper wall and you’ll be able to walk above the level. Just like in Mario or Dangerous Dave. The only thing is that you can’t see the character and is a little harder to knowing where exactly is.

    But otherwise than that, I couldn’t figure much more. After you’ve got up there, you can move to the boss area and trying jump or shoot, but can’t do over jump or kill him. Or you can jump to the left and you’ll fall again in the water where there is the same concept of planting a tree idea, but this time in a little different area. Maybe you’re supposed to plant all the trees?… I don’t know, I don’t have the nerves anymore :).

  • Edmund

    Yes it is possible to beat the boss, but.


    the platform you need to stand on is only one pixel big and basicly blends in with the BG, its closer to the right side of the screen keep jumping around there early on to find it.

  • anothergol

    I would be the one to hate an artsy game, however this one is well done, has cute graphics & a great ambience.

    I still don’t know what it was all about nor if the ending was the real one (nor why you die), but I enjoyed it.
    This game answered something for me: what happens when you fall in the pit? And I’m pretty sure it’s all it’s about. In other games, you fall into a pit, you die, and you wished you knew what was in that pit, maybe an underground level? Now, I know. There’s fish.

  • Flamebait


    “art games… traditional gameplay…”
    “…labeled it as an “art game”, people would probably prasie it…”

    The gameplay in Fathom *is* traditional though (not that it’s a problem). The first part, obviously, and the second part is about exploration: a staple mechanic. It’s the set of themes that is non-traditional. And I bet few people thought it was anything but an “art game” shortly after entering the water.


    “…65 thumbs down for every whiner who didn’t get the whole point because they’re fixated on the flashlight beam pointing in a direction less than ideal for navigation…”

    Dismount your high horse, sir. Ridiculous straw men like these are a part of the reason why people get so riled about “art games”. There are always people that completely delegitimize criticism of them.

    “interesting/subtle/contextually meaningful clues”

    That’s the thing, I dispute their existence as real “clues”. The movement of the fish looks like the result of a nondescript flocking algorithm (“The fish don’t point the way, they just swim around randomly.”- even someone with foreknowledge couldn’t see the behavior). If I hadn’t seen the idea of a directional indicator used in a game before, I would’ve been totally at a loss; no presented reason exists why the fish would tend to swim in a particular direction, they just do. Fathom is made up of action/interaction that doesn’t make sense to alot of people.

    I love the (first two) Myst games, and more abstract puzzle-solving affairs like Glum Buster. It’s not that I’m the brand of idiot gamer you speak of, I just don’t like the second part of Fathom. Why does that make you so angry? In case there’s any doubt about the impression you gave, here are some of your colorful descriptions of people who don’t like the game: “whiner[s]”, “people [that] can’t deal with not having their hand held”, “brainwashed”, played the wrong games as children (the Exile comment). Seriously, you’re close to flat-out trolling.

    Anyway, some things I forgot to mention. Fathom is obscenely loud. The *one* thing that frequently annoys me about indie games is their loudness, and this is the worst case I’ve seen. My “Wave” volume was less than halfway up, and the “Master” volume just one pixel above 0, and it was still too loud. Verified the problem, it’s not on my end (even a punk record is a whisper by comparison). Tone that s*** down!

    The plot was appealing. I interpret it as a pisstake of the insane challenges faced by action game characters. In real life, they would inevitably perish, as here. Some good stuff will come of the Flixel framework; I’ve never played a Flash platformer that was so slick.

  • Arne

    What’s up with the last underwater cave bit using the same layout as the first cave? It might be a clue to something.

    Also: bug. If you get into a the bottom L/R corner of the last shaft and aim your flashlight up diagonally towards a top corner, you’ll see the edge of the large square black image which is used to darken the screen and give the flashlight effect.

  • Arne

    A minor nuisance, perhaps: If you try to jump up a ledge which is exactly 4 blocks high, the character/scroll will jitter around a bit. I found that out when I tried to go back to the start.

  • Bob

    Eh. I have mixed feelings about this.

  • Arne

    Getting to the ‘bad end'(?) without firing any shots, grabbing any treasure, taking any damage, attracting any fish, doesn’t seem to do anything.

    Although I did get 3 white fish appear around me once for no apparent reason.

  • raigan

    “Raigan: Did you pay attention to the motion of the fish at all? There’s your minimap, man.”

    Well, I spent at least 30min swimming around getting all the fish, and they never once formed a map-shape ;p

    Sometimes they would all flock/swarm to the edge of the screen, but I attributed this to some sort of intermittant avoidance behaviour, like maybe they were scattering when the flashlight was pointed at them or when they didn’t have a clear line-of-sight to the player.

    Anyway, even _if_ they’re doing something like pointing, how is that better than a minimap?! If anything it’s more hand-hold-y since it’s explicitly giving you the solution rather than passively documenting where you’ve been (helping you to find the solution on your own).

    Basically it made me feel like “damn, I should have drawn out a map on paper from the start”, but then I remembered my oath to never again do that for any game, because it’s tedious and something that the game itself could just do automatically for me.

    Like, imagine a platformer where all the platforms were invisible. Yes, you _could_ painstakingly map out where they were located on paper through trial and error, and then use that to navigate the world, but at that point it’s obvious that the game is being purposefully obtuse because it knows very well where all the platforms are — so it should draw the damn things for me rather than forcing me to do it myself!!

    In conclusion: I love minimaps.

    Also I really like the idea of a platformer where each level has the same art style and characters, but vastly different movement/gameplay styles.

  • Gabberdeen

    I think this is a brilliant critique of players who want “fun” in their games. You always hear that now — “The important thing isn’t graphics or sound, it’s FUN!” and other bullshit like that. Fathom basically says, “Here’s your fun for 30 seconds, and now go to hell (literally)!” And then it shows that a real game, the kind that’s not motivated by GREED, isn’t fun at all, or tight controls, or sensible design: it’s deep and introspective and sensitive and it has awesome graphics and sound and an inconclusive ending. BOOM! Anyone who ever said “I hate loading delays” or “Fed Ex quests are stupid” or “MMOs shouldn’t just be about grinding” needs to play this game NOW and realize how immature they’ve been. Fuck fun. This is the future.

  • http://www.paul-jeffries.com Paul Jeffries

    Hmmm… I’m divided on this game. I like the graphical style, but it is kinda derivative (intentionally, of course). The first part is fun, the second part is dull. I quite like the artistic ‘message’, but I don’t think it was implemented as well as it could have been (plus, if this were any other media, the post-modernist self-reference might be seen as a tad cliché).

    So. I guess the key deciding factor is that I consider the second part to be *willfully* un-fun without real artistic benefit to being so. In my opinion the second part could have been a lot shorter and more streamlined without any loss of meaning or impact. As it is it ends up being a little irritating (especially since you spend all that time trudging through it in the unfulfilled expectation of returning to the fun bit). But. It’s clear that the team behind it has some talent, and I look forward to seeing more stuff from them using this engine but with longer than ten measly days spent on it.

  • contra

    Damnit. This was the most awesome game ever (or atleast in a very long time). The graphics, style and music was among the best ever. And then it abruptly ended :~(
    Please everyone stop making artsy 2 minute games about death and ex girlfriends and lets just make action platformers again.

  • Tacroy

    I really don’t understand why there’s so many people saying that the first part is fun. Yes, the style is fun, the sort of thing that brings back memories of Mega Man – and unlike a lot of Flash platformers, it doesn’t lag like crazy just putting some pixels on the screen. However, just play around with the controls for a little while and you’ll see that they’re really not that great – you slide around everywhere, there’s noticeable input delay, and your firing rate is really weird (most noticeable when fighting the boss, though this may be due to some tweaking). You just don’t notice any of these problems in the level itself because there’s no real challenge – you just run forward, shoot things and jump. You never do any real platforming, and these controls would need tightening up in order for it to work.

  • Q

    mentioned a few times but nobody said it yet: CAVESTORY RIPOFF XD
    i mean, how many games feature Sprinklers??

  • Paul Eres

    i got past the boss, then the space level, then the secret boss, but can’t figure out how to kill it with my bolt-gun (those things you collect do come in useful! wish i had collected more!) i didn’t see the water level everyone else was talking about though.

  • Anthony Flack

    Perhaps people who feel frustrated or unfulfilled by the game’s conclusion would feel better thinking of this as a brief demo of Flixel’s capabilities.

    With a twist.