Game developers strive every day to engage with a player, but very few really aim to do so on a personal, emotional, level. With Sea of Solitude, writer Cornelia Geppert and her team at Jo-Mei Games have done just that, not through mechanical, clinical means, but by throwing open their own experiences to the world.
You play as Kay, a lost soul set adrift in a flooded land. Her appearance is demonic – black, feathered, with a pair of glowing red eyes – but there’s no sense that she is evil. Soon enough you’ll come to understand that her appearance is in fact a reflection of her own emotional turmoil.
It’s Kay’s journey that is the driving force through Sea of Solitude, and it quickly becomes clear that the land and its inhabitants are a product of Kay’s own experiences. Darkness shrouds the landscape at various points, with shadowy, foreboding creatures that share some of Kay’s own demonic characteristics becoming the embodiment of those closest to her.
By embarking on this journey Kay seems to be trying to purge the darkness, or corruption, from her life and in doing so she brings sunlight and warmth to the world, pushing back the shadows. The central mechanics focus on exploration with Kay able to fire a glowing flare that indicates where she’s supposed to be heading, as well as illuminating certain areas. At times she’ll locate a spot of corruption which she can draw into her backpack, literally carrying her own baggage, and there’s a few moments that see you having to evade enemies while doing so, but this is not a game that’s been designed to challenge your reflexes.
While you’re finding your way through the various landscapes, taking in sunken towns, snowy vistas and buildings that burn with pent up anger, you might have to leap from building to building, clamber up ladders or frantically swim across the unsafe seas, but Kay isn’t exactly Lara Croft, and she doesn’t really need to be. She’s well animated, and has a unique look that’s likely to draw you right in, but this is a game that’s really all about the narrative.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some thrills, or at least a few heart-in-your-mouth moments. Much of what occurs in Sea of Solitude brings a sense of menace with it and leaping from the tops of drowned buildings while a horrific creature circles you, all the while speaking of the worst aspects of yourself, manages to be meaningful from beginning to end. Other creatures perpetuate an array of further negative emotions, from loneliness and depression through to anger.
It is clearly, in aesthetics and mechanics, an indie game with a story to tell rather than one that’s going to hook you in through razor-edge combat or traversals. The team have made the most of the Berlin-inspired setting, and while the limited platforming and exploration are how you engage with the world, it’s the near-constant dialogue from Kay and the supporting characters that weaves the narrative together.
It’s a shame then that the voice acting can be inconsistent in quality. Kay, played by Lead Animator Miriam Jud, often sounds utterly believable, and there’s an innocence to her delivery that works well a lot of the time, but there are moments where she sounds like someone that’s a little lost in what they’re doing. Similarly some lines from the supporting cast are given real weight by their convincing delivery – those that centre on self-loathing particularly hit home – but then others, especially the raised, angry voices, don’t quite hit the mark.
Nevertheless I was intrigued, and throughout I wanted to know what had happened to Kay and her friends and family. Despite the fantastical, and largely metaphorical, setting and creatures, Sea of Solitude is filled with the mundane. The sad, yet painfully normal dissolution of a family unit, failed relationships and friendships and the personal weight that all of this carries is pervasive here, and I would expect human beings with an iota of life experience to recognise aspects of their own lives within.
The way that the game deals with self-loathing, loneliness, depression and anxiety in those around you is particularly true to life, and the sense of hopelessness from all parties is treated in an almost matter-of-fact way. While the game’s development saw the whole team pouring their lives into the game, Sea of Solitude opens with the explanation that it is “a personal project about loneliness inspired by [Cornelia Geppert’s] own experiences”, and that has leant the game a solemnity and truthfulness that you rarely see.
It’s a dynamic exploration of the human condition and one that I found utterly relatable. I’d be hard pressed to say that it’s a lovely experience, despite the genuinely uplifting moments where you’ve cleared the corruption and Kay is basking in the warmth of the sun. It’s too raw, too naked even, to be anything but uncomfortable, but that in turn is what makes it so important, so compelling, a piece of work. In some ways it’s similar to Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice; this is a stark portrayal of the emotional turmoil and challenges to their mental health that people can and will experience in their lives, and it’s a game that has stayed with me well past its conclusion.
It’s a more personal tale than Hellblade though, and it doesn’t feel as though it’s been put together by a team of writers who have simply built a construct, a fiction, of what they wanted to portray. Guy Jackson’s plaintive score is a wonderful accompaniment to the entire proceeding, underscoring the tone and mood of Kay’s journey without ever overstepping the mark, while the characterful aesthetics do a great job of carrying the story along. The shifts between the light and the dark are particularly well done, and it’s ultimately such a compelling piece that you’ll forgive any minor camera faux pas or clunky gameplay mechanics that you might encounter along the way.