Sea of Solitude
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: EA Originals
Release Date: 5th July 2019
Adrift in the sea of loneliness
Time and time again, I’m constantly drawn like a moth to the flame towards video games that have an underlining mental health theme. I think, not only because I’ve experienced this in my own life, but also because I use it as a means of therapy. Wherein I may discover something new about myself or learn new coping techniques. When I first saw Sea of Solitude revealed at E3 2018, I knew I had to take a deep dive into the vast ocean that designer Cornelia Geppert created which reflects her own personal experience with loneliness. I think it suffices to say that I came away from this title with a lot more than I initially bargained for.
Sea of Solitude, from German studio Jo-Mei Games and EA’s Originals publishing label, takes the player through an immensely personal and poignant journey. You are transported into the mind of a lost soul named Kay. This young girl travels the seas on her simple, wooden rowboat – trying to stay afloat in a deep ocean. Inhabiting that ocean is a cruel, unforgiving monster. It circles Kay, waiting for her to slip up and fall overboard so it can swallow her whole. As it’s done many times before. It whispers awful things about how Kay is worthless and pathetic – keeping her in a constant state of self-loathing and isolation.
Monsters lurking in the sea
The monsters that Kay encounters throughout the game are fragments of the painful experiences she has endured throughout her short life; her parents harrowing marriage separation, the bullying her brother went through that almost ended tragically, and a toxic relationship that subsequently led to a breakup. There’s a piece of Kay in each of these monsters. They mirror her insecurities. The monsters and visions in Sea of Solitude are based in Kay’s mind and filtered through the self-hate and loneliness she’s experiencing. She sees herself as solely responsible for what she’s experienced. As a result, she has banished herself from the world she once knew.
“For the first time in Kay’s life, she hears what he has been trying to tell her all along, while Kay had been consumed by her own problems and never having the time before – until now.”
Both beautiful and hellish
Sea of Solitude’s environment is incredibly beautiful. It’s encapsulated around an underwater sunken city based on the architecture of Berlin, but in the flip of a switch that once tranquil, lush landscape with bird-filled skies changes into a hellish, dark nightmare – in turn, causing the waters to rise and fall, reflecting Kay’s state of mind. Thankfully, not all the monsters that Kay meets are out to do her harm, some are there to aid her in her quest of rectifying self-discovery and to stop her sinking deeper into the hostile, cold metaphorical waters.
One of many artistically striking moments is when Kay comes across a giant black raven with red sad eyes. As she follows this majestic creature, watching it soar through the skies and then lands at different points, she listens to what it has to say and soon discovers that it’s a version of her younger brother. For the first time in Kay’s life, she hears what he has been trying to tell her all along while Kay had been consumed by her own problems and never having the time before – until now.
Her thoughts and feelings realised
She suddenly realizes all the pain he’s experienced in his young life; bullied to the point where he wonders if he would be better off dead. In this sequence, the puzzle elements of the gameplay play out where Kay meets her brother’s bullies inside a school. As she makes her way through the horrific, evil entities they repeat hideous words with Kay then berating herself for ignoring her brother’s cry for help and for that, the monsters hype up their hostility towards her.
Kay, like a lot of kids, was caught in the domestic crossfire of her parent’s angry and bitter divorce. In one specific scene, her mother manifests into a huge snake-haired medusa-like giant while her father is an angry colossal chameleon (I wish I was joking here) as it switches between the darkness of anger and despair and the bright blue natural curiosity of childhood. The entire scene is heart-wrenching to watch as Kay tries her best to clear the corruption that stands between them both which is displayed as a ball of light surrounded by spiralling tubes of darkness in the hopes to help repair her parent’s relationship.
“I felt like Sea of Solitude skirted around the edges in places, never really allowing itself to open up completely and tackle the more hard-core aspects of living with a mental health issue.”
Many of the monsters that Kay comes across can, at times, physically hurt her, but the player never uses violence, instead opting to either lure enemies into the light or evading them altogether. The mechanics are rather simple – you’re either rowing your boat or jumping across the rooftops whilst staying out of the murky waters to avoid the sea-creature beneath the surface. This is usually a fine experience for the most part, but I did long to have something a little more complex to master rather than solely jumping or walking as it did become somewhat taxing but thankfully, the soothing dream-like soundtrack made it a lot easier to enjoy.
The narrative aspect of the game does a good job in allowing players to understand what’s going on but the use of oversimplified sentences was a little off-putting. I think this was meanly due to how Cornelia’s deeply engrained personal story was implemented into Sea of Solitude so while the context was there, the subtext lost its meaning sometimes. Personally, while all the appealing visuals were present to portray its important mental health theme, I would have loved to see a more in-depth story line akin to the hard-hitting and seriously on point Hellblade. I felt like Sea of Solitude skirted around the edges in places, never really allowing itself to open up completely and tackle the more hard-core aspects of living with a mental health issue.
In saying that, the message did become a little clearer towards the end of the game and I found myself taking away a lot more from it than I first realised. Sea of Solitude made me come to terms with my own selfish behaviour and how I battled loneliness and depression; I pushed people away and never truly listened to what was going on with them or how they wanted to help me. It also taught me that there were certain things I needed to let go of in life and that holding on as tight as I have, only caused more pain.
A dark tragic tale
While Sea of Solitude does make a good stab at exploring mental health it, unfortunately, falls flat at bringing a good chunk of weight to it. The visuals, on the other hand, are truly amazing and I loved the journey I took with Kay in helping her to clear her path but the writing was, at times, slightly superficial and the mechanics were unfortunately weak. All in all, Sea of Solitude is a beautifully dark and tragic tale that allows players to dip their toe into the world of psychological resilience for roughly 4 hours without it becoming too laborious.