“In Other Waters” tells the story of Dr. Ellery Vas, a xenobiologist who has spent much of her career exploring alien planets in a fruitless search for life. Her fortunes change after she receives a mysterious transmission from Minae Nomura, a former colleague and love interest, asking her to come to a planet that Vas assumes has already been ruled clear of life. On the ocean-covered planet, Vas finds a thriving ecosystem situated along an expansive coral reef.
Traveling amid basalt towers, gullies and other underwater geological structures, Vas comes across creatures including fungal “stalks” that communicate using spores and ones resembling “diaphanous veils.” To her knowledge, these are the first forms of life to have been discovered outside Earth.
Mankind’s home planet contains few warm memories for Vas, who thinks of it as a dead planet, a resourceless place left to those with too little money to leave it. (From now until who knows when, expect to see more cultural objects that succinctly meld themes of climate change and economic inequality.)
Assuming the role of the AI system responsible for overseeing Vas’s explorations, players spend the majority of their time poring over a nautical chart, lining up points for Vas to travel between (which appear as little triangles on the map) and operating the diving suit’s subsystems that handle sample collection, propulsion, obstacle clearance and drone retrieval, i.e. fast travel back to base.
Speaking as someone who is not exactly at home in cartography, I found it fascinating how, over time, I invested more and more meaning in those on-screen dots and squiggles that represent the phenomena Vas encounters. At a certain point, I had no trouble seeing a canopy of stalks in a series of dots spread fanlike over the screen.
I was able to find beauty in such abstractions through the lens of Vas’s descriptions of her surroundings. So evocative are her observations that I couldn’t help but read them with David Attenborough’s voice in my head. For example, here is a description of the predatory “Snare Veils”: “Wide, delicate silken panels of bioluminescent cells, they work in unison to entrap and digest creatures which come too close.” The edge of their chain is described as, “Here the tangle is receding, a few of its trailing veils hanging still in the dark water like the poised limbs of a dancer.”
As Vas continues her exploration of the planet, she trips over other mysteries that challenge her fundamental assumptions and make her rethink her relationship to her missing colleague, Minae.
“In Other Waters” is a game where observation becomes an end in itself. Its simple gameplay mechanics are supported by a quiet, vibrant narrative that works to put players into the mind of a working scientist.
If you’re not put off by its low-key, text-centered nature, you may well find it to be one of the more serene games to have recently pulled into port.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.