I was just minding my own business on a quiet evening when I stumbled across Alpha Beta Gamer's coverage of South Scrimshaw: Part One, a free visual novel that presents a nature documentary about alien whales. I couldn't ignore a premise that good, but I still had all my expectations blown out of the water (pun fully intended).
The real killer for me with South Scrimshaw is its worldbuilding—it nails the Disco Elysium thing of initially appearing very familiar, but then slowly unfurling into a setting that's almost vertigo-inducing in its strangeness. There were several moments in South Scrimshaw that hit me like the whammy of The Pale's reveal in Disco.
One of the earliest (so it's not a big spoiler) is the biology of the "Brillo Whales". They cultivate symbiotic relationships with other ocean species, forming specialized micro-ecosystems in their skin. The whales specialize in their biota, almost like they're picking vocations, and South Scrimshaw presents a dizzying array of uh, I guess "whale RPG classes."
The protagonist whale's mother, for example, looks like a floating forest, permanently obscured by all the flora that have taken root on her body. Another whale hosts a colony of octopi on its skin, which confer their active camouflage and allow it to be an ambush predator. Still another mimics the skin and pheromones of a species of pack-hunting sharks, letting it become the alpha of the group.
The "Kronos VII" documentary crew who frame the story will break into these digressions about the shocking interplanetary politics and society looming behind the production. There's this surreal "as you already know" frankness applied to keyhole views of what feels like an already extremely well-realized sci-fi setting. They drop a primer on how alien ecologies affect human gut health here, a digression about a cartoonist who made a Spongebob-style creation inspired by this world's marine biology there. Again, I come back to the Disco Elysium comparison for this feeling of fictional history that can be by turns extremely remote or painfully, immediately relevant.
Creator Nathan O. Marsh's illustrations bring a stunning watercolor vibrancy to this alien ocean, while also adding just enough animation and movement to break up what is otherwise a sequence of still images. It's like the tropical vistas of Avatar: The Way of Water by way of Studio Ghibli (I know, I know, I'm sorry for saying it looks like Studio Ghibli but other comparisons fail me). "What if Hayao Miyazaki was really into the ocean instead of the sky?"
I found the whole thing to be an emotional, almost life-affirming experience. The story of the whale calf at its heart moves between charming and devastating while South Scrimshaw: Part One sketches out an optimistic future for humanity. The Kronos VII expedition and human society in the background of South Scrimshaw seem defined by this classic Starfleet-style sense of curiosity and goodwill, while the brief mention of conflict back on Earth presents it as a fleeting thing that was left behind in favor of this newfound focus on discovery and cooperation.
It's refreshing to be able to enjoy compelling, credibly optimistic sci-fi at a time when it's hard to have hope for the future. I'm also still almost haunted by South Scrimshaw's portrayal of vibrant, thriving ocean life at a time when our own biosphere is so grievously threatened.
The game seems like another small indie miracle. "Getting exposure for a weird art project like this has always been challenging," Marsh wrote in a comment on Alpha Beta Gamer's video. "I'm sitting in a restaurant dish pit right now having a moment reading all the kind comments."
Elsewhere, Marsh characterizes South Scrimshaw as a labor of love worked on between paying commissions and jobs. It really just doesn't feel fair that this thing is free.
Marsh continues to work on South Scrimshaw: Part Two, with chapters to be released piecemeal before being bundled together on Steam like Part One. You can follow Marsh on Twitter, support him on Ko-fi, and check out South Scrimshaw: Part One for yourself on Steam or itch.io.