In Other Waters shrinks the entirety of an alien ocean into one interface. You’re the AI that accompanies xenobiologist Ellery Vas on her dives into the oceans of Gliese 667Cc in search of life that may help sustain mankind, while trying to find out what happened to her partner, who disappeared during a prior mission.
All you see of Ellery’s adventures is a map—Ellery herself is a little dot, as is everything she encounters. As you scan the environment for anything from environmental clues about the ecosystem to plants and creatures for Ellery to study, descriptive text from the interface itself as well as Ellery’s observations tell you what’s going on down in the depths. For developer Gareth Damian-Martin, giving players a simple interface is a way of allowing their imagination to flourish. “I don’t think a game’s strength lies in its fidelity. There are many games that function entirely on the strength of their descriptions coupled with some good sound effects.”
One such game, which Damian-Martin cites as an inspiration for In Other Waters, is Adam Saltsman’s Capsule, which takes place entirely on a radar. He also tells me of a holiday by the sea during which he started to think about designing his own creatures that you could then study. “In another life I would’ve been a marine biologist,” he says, “So I always thought a lot about how to represent diving and elements of biological study in a game.”
The big blue
In Other Waters tickles the same urge to explore games like No Man’s Sky and Subnautica, but rather than make exploration the tool by which you escape death, in the demo I mostly get lost in the wonder of discovery. Ellery’s studies will in time reveal what her partner Minae Nomura might have studied before her disappearance. For now, In Other Waters lets me play at being a scientist just by repeat encounters with different plants. Each new scan gives Ellery an opportunity to note something new, until she can eventually take a sample. You can then have her use that sample either to power her suit, interact with the environment to solve puzzles or keep it for later, nursing and studying it at your base.
“Since all you see are dots, I want my creatures to move and interact with each other in interesting ways. They should be interesting enough for you to want to examine them further.” Damian-Martin doesn’t only design the creatures, but entire small-scale ecosystems. “On some level I’m trying to be accurate to biological science and evolutionary theory. All of the areas in the game have specific ecosystems. They’re based on [evolutionary theorist and biologist] Lynn Margulis’ idea that symbiosis is the driving factor for evolution. Everything I build follows that principle.”
Since players interact with everything through the user interface, it has to be easy to understand but not too sterile. Simple commands for acknowledging Ellery via yes or no answers, a storage and some pleasantly responsive knobs to fiddle with when extracting samples or guiding your diver are all it takes to get results. The overall colour scheme represents the environment Ellery is in, but like the map, the interface stays deliberately simple.
“I don’t follow strict graphic design rules for the interface because I want it to be expressive, kind of like the interfaces you see in anime from the ’80s,” Damian-Martin explains. “They aren’t function first, but they feel more organic.”
In Other Waters has taught me about the ways of scientific study, and knowing how much went into it, I look forward to discovering Gliese 667Cc even more.