Games tackling mental health issues have become more common in recent years. From Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice to Night in the Woods to Celeste, independent developers have gone where AAA studios haven’t. That changes with Sea of Solitude. Developed by Jo-Mei Games, a small independent studio based in Berlin, Germany, Sea of Solitude will be published by Electronic Arts as part of the EA Originals program. I sat in on a private preview at EA Play led by Jo-Mei Games CEO and creative director Cornelia Geppert. Bold and beautiful, Sea of Solitude artfully explores the concept of loneliness.
“I made Sea of Solitude at a point in my life when I felt the loneliest, in private and in work life,” Geppert said. “It’s based on a true story, what happened to me. But it’s not completely my story.”
Geppert is a firm believer in democratic design. So even though the idea grew from her own plight, she wanted to tell a universal story about loneliness. “When I presented the concept to my co-workers, they all got highly inspired. They told me their forms of loneliness, problems with family, problems their friends had.” Geppert told Digital Trends that anyone working on the game — Jo-Mei has 12 developers — could present an idea for consideration. “If it’s really good, I put it in.”
In Sea of Solitude, you play as a young woman named Kay in a sunken city based on Berlin. The captivating art style creates a stirring atmosphere and instantly grabs your attention. Nothing looks quite like it. It’s a sort of high brow cartoon aesthetic that admirably showcases multiple emotional ranges. When the urban landscape is flush with sunlight, the world is beautiful and full of hope. When darkness blankets the sky and storms brew, Sea of Solitude evokes a haunting uneasiness.
Kay suffers from “such strong loneliness that her inner feeling of darkness, of anger, the feeling of hopelessness and worthlessness turns to the outside and she becomes a monster,” Geppert said. Sea of Solitude employs loneliness as a vessel to touch on what happens when we become lonely. Depression, anxiety, anger — Kay’s journey comments on all of these related afflictions and more.
In the stormy opening section, Kay travels by boat through the urban streets. A large monster emerges from the water and slings a flurry of insults her way before pushing her back. It’s your job to figure out how all of the shadowy monsters you meet connect to Kay. Everything they say connects to her story, offering clues to help you piece the story together.
“I want you to slowly figure out step by step what is going on,” Geppert said. It’s not just the monsters that inform you of Kay’s story. Everything from the water level to the weather to the boat to the environment around you works together. Jo-Mei has been straightforward about the pitch, but Sea of Solitude speaks in metaphors. Everything has meaning; everything connects to Kay in ways that may not immediately be clear.
Early on, Kay receives a flare from a girl who figures to play a big role in the story. The flare acts as a guide. Shoot a flare and you’ll receive a hint of where you need to go, but it won’t necessarily tell you what you need to do.
Later in the first section, her path is blocked by a monster, requiring her to leave her boat. Here, Kay stumbles upon “Corruption,” which must be excised from the world in order to move forward. Sometimes you can remove the Corruption and move on without hurting the monster; other times you kill the monster when clearing the darkness from the world. Clearing Corruption reveals something new about the world and Kay’s story.
An adventure game at its core, Sea of Solitude has light platforming and puzzle mechanics. In the section I played, I guided Kay on foot into a building occupied by small, human-like monsters. They looked like children. Unsettling whispers permeated throughout the structure. As I approached them, they pushed me back. The mechanic at play here was evasion. I had to get close enough to make them chase me then slink through the doorway they were protecting.
Though minimalistic, Sea of Solitude is more about narrative than gameplay. At the same time, the ten-minute sequence I played was still fun. Geppert said that there are many different mechanics at play, each of which is tailored to the monsters you encounter and the overarching themes. Weather also affects gameplay. When it’s sunny, Kay can swim. But during storms the water is too dangerous to enter.
It’ll be interesting to see how Kay’s interactions with the monsters she meets evolve throughout her journey. Remember, Kay is also a monster when the adventure begins.
As Geppert poignantly remarked: “When humans get lonely, they turn into monsters.” Sea of Solitude examines this transformation from Kay’s perspective in hopes that others suffering can look in the mirror and see their true selves: The human behind the monster.
Sea of Solitude sails onto PS4, Xbox One, and PC July 5.
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