EA’s renewed focus has overseen some of the best indie experiences over the last few years.
In spite of a somewhat dwindling reputation, games like Fe and Unravel have really shown a different side to gaming’s mega corp. And Sea of Solitude may just be the most emotive, touching, and heartwrenching of them all.
This is one of the most personal games I remember playing in some time. From the moment you pick up the pad, it feels like you’re stepping into someone elses’ shoes. You’re getting a window into someone elses’ life. But the surprising thing is that the reflection looking back reveals more about yourself than you may realise or care to admit.
The contrast between light and dark is much of the driving force here. Sailing through a sea of solitude, all you have is a tiny light affixed to the front of your small boat as you navigate a seemingly endless current of grey.
And lurking underneath the surface is a terrifying beast with massive jaws and a ravenous appetite. Enlivening it, a lulling, melancholy voice tempting you to dive in and join it. You know dipping your toe in that water is dangerous, and that the creature will consume every fibre of your being the moment you do. But sometimes the risk is necessary. Sometimes you have to take the plunge so you can move onto the next phase of your journey.
And throughout Sea of Solitude, you’ll gradually find yourself escaping the safe confines of your boat in order to do just that. Risking everything while facing your demons, trying to piece your life back together, shutting out the corruption and darkness just to find the smallest trace of light.
The stories contained here about Kay’s relationship with her family and friends feel personal and for good reason. Because the game’s creative director, Cornelia Geppert admits it’s partly based on her own life experiences.
She went through a tough breakup a few years back and many of the memories and feelings she had coming away from that relationship form the foundations of a game that has you reluctantly witnessing breakdowns in mental health and bullying.
In fact, the game offers genuine authenticity by having Geppert herself voice act as Kay, the game’s lead character. It’s oddly touching, but while Geppert adds a real sense of understanding to the narrative and gravitas to the right moments because she lived through and wrote them, a slight inexperience of the craft does occasionally shine through. The rawness of it all, however, is unparalleled.
And because of that, Sea of Solitude ends up becoming extremely impactful. I found a lot to relate to here, especially as a young boy who was unrelentingly bullied at school. Hearing whispering shadows murmur ‘We’re going to find you. We’re going to kill you.’ set something off inside me. Something that caught me off-guard. And when I saw those very same shadows swarm around a terrified young boy, laying into him with insults and attacks, the sickening squish of fist meeting face, something clawed its way out of me.
It pulled a lot of distressing memories back to the surface. Things I haven’t thought about in years. One might understandably see that as a bad thing, especially as I believed those memories were long repressed and I’d moved on with my life. And yet, there they still were, emerging like new, reminding me of times where I was punched for accidentally kicking another boys’ football or daring to stand up for myself when I was being treated like dirt.
Those moments made up my own personal Sea of Solitude. Those demons haunted my life for far longer than they should have. And after playing this, I guess in some way I’ve learned they’re still there. Because there were days when I didn’t feel human and might as well have been living like a shadow because I felt so insignificant and irrelevant.
There’s actually one part said in the game by the young boy, Sunny, that hit home so hard I had to stop playing for a few minutes. ‘Why don’t I get their jokes? Everyone finds it funny except me. What’s wrong with me?’ – The ‘joke’ he’s talking about is something those bullies are making up about him. He wants to try to understand and relate to them by finding a way to ‘get’ jokes being made to demean and belittle him. God, I’ve felt that so much it hurts.
The game’s opening chapters are very powerful which covers up for a game that, for the most part, plays fairly simply. There’s some basic platforming here, and a little bit of puzzle-solving, but it’s mostly a non-linear experience where the story moves with you, save for some distracting collectable bottles and seagulls to shoo away.
But sadly, the game’s impactful opening sets a bar that’s a bit too high for the rest of the game to follow. While I found the message remained important throughout, I grew a little disconnected from the game by the end.
Not least because Sea of Solitude gets a little too bogged down with its own narrative. Occasionally, I found more words were used than necessary and plot beats got hammered home to the point of being blunt. Sadly, the initial subtleties eventually get lost.
When playing a game like Journey or Inside, it’s amazing how much can be conveyed and shared with a player by using nothing but music, sound, background, expression, and effects. That can make a scene all the more impactful and relatable, especially when you find yourself drifting into self-reflection. I would have loved to have seen some more of that here, even though I already found way more of myself in this game than I ever dared dream.
But it is important to remember that Sea of Solitude was created by an individual who wanted to share a traumatic experience and so built a game to help fight through it. This is their game, their story, their life. Still, I think at times the development team underestimate just how relatable their content actually is. I connected with these characters in unexpected ways, sharing in their misfortune, recognising their thoughts, identifying with their anger. I’m pretty sure others will do the same.
Because of that, in some strange way, I feel odd making judgements about a game like Sea of Solitude. This is a game that will remain important to me due to the profound impact it had. It blindsided me because I expected so little of it but came away with so much to think about.
It’s not necessarily a game I ‘enjoyed’ or I ‘disliked’. It’s an experience I partly shared in. In some of its moments, a connection was formed. It even became somewhat therapeutic for me too.
I know there are painful memories in my past. I know those moments helped define me as the individual I grew up to be, but I can at least recognise them for what they are now. Now I can face them head on so they don’t keep me awake at night, or cause me distress and discomfort anymore. I guess, if nothing else, that shows how far I’ve come.
Thank you for reminding me of that, Jo-Mei Games. I’m grateful.
Sea of Solitude is out now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
Review code kindly provided by the publisher
Tested on Xbox One