Sea of Solitude Review: A Hopeful Connection
Played on: Xbox One
When was the last time you cried at a film, book or even a song? I bet you can remember it quite well. Now ask yourself “when was the last time you cried at a game”?
Two weeks ago my answer was never. I came close at the end of The Walking Dead Season 2 where Clementine walks off into the distance with newborn baby Alvin Jr in her arms, but in the end I was left shell shocked rather than tearful. Now, however on 19th July, 2019 I can announce that the last time I connected with a video game on a deep and emotional level that saw tears rolling down my cheeks was during Sea of Solitude; a game which examines mental wellbeing in a world where lonely people turn into monsters.
Kay, the lead protagonist is lonely and she can’t understand why. “I have friends. I have family…yet here I am” she says during the games introduction after waking up on a boat stranded in the middle of the sea. For some people being lonely doesn’t mean being physical alone. Rather it can stem from feeling disconnected from everybody around you and feeling like you’re the only person in the world who feels this way. It’s clear that Cornelia Geppert, writer of Sea of Solitude and CEO of Jo-Mei Games, has experienced these complex emotions first hand. Her experiences ooze out of Sea of Solitude’s narrative at every opportunity, making each painful revelation even more poignant and heartfelt, knowing this is not entirely a work of a fiction.
This loneliness is shown in a literal sense as she appears as a jet-black monster complete with red burning eyes and also metaphorically through the isolation felt when sailing across the desolate sea. Throughout the game the sea level rises and falls to signify Kay’s internal wellbeing, creating opportunities to explore on the ground or sail across the world, high in the sky. Because the environment is constantly changing, each level feels fresh and interesting. You feel urged to push forward, eagerly anticipating what will be unveiled next.
In fact, one of the greatest strengths of Sea of Solitude is navigating through its beautiful and at times haunting world. For context, the environment shifts between light and dark seemingly instantaneously, likely referencing how mental wellbeing is transient from one day to the next. In the light the world seems almost dreamlike and fantastical. Waves proudly slosh against the sides of flooded buildings as your boat gently sways with the pulse of the tide, clear turquoise seas draw your gaze as schools of fish swim peacefully by and if you look up, you are treated to a wonderful, perfect azure sky. For a game about mental wellbeing, it can be oddly tranquil at times, which makes it even more oppressive when the darkness descends.
When Kay’s loneliness is at its worse, the world turns to shades of black as if the colour palate has been zapped directly from her brain. The fish are no longer present and are now replaced by gangrene arms reaching out onto the surface world, waiting to pull you under. The stark contrast between both states creates a constant sense of unease while highlighting visually what the negative effects of certain mental health conditions feel like. “I feel so heavy…I feel like I’m stuck to the ground” Kay expresses when the darkness is at its worst, which perfectly highlights how draining and lifeless sometimes it can feel. More optimistically though, the beauty found within the world under light serves as a gentle reminder to us all: when life is good we should embrace it with open arms and bathe uninhibited in its tranquillity whenever possible.
As this is a narrative driven game there isn’t a massive focus on gameplay with most sections involving simple puzzle solving or platforming. Occasionally, this becomes repetitive and mundane due to the rule of threes, which sees extremely simple actions being repeated three times. In most instances there is some alleviation as dialogue or visual storytelling plays on screen. There are also some great, but less frequent, moments too. For example, you are forced to swim across open water knowing that a huge monster is lurking beneath. As soon as you enter she charges towards you as a ‘Jaws’ inspired soundtrack, with jarring, stabbing strings, builds in intensity. While the gameplay occasionally falls flat, I had no issue with the narrative which kept me gripped throughout my three and a half hours with the game.
The majority of story beats are presented to us in the form of memories from Kay’s past. Some are conversations delivered with natural voice acting giving a nice realistic touch (even if on some occasions the voice acting drops slightly below par, especially with Kay) and others are presented visually as Kay is forced to watch people close to her struggling in their past life. As this is our first time learning about Kay and her relationships, it can also be difficult for us to watch with some truly heartbreaking moments. As each story spirals out of control you will find yourself looking back wistfully, sharing the load with Kay and asking “How did it all go so wrong”? By the end of the game the final conclusion is full of hope. Hope for Kay, her family and even hope for yourself.
Sea of Solitude is a beautiful, life affirming game. It examines mental wellbeing, loneliness and disconnection from everything around us with such grace and empathy that it will likely affect anybody on a humanistic level. Many themes run deep and wide, including how we must connect with ourselves in order to truly heal, or how being disconnected from people around you can make certain situations almost unbearable (after all it is no coincidence the game is an abbreviation of S.O.S.). But without even considering the narrative, enjoyment can be found from simply being present in the world. Whether it is peacefully floating across a turquoise sea in the light or being suffocated by the monochrome palate of the darkness, I was consistently taken aback by its artistic flair. This is an experience that will stay with me for a very long time.