Sea of Solitude (2019)
Jo-Mei Games | Reviewed on PS4
As Above, so Below
Sea of Solitude is an indie game that depicts its protagonists journey to negotiate the (sometimes literal) tumultuous waters of loneliness and self-discovery. It is a game about reflection and understanding, and though it presents its themes somewhat clumsily, Sea of Solitude has a certain charm to it. With its pastoral art style, delicate soundtrack, and emotionally weighty content, it follows in the wake of other games that attempt to portray the subtleties of personal struggle, and it does so in a fairly satisfactory fashion.
No man is an island
As with many indie games in the same vein, the gameplay in Sea of Solitude is fairly uncomplicated – it sticks to the basics of puzzling, and platforming. It can feel a bit clunky, but nothing game-breaking that takes away from the experience. You play as Kay, a young woman seemingly trapped, not knowing why, in a ‘sea’ compromised of distorted aspects of her memories and experiences. You’ll traverse a variety of different areas, like the titular sea in a small boat, or through buildings and streets that have been emptied on foot. As you explore Kay’s picturesque prison, you’ll try to discover the source of her monstrous appearance and find some sort of resolution to her crisis.
I enjoyed the art style of this game, as it is consistently well-presented, particularly in the city sections. The use of bright, vibrant oranges and reds feels light and whimsical, and contrasts well with the environmental shifts to the areas of darkness, where the rain is pelting down and the sea swells. Though it could have used a bit more polish, as there were repeating assets (signs, buildings, train cars, etc.) too often – I genuinely couldn’t tell if each area I moved to was supposed to be the same space with a different water level, or if it was supposed to be different sections of the same city – I still thought it was well done. I particularly enjoyed the elements that seemed to be pulled from Kay’s memory – she will occasionally comment to provide some context to certain areas, like her dad’s office tower, or the summer market where her parents met. This added a sense of personality to the world, and worked to better represent Kay’s internal desire to negotiate her relationships with her loved ones.
The nature of Kay’s relationship with her family members, her brother, mother, and father, compromises the majority of the narrative in Sea of Solitude. As with herself, her family members all appear as monsters of various kinds, but all with the same black bodies and red eyes. As Kay interacts with them, she discovers the darkness that each one is hiding within – their depression, their anger, and their fears. This is probably where my biggest issue with Sea of Solitude lies – though the actual concept of the narrative, with Kay confronting issues of depression, isolation, and self-loathing is interesting, the imagery and symbolism utilized in the game is all so very cliché.
You have the literal monsters representing the ugly, dark aspects of each of the characters, the consistent light vs. dark imagery, particularly in the day/night environments, with changing weather (from rain to snow) as well. There are the buoys, which function as beacons in the darkness, coupled with the ‘Flare’ mechanic that Kay can use. I did appreciate the use of Kay’s backpack, which contains the dark ‘corruption’ that you clear, and becomes bigger and heavier as the game progresses. Her walking becomes noticeably more labored, as the burden she has to bear continues to grow.
Then there are the statues throughout the game, almost fully submerged beneath the water, with only the tops of their heads and sad expressions visible, one hand extended upward as if to ask for help. Kay’s boyfriend, Jack, appears in the story, initially as a white wolf; but as his exterior façade begins to shatter and break away, the black monster beneath is revealed. Then you have Kay herself, represented by several different monsters, one covered in a hard, shell-like exterior which you work to break through when she impedes your progress. The other monster, a whale creature that shadows your every step, and provides genuine tension in certain platforming sections (falling into the sea where she lurks will result in her eating you, so you’ll have to time your jumping and swimming correctly to avoid her) is threatening, but again very trite. She taunts you, encourages you to give up, to jump into the sea to be consumed by her.
Instead of approaching its subject matter in a subtle, nuanced way, these overwrought metaphors are consistently shoved in your face. It’s almost as if you can feel the developers hovering over your shoulder saying “See what we did there?” “Did you catch that bit?” “Wasn’t that clever? Do you get it?” This apparent distrust in the audience’s ability to make these connections mean that everything becomes so tangible that there is little to see beneath the surface.
Sending out an SOS
Side note: is it a coincidence that the acronym for Sea of Solitude spells SOS? Probably. Moving on. While it was still very point-blank, I did enjoy the presentation of Kay’s brother, Sunny, and his story. As Kay tries to understand the distance between herself and her brother, the game slowly unravels his struggle to fit in at school – relentlessly bullied, and deeply unhappy, he feels utterly alone and unable to confide in his sister who is too involved in her own life to listen.
Kay is forced through a facsimile of Sunny’s school, and experiences the source of his unhappiness first-hand. This was by far my favourite section of the game. Listening to the malevolent whispers of the shadowy bullies, having to lure them into the light to destroy them, and experiencing Sunny’s increasing distress and helplessness was incredibly affecting. In recognizing Sunny’s pain, Kay is also forced to confront an aspect of herself that she is uncomfortable with – her own failure to listen to her brother only aggravated the problem. The divide between them was also her doing, and when she understands this, we see both her and her brother begin to heal, or in video game terms, Sunny sheds his monstrous exterior and becomes himself again.
This process repeats for both of her parents, and her boyfriend Jack, though I won’t spoil the story and their interactions. My only issue with this structure is the fact that Kay’s personal journey ends up on the back burner when the main concern of the narrative turns towards the lives of her loved ones. It caused the theme of her loneliness to become somewhat muted, as our emotional investment is constantly pulled at, and tied to the stories of the other characters. The game’s concept was communicated well in some places (as with Kay and Sunny’s tale) while in others, Kay’s own inner darkness simply gets lost in the shuffle.
The somewhat juvenile dialogue also doesn’t help to communicate the gravity of the topics at hand; as with the imagery used, some of the dialogue is akin to being beaten over the head with Kay’s increasingly weighty, neon backpack. She explains details that players will surely be able to put together themselves, and frequently uses silly phrases – for example, calling the floating ball of light that guides your way “Glowy.” I was genuinely surprised when the narrative revealed Kay’s age to be at least 20, as I had imagined her character being much younger. It pulled me out of the story at points. Sea of Solitude could have benefited a lot by taking a page out of Journey or ABZU’s book, relying on visual communication, rather than extended exposition to develop its narrative. It didn’t need to be completely wordless, but I think a ‘less is more’ approach would have helped the game feel more impactful.
A drop in the ocean
Overall, I enjoyed my time with Sea of Solitude, and I found its stronger aspects to be memorable and well-presented. I can appreciate the personal nature of this game, as the creators obviously poured themselves into it, but this is definitely a title that has a very specific appeal. With rudimentary gameplay, some above-average storytelling, and a protagonist whose journey came across as lukewarm amidst the wash of other characters, Sea of Solitude ends up being satisfying, but not necessarily exceptional. Its age old story of finding beacons of light in the darkness, and recognizing the anchors of despair that drag us down in our own heads simply stretched itself too thin – in trying to tackle themes of self-loathing, depression, loneliness, isolation, and selfishness, it tries to do too much. Like a beam of light through a prism, the narrative becomes scattered, rather than cohesive and focused. Discovering the essence of what it means to be human most certainly disappears underneath the multitude of broad strokes this game tries to paint. Sea of Solitude isn’t necessarily less beautiful for this, just slightly less effective. Despite the effort put into communicating some hard-hitting themes, with some clever, albeit overused imagery, the majority of this game feels very surface level.