As pretty as a picture. As subtle as a brick.
I've been waiting for Sea of Solitude ever since it was first announced at E3 back in 2018. Cornelia Geppert, the creative lead behind the game and its development studio Jo-Mei, took to the stage and talked for several minutes about the game. She was excited and nervous, and passionate about what she was saying and the game she was talking about. Behind her on a screen was a small boat bobbing on the tide of a sunken city. I was sold. That was all it took.
The game itself is a graphically stylised exploration of a flooded city. Dark monsters scream abuse and block off your route - it's down to you to navigate the flooded streets until you can find a place to disembark and then to follow a source of light until you confront one of the larger monsters. It's light environmental puzzling and light platforming - and if I'm honest it requires little skill or ability to overcome it. It's enjoyable, but it's light touch in terms of its gameplay offering... but weirdly for a game, that's fine. As daft as it sounds, the gameplay isn't what this game is about; Sea of Solitude is an exploration of mental health, and how loneliness affects us in different ways and for different reasons. Protagonist Kay feels loneliness for one reason; her brother Sunny experiences it for totally different reasons. Her parents were lonely together. As Cornelia herself said in that initial reveal, loneliness turns people into monsters - and Sea of Solitude turns that concept into a literal gameplay truth. It's probably the most direct confrontation of mental health issues in a game that I've played since Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice - and it's as harrowing in its own way. This is a game that hits you in the feels, and leaves you contemplating it hours after the end credits have rolled. Where Hellblade depicts an inner conflict with brutal violence and a sense of despair, Sea of Solitude utilises subject matter that is uncomfortably close to home - and probably is for all of us.
I knew what Sea of Solitude was about heading into it - what I wasn't expecting was how much it would actually make me stop and look at my own life. Personally, I have my ups and downs. I often feel that my highs aren't as high as those of other people and my lows are a little bit lower; as though my internal scale has just been dropped down by a few feet in comparison to everyone else. I consider myself lucky; I look around and see plenty of people who have it far worse than me. Sea of Solitude really resonated most with me when I looked at other people around me through the prism of light it cast. Kay's parents were the ones that really did it - her mother desperately wanting to please her father as some form of self-validation, her father wanting only to escape from the prison he's built for himself - they reminded me so much of my own parents in the run-up to their split and divorce a few years back that I found it decidedly uncomfortable to participate in. That life event, in spite of happening when I was in my mid-30's with a family of my own, knocked me for six so hard that I ended up seeking counselling over it - my world view left shaken and battered. Sunny's torture at the hands of school yard "friends" also elicited some uncomfortable memories - although of nothing as bad as what Sunny has experienced. The takeaway of the game, I think, is that we can all be a source of one another's pain - and we can all be a source of one another's comfort, and that sometimes no amount of communication changes a damn thing. That, and the need to embrace ourselves - our light AND our darkness - in order to understand who we are.
As Sea of Solitude deals with difficult subject matter, a lot has been said in the games media about the manner in which it does so. Some have criticised the game for its lack of subtlety - depression and loneliness represented by a darkness with the "answers" to them being represented by light. As metaphors go it is certainly cliched and debatably lazy - however it is apt and one that can be mapped onto gameplay reasonably successfully. It's been picked for a reason; even if that reason is maybe a combination of easy accessibility and path of least resistance. But at this early point in using games to cover such subject matter though, I think this is something that we can (and should) let slide. It's the sort of mechanic that several games from now we'll be moving away from as the language of games evolves to better cover the spectrum of meaning we want these games to convey. It's not a perfect game - but it feels like a stepping stone on the long path for both the developer AND games' way into handling these more sensitive topics. Ultimately, I think the point of Sea of Solitude is less the game itself but more a further step to normalising the conversation around mental health - and in the case of the latter, every little helps.