Note: Minor gameplay and story spoilers follow
Sea of Solitude, developed by Jo-Mei Games, was an indie adventure that got a lot of attention out of the gates. Announced at E3 2018 during the EA showcase, it was only the gaming giant’s second originals title, and got a lot of attention at the time for its striking art and its mental health related storyline. It was a long wait until we’d actually be able to get our hands on the game though, as another E3 passed without its release. That said, the art and narration had stuck with me, so when the game released in July I was still excited for it.
Sea of Solitude sails in on the waves of a recent trend in indie (and even AAA) games to address mental health as part of their main storyline. It’s in no way a bad thing, as certainly any discussion around mental health, and any normalization of it in the characters we see portrayed in the media, will help both those who suffer from mental illnesses and those who are there to support them.
You play as Kay, a 20 something woman who’s found herself in a dark place, both literally and figuratively. She wakes up on the bottom of a boat on stormy seas, all alone and unsure of what to do. Kay, voiced beautifully by Miriam Jud, is loosely based on one of the two writer/developers of the game, Cornelia Geppert, and the struggles she had with her own mental health. Jud ensures the intimate, heartfelt nature of the script gets the gravitas it deserves, and makes Kay feel fully realized and genuine.
Kay is trapped in her own world of darkness, not knowing how she got there but know it’s overtaking her and she needs to escape. Very soon, she’s confronted by a strangely familiar monster that knows her intimately, and guided by a lighter being who’s also magically acquainted with her innermost thoughts.
Kay will mostly travel the dreamlike world she exists in via her small boat, which uses straightforward directional controls. Apart from that, she can pick things up, board and unboard the boat to get on dry land, or jump. There’s also a few unique mechanics introduced throughout, including a sort of light-direction called “connect” that produces a gut-wrenching scream of pain from Kay whenever she attempts it.
Initially, I tried to play Sea of Solitude using a mouse and keyboard, but found it almost impossible to maneuver properly for one particular “connect” mechanic that’s often necessary to use to progress in the game, and ended up swapping out for a controller, which not only totally fixed the problem but felt far more comfortable in general. It seems as though Sea of Solitude plays much better with a controller.
The puzzles in Sea of Solitude aren’t too hard to figure out, though they can be challenging. Death is possible, too, but it’s not terribly consequential. If Kay gets grabbed by ghostly hands, zapped, drowned or eaten, she’ll fade out momentarily, but fade back in just a short ways from where you left off–a good choice that means the narrative doesn’t get broken up too much even if you are struggling with something.
One thing I thought served the overall theme very well was that certain parts of the game environment can be helpful at first, but hurt you later on. This builds mistrust and to me, echoes some of the feelings you have when experiencing depression.
Sea of Solitude also features two different types of collectibles–seagulls you’ll need to shoo away, and messages in bottles that will give you a little bit more story here and there. You can choose to ignore either or try to catch them all for a little bit more replayability and challenge.
As for the story, Sea of Solitude’s imagery and metaphor are fairly obvious throughout, though I don’t think this is unintentional or necessarily a bad thing. You’re alone on a dark sea, travelling from darkness to light. It’s not innovative and not obfuscated, but maybe things like depression are better served being laid more bare.
If this was where the focus stayed, then maybe the obviousness of its imagery and metaphor would’ve grown tiresome, but to my surprise, things really branched out. Kay’s struggles aren’t solely her own–instead, she’s felt the effects of and is currently affected by the problems that the people closest to her face or have faced. She’s also not simply a victim, having negatively affected her family, too.
“We’re all..broken” Kay says in disgust at one point, and it’s a good point to recognize. Depression and anxiety don’t simply affect you, but your partners and friends and family too. Likewise, the struggles they face may affect you, especially if coped with in toxic ways.
One of the most affecting parts of Sea of Solitude touches on this, as Kay travels to rescue her brother, who’s suffering on his own far away from her, but won’t let her in. Soon, she discovers that he’s been a victim of some pretty extreme bullying, and had been trying to tell their parents, who were caught up in marital strife, as well as reaching out to Kay, who was too busy with her boyfriend to do anything but dismiss him.
To save him, Kay ends up literally walking through his waking nightmare, and it’s this part of the game that conjures some of the scariest imagery and sounds. Kay chases the “spirit animal” (for lack of a better word) that represents her brother through his daily journey to school. It starts off with a few standard childhood taunts, but builds to a devastating crescendo of toxic masculinity at its worst and unchecked physical and emotional abuse. In this section, hands grab at you from out of every dark stairwell, as cadres of creepy shadow children chase you relentlessly, while voices from the darkness chant “We’re gonna find you…and we’re gonna kill you…” It was honestly affecting,and also terrifying.
Pacing for the story is good, and just as you understand and accept one part of Kay’s journey out of darkness, you’ll find yourself facing a whole new facet–from the marital struggles of Kay’s parents that persist nearly from her birth to the problems of and because of her boyfriend. It could all be too much, and certainly could be overwrought, but the story is upsettingly true to life. Decisions aren’t cheap or easy and won’t necessarily leave you unscathed even if they are “right.” Some of the arguments in the game’s dialogue are intense, and echoed personal scars.
For all its surface level beauty, both in art and soundtrack by Guy Jackson, which is just poignant enough to accentuate the motion of the story while just as comfortable being the ambiance in the background, what really stands out where Sea of Solitude is concerned is the emotional rawness and reality of it. Punctuated by the easy to parse metaphors, the game, though upsetting, can also be truly therapeutic. Pacing, too is perfect, so that you don’t overstay your welcome in one part or feel shorted out in any other. At around 5 hours total time, it managed to remain compelling and not feel drawn out at any particular point.
If I had any other complaint, it’d be that the ending is left fairly vague. I don’t always fault a game for this, but when you’ve so intimately come to know an entire family of characters the way you do in Sea of Solitude, it’s a little disappointing to remain in a bit of a fog as to what actually happened to them.
Overall, Sea of Solitude manages genuine emotional depth, accuracy in portraying mental illnesses like depression and anxiety that affect so many, and good conversation around these topics, especially where it concerns the prevalence of these diseases and the way that we inflict pain on each other, even unintentionally. Couple this with a beautiful, ethereal landscape and I’d call Sea of Solitude a journey worth embarking upon.
Sea of Solitude is available now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Origin for PC