Sea of Solitude
Developed by: Jo-Mei Games
Published by: EA Originals
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
As I played through “Sea of Solitude,” I was baffled by how a work could be as beautifully designed and earnest as this yet so hackneyed as to short-circuit any emotional investment. Loneliness, narcissism and self-hatred are topics explored in the game, but these themes are handled in such a ham-handed way, I find it hard to imagine anyone benefiting from this lightweight treatment of some of the more cumbersome aspects of mental health.
It’s safe to say that Kay, the 20-something we meet at the start of “Sea of Solitude,” wouldn’t recognize herself if she caught her reflection in a mirror. Furry-limbed and red-eyed she looks like an anthropomorphized monster from a children’s book. When we first see her she is curled up on the floor of a small power boat. Her eyes are shut. Through a voice over Kay confides that despite her network of family and friends she feels emotionally shredded and alone. She’d like to be someone else.
As the boat tosses on a stormy sea, Kay rouses herself from her position and wonders where she is and why it’s so dark. In the distance she sees a light and takes comfort in figuring that she might not be alone. Supposing the light might be a distress signal and eager to help, she steers the boat to it and finds a girl hovering in the air with a bright aura around her. After greeting Kay, the girl laughs when Kay asks how she knows her name — it’s fairly obvious that she is a projection. She then touches the light on Kay’s boat, causing it to come on. The pocket of light surrounding the boat extends outward as the weather grows clear and serene. The sea level falls and Kay finds herself floating above a town at roof level, which makes her think of Venice.
It really is a lovely sight, the way the aquamarine water laps against the sides of buildings. The sumptuous pastel colors of the environment are both dreamy and cartoony. Provided that players are willing to hop out of the boat and explore buildings with floors or roofs above sea level, Kay can find messages in bottles that contain snippets of personal thoughts. And she can also shoo away birds — a pointless task that only achievement hunters will care about.
Before the girl flies off she casts a flare into Kay which gives the latter the ability to cast flares into the air via the left trigger. Though Kay will find different reasons to shoot her flares as her adventure unfolds, they generally serve to point her in the direction that she needs to go. Kay catches up with the girl near a gate only to lose track of her again. Then, from the direction the girl flew away, Kay hears a scream and the weather turns gray and dour.
Soon after passing through the gate Kay encounters the first of a small number of large monsters. This one is another of Kay’s projections. It tells her that she is worthless. Piloting her boat away from the monster, Kay finds a dock. Following her flares, she is led to a roof where she finds, suspended in the air, a golden light which is being encircled by “corruption” or what looks like feces. Stepping closer to the muffled light, a button prompt appears on screen allowing Kay the chance to clear away the corruption by using her backpack as a veritable suction hose. With the corruption gone the glowing light transforms into the supine image of a girl suspended in the air. Pressing a button allows Kay to “connect” or merge with the airborne girl, and a golden light emerges. The player can then guide that light toward the shadowy monster in the distance while Kay shrieks in agony. As with so much in this game, the symbolism is obvious — by enduring the painful process of shining a light on one’s monsters one can cause them to retreat.
The idea of following your light, confronting your shadow self and clearing away the refuse that prevents you from connecting with yourself are all effective ways of translating psychological metaphors into a video game format. However, melodramatic dialogue and weak voice acting ensures that the mechanics never serve anything other than platitudes. No subtle analysis is needed to figure out what makes the characters tick.
As Kay’s journey continues, she’ll confront monsters that are projections of her nuclear family as well as a man she loves. All the while, players must endure listening to the characters express their travails in language that is gracelessly straightforward and unironic. This is made worse by the overly emotive manner in which the dialogue is frequently presented. By the time I reached the “Sea of Solitude’s” visually resonant ending, I found myself reimagining the game with different dialogue and voice acting and imagining what might have been.
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.
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