It’s probably not a good sign that some girl is reading from her diary about how her boyfriend is all moody and stuff, but I’m distracted by the fact that her footprints aren’t lining up with her feet. Whenever she puts a foot down, the footprint appears about two inches to the outside side and a full foot-length behind her. Is she phase-shifted? Is this a metaphor for being out of sorts with yourself? Or is this just what you get with indie games like Sea of Solitude? A heap of emotional poetry spackled over some half-baked attempt at a game, where lining up footprints doesn’t really matter because the real reason we’re all here is to hear someone hold forth about the life lessons she learned when she was in high school.
I’m guessing the latter.
Sea of Solitude makes for some intriguing screenshots. A flooded city. A huge black fish just under the surface of the water. A little girl in a tiny boat. Look a bit further and I bet you’ll find some screenshots of big black feathered monsters and abandoned towns surrounded by ocean walls. You might think there’s a cool game here, especially since it’s from Electronic Arts, a company in the business of making games. But it’s pretty clear pretty early that there isn’t going to be any game in Sea of Solitude. You’re just moving forward while it bends your ear. The only thing that saves it from being dismissed as a walking simulator is that sometimes you’re in a boat.
At least it looks nice enough, if you cut the footprints some slack. Very indie-game, if not a bit Unity. The creature design attempts a glowering Where the Wild Things Are vibe, but not quite as rambunctious. Where the Mild Things Are. They’re videogame monsters, adorned with black feathers for some reason. Even the fish has black feathers. The art design for the world is probably Sea of Solitude’s strongest visual. The submerged city is modest and European (this is a game made in Germany, about a German girl with the lilt and catch of a German girl’s accent). There’s a fair amount of specificity in the trams and storefronts, which shouldn’t be surprising given that this is basically someone’s diary with monsters as thudding metaphors. Kay’s dad works too hard and feels guilty for not spending enough time with his family (a frustrated black chameleon sputters fire). Kay’s boyfriend is closed off and wants his space (a majestic white dog keeps running away as his facade crumbles). Kay has been busy texting with her boyfriend, so she didn’t realize her little brother was being bullied (shadowy ghosts close in around the main character’s little brother). A title card at the beginning of the game reminds us that depression is a serious matter, so I suppose we should infer these characters are struggling with depression.
But Sea of Solitude’s awkward jabs at narrative poetry never connect. The writing is superficial and literal. The glowing ball that leads the girl though the levels — levels might be too strong a word for a game this unremittingly linear — is named Glowie. At certain story beats, Glowie amasses tendrils of black smoke. For instance, during the voice-over flashbacks about her little brother being bullied, her dad being busy, or her boyfriend being moody. Now Glowie is obscured in tendrils of black smoke. Oh, no! So the girl has to reach Glowie and hold down the right trigger, at which point the tendrils of black smoke are pulled off Glowie and sucked into a backpack the girl wears. Late in the game, she’ll notice all the black smoke baggage going into her backpack. “Have I been carrying it this whole time?” she marvels.
A piano tinkles. A violin moans. “It’s not about loss,” the voiceover says with the earnestness of a bumper sticker. “It’s about change.”
Along the way, you can collect collectibles if you’re interested in poking around a limited world that wasn’t built for poking around. Do you care about whatever the achievements on Origin are called? You can also collect messages in a bottle, which are additional bits of poetry in case the voiceover stuff isn’t enough for you. You can collect pigeons. Actually, you shoo them away, which is the opposite of collecting.
There are plenty of good games with limited gameplay about young girls coming of age and some of them are even interesting. A Plague Tale, for instance, with its medieval setting, horror/mystery tone, and ravenous rats. The Path, from Tale of Tales, is Sylvia Plath by way of Clive Barker. Oh, look, it’s Submerged, a 2015 indie game about a girl in a boat exploring a sunken city to care for her little brother! And by “explore”, I don’t mean walking along a pre-set path. You actually look around, find places to go, and then figure out how to get there. You collect pictographs that tell stories. I’ll take cute artwork over ponderous diary prose any day.
I don’t mean to make light of someone who’s obviously — maybe too obviously — writing about things that make her sad. I get it. But being sad doesn’t make your poetry worth reading. I’m sorry, I know that’s a dick thing to say, but I’m not your therapist. I’m not even your friend. I don’t know you. I’m sorry your little brother was bullied, I’m sorry your dad was busy with his job, and I’m sorry your boyfriend isn’t giving you the attention you feel you deserve. I was once a frustrated teenager at the center of the world myself. I get it. But I’m not really interested in paying $20 for the privilege of reading your diary and poetry. I mean, really, I didn’t even like That Dragon, Cancer, which was bad poetry from some people whose kid died of cancer. That’s some heavy shit. If you can’t at least bring that to the table, you don’t stand a chance.