Methodically Exploring An Alien Ocean Feels Sublime

Things feel so bizarre right now. Diving deep into a game like In Other Waters is giving me the sublime opportunity to study a different world. The interface seems so simple at first, but the sound design and music combine to create a picture of an unfamiliar place. And while I’m sinking into alarming news about the real world outside, at least here I get to make sense of the unknown.

Watch the video to see how In Other Waters works, or read my video’s transcription below.

The concept of In Other Waters is very simple. You’re asked to assist Dr. Ellery Vas, who gets trapped below the waters of a distant planet, by taking control of her diving suit and navigating her through caves, reefs and other alien life forms as they swim past her.

You navigate and explore the world using a beautiful, yet legible, system of tools represented by a clean combination of topographic maps, buttons, graphs, and meters. At first it looks intimidating, but over time it becomes as natural as using a mouse and keyboard on a PC.

It’s all split up into clean sections surrounding your main field of view, which is represented by a circle where every interaction takes place. Its bezel is similar to a diver’s watch and helps you keep your bearings as you venture back and forth through the map.

Each section outside of your field of view has a different purpose. Your depth metre helps you keep track of how far under you are and can also be used to dive deeper or ascend. Your heading functions as a bar across your field of view that directs you towards waypoints in a straight line.

Your power and oxygen levels are represented by meters on the left, which must be monitored at all times and can eventually be refilled at designated waypoints or using specific samples you’ll collect along the way.

The entire world is presented as a topographical view of the underwater world, with lines and colours indicating rock formations or cave openings for you to dive deeper into. Any alien life is presented by the vibrant yellow dots as they come into view in the radius of your scope.

The simple yellow dots can take many different forms as coral that bunch up like barriers, spores that spread out like pollen or other aquatic life that swim around you at all times. Any lifeforms or waypoints that haven’t been surveyed will show up as white icons at first.

It’s the sound design that communicates so much of that game’s world to you that you can imagine the colourful splendor as the light from whatever sunlight filters through the waters or your flashlight as you begin to explore dark caves.

The gameplay is quite simple at first. You scan the environment for points that you can propel Vas’ suit towards, marked by white triangles. From there, you select a waypoint and propel her towards it in a straight line while keeping an eye on how much power your suit has and your oxygen levels.

Way stations, which can then be used as sections of the map that you can later spawn into, can help replenish both sources of energy. These essentially serve as checkpoints.

If anything is blocking your way, it’s up to you to find ways around it. Sometimes that involves taking small detours. Other times, it means breaking apart coral or other life forms by firing gas-filled membranes collected from those very same life forms. To learn more about life forms, you can simply click on them as you float by to observe them up close.

If you’re even closer, you can switch to a Biosample Scan to extract samples to collect in your inventory. From there you can use these as deployable items that the environment will react to in different ways, like the way the Shrillsac breaks apart any living walls blocking your path.

Other times, you’ll be deploying samples to help create safe and habitable environments inside of areas that will deplete your oxygen levels quickly. There’s a survival element to it that feels more like an array of tools at your disposal than a sprint to safety, although that’s still definitely happened to me on a few occasions.

Again, it starts out simple at first, but eventually the game slowly starts to test your ability to use the minimal interface, forcing you to multitask as you propel yourself to a safe point inside of a toxic environment. In certain areas that are toxic for example, knowing how to quickly switch between scans and movement is vital if you want to escape with enough oxygen to continue exploring safely.

Knowing how to quickly retrieve a bio sample amidst that pattern or deploy something from my inventory makes me feel like I’m actually learning to utilise all of my tools effectively. It’s a really amazing feeling to successfully trespass through a dangerous area while learning more about the life that you’re disrupting at the same time.

Eventually, you’ll head back to your base of operations, where you can further analyse samples in your lab, rearrange your inventory and repair other levels of the interior. The game provides you with tons of additional optional reading materials if you want to learn more about the world and its characters.

In Other Waters combines the truly relaxing nature of exploration with the low-heat version of urgently needing to not run out of air/power/whatever. In an early part of the game, you’ll find waypoints inaccessible because of a strong current that will just carry you away.

Deploying one of your bio samples from your inventory will help stimulate the growth of certain plantlife to act as a means to slow it all down, giving you the opportunity to safely cross the gap. And when you get stuck, oftentimes the answer is to just continue studying the environment and scanning for new information.

These very simple ingredients blend so perfectly together that it leaves my brain room to interpret the world how I envision it. The game mixes it up by adding areas that force you to stop and backtrack to previous areas that you’ve grown familiar with to collect samples or open up new obstacles that were once impossible to get to.

It attaches all of these mechanics into a really engaging story about a scientist hoping to find a missing colleague on a distant planet full of this wonderful new life. As someone who loves watching nature documentaries that focus on the alien-like organisms surrounding us all, it’s fun to imagine the pop of colour underneath the simple solid coloured maps—all while the ocean sounds fill your ears.

The sounds of the water as you move through or the animal sounds that echo off of the underwater rock formations is extraordinary. The game’s soundtrack also helps set the scene of this journey into the abyss, with wonderful songs full of pulsing synthesizers and pads that glue the entire experience together.

It’s an experience that proves what a solid core of an idea can do if stripped to what works best and prioritises alluring writing that buoys players throughout their voyage.

In Other Waters is available on Mac, PC, and Switch.

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