I thought Sea of Solitude (opens in new tab) was going to be another game that treats spiritual or emotional healing as a quest to return the color to colorless areas, accompanied by a somber orchestral score. You likely know the type, games like Flower and Journey whose threats and interactions are simple props in a simple fable.
I love these games, but when they allude to hardship and despair, usually in the back half of a second act, it's often limited to a change in color and mood with a chase scene or two thrown in to add tension. That's a little reductive, I know, but rarely is the player ever made to feel truly uncomfortable. The monsters don't carry much meaning, and darkness as the only stand-in for an explicit social, cultural, or environmental horror moves me to action as much as a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. I'll get to 'em, someday. Rather than vaguely gesture towards emotion, I prefer stories with pointed ends that prick and sting and dig in.
Sea of Solitude has moments as resplendent as the best of those games, but it opens in that dark second act with Kay, the player character, in the midst of a personal crisis: utterly destitute and hopeless. It's where our first look at Sea of Solitude in action opens up. She's lost at sea and sad as hell, transformed into a feathery monster. Grotesque creatures representing depression, self-doubt, social pressure, and more call her terrible things, the kind of stuff that'd immolate Journey's E rating in an instant.
They want to eat her as well, which is also very mean.
One fish, two fish, red fish, depressed fish
Shortly into my first look at Sea of Solitude, our calm journey on a rowboat through a bright submerged facsimile of Berlin is rudely interrupted.
The light drains from the scene as a massive, red-eyed humanoid beneath an equally massive conch shell emerges from the water to say, "You worthless piece of shit. You have no idea what you're doing, do you?" Finally, we have the answer to the age-old question: what if you could talk to the monsters? Well, the monsters would call you a pissant and tell you that you don't know how to play videogames.
But we do know how to play videogames. We abandon the safety of the rowboat and swim to the rooftop of a nearby building just peeking out of the water. Kay fires a flare, which is really a burst of light Kay can shoot out after she gains the ability from one of the rare, suspiciously friendly characters inhabiting the watery world. That little ball of light seeks out the closest source of corruption, and stops on nearby balcony overlooking the water and conch demon.
Kay sucks out all of the darkness and stores it in her backpack, as one does. A copy of Kay appears near the corruption node and fires a continuous beam of light into the shell bully. Light and color are restored to the scene (I know, it's doing the thing, but it's not the only thing it does) and the conch demon is rudely returned to hell or wherever. Each monster requires different tactics to overcome for the sake of variety and expressing each monster's theme through visual design and play.
None of it looks particularly challenging or makes sense as a mechanical allegory for overcoming the Self Doubt Monster—a tiny navigation tax to 'find the light' inside yourself doesn't quite cut it, so I hope Sea of Solitude gets a little more complex and nuanced along the way. But I'm still struck by how spooky the monster is, and how hearing it tell me I'm not worth shit finds that charged ground between funny and cruel. Bit of a surprise, hearing a monster straight out of a Junji Ito book resort to schoolyard tactics in a game this pretty and clean.
Disorienting, explicit, and unpredictable: it's what makes Sea of Solitude feel like it's not set up to be just another short, cute narrative game with hazy themes.
Sea of Solitude is about loneliness, which is obvious enough, but it won't be cute with the real world byproducts of prolonged isolation. The conch-shelled humanoid is just one manifestation of that, likely to do with self-doubt. Creative director and writer Cornelia Geppert says the narrative is inspired by her own experiences, but that she based a good amount of the monsters on accounts of other people's manifestations or byproducts of solitude. A brand of sad for you and you and you—.
Shortly after banishing the shell-demon, another one appears beneath the water, an unnatural creature that looks like a long, slender whale covered in fur with a humanoid face. Geppert says the creature designs largely came from furious, impassioned scribbles in her notebook, sketches made in some of her loneliest, most painful moments.
The world is dark and stormy yet again, and to reach the objective Kay needs to swim through open expanses of churning sea water, dog-paddling from rooftop to rooftop while the monster gives chase. It's a tense scene, with each expanse growing in complexity and risk the closer Kay gets to her goal. The monster starts throwing itself at the sides of buildings and beneath the big chunks of debris Kay uses as sanctuary. She's not a powerful swimmer and it's difficult to gauge how much distance is needed between her and the monster before swimming to the next rooftop. I never fail, but feel like I'm right on the edge of failure the entire time. It's conventional videogame stuff, but dressed up well.
I get another quick glimpse at a level set inside an abandoned school where the only respite is in the light pouring through the windows and cracks in the foundation. Step into the darkness and a crowd of shadowy, red-eyed children appear and give chase, taunting you all the while.
It's easy to see they represent social anxieties or pressures of some kind. And while ghost kids and abandoned schools are nothing new, Sea of Solitude's strong palette of contrasting pastels makes those kids and their freaky red eyes pop. They're also a sign that Sea of Solitude might dig into the systemic cycles that generate sad, scared brains on the reg. How much will Sea of Solitude look at class and culture to inform its allegories? Individualistic stories about mental illness are aplenty, but I'm keen to play one that doesn't ignore the external systems at work.
What I've seen of Sea of Solitude isn't shying away from the harsh realities of isolation, and how anxiety and depression can push someone into self-destructive behaviors. Sea of Solitude is going there. It's going to make you take a bath in misery and look nice doing it.
Now I just want to know how it untangles all those themes. Mental health is a prickly, personal subject, and I hope Sea of Solitude doesn't wrap things up too neatly. Depression doesn't just go away when you shine light on it.
Sea of Solitude releases July 5.