Under the Waves is a narrative driven game about grief set at the bottom of the North Sea. You follow Stan as he takes up a job working for a mysterious company, which comes complete with various benefits, like a nice little underwater base, a submarine to get around in, an oxygen tank (that’s more tank than oxygen), and the crushing terror of being below millions of gallons of water many fathoms from another living human soul. So, the standard benefits package.
Stan took this job to get away from and deal with his grief, and he’s very successful in his isolationist endeavour, as he is basically the only human you’ll see in this game. You’ll only hear two others: his wife over the phone and Stan’s supervisor, Tim, who will be assigning your tasks by radio. Working for underwater oil drilling companies isn’t as exciting as you’d think once you get past how utterly beautiful everything is, as you’ll spend much of your time troubleshooting problems and swimming to get to them. There’s a bit of light puzzling involved as well, but the focus isn’t really on the tasks themselves, they’re more a framework to deliver the story.
They might not be exciting, but I did find it to be immensely relaxing, swimming or subbing through the gorgeous underwater vistas and marvelling at the vaguely ominous shapes on the seabed. There was a brief moment of panic when I saw some sharks, but then they just swam around me harmlessly and scattered, lulling me back into a calm reverie.
The narrative woven through all of this is well written and, at times, heartbreakingly sad. There’s a couple of unresolved threads that I was a little disappointed with, but the focus really is on Stan’s journey so I can understand why they were left hanging. Dialogue is particularly good, especially with some excellent voice acting to go with it, and there’s a few really emotionally intense conversations in here that are still believable even despite some pretty awful facial animation. Unfortunately Stan’s lips are rarely close to being in synch with what he’s saying, and often just continue waggling when he’s already stopped speaking, which is a pretty big immersion breaker.
Thankfully it’s one of only a handful of small areas that take you out of the game and the story. Stan has a routine, he starts a day with coffee, speaks to Tim, gets his assignments and heads out into the blue. And what a blue it is! Whilst the game is letterboxed slightly, this game is absolutely beautiful everywhere that isn’t Stan’s face (sorry, Stan). I mean, it looks like the bottom of the ocean, with lighting and all kinds. There’s a couple of other things that ruin the vibe though, such as the camera in enclosed spaces being a bit awkward, and sometimes the swimming animations of fish jittering slightly, like they brushed against an electric eel or something, and occasionally they’ll swim through a solid rock or wall. These are all small issues that don’t happen too often, but they are still there.
There’s even some incentive to explore the oceans outside of the missions, with collectibles and crafting materials being littered at various sunken wrecks. The crafting system is mostly superfluous, serving really as a way to craft a few oxygen sticks to replenish your hideously tiny O2 tank, which can also be upgraded here once you’ve found the blueprint in the world. You can create a few things like this, but the game usually has these items littered around when you’re likely to need them anyway – I had 22 oxygen sticks at the end of the game and more than 100 pieces of plastic.
You can also find a few other collectibles that will be added to your little underwater home, including a guitar that can be used to play songs you’ve found in a guitar hero-style mini-game and a punching bag for a, well, punching mini-game, both of which score you based on your performance. Ordinarily I wouldn’t be too fussed by this, but the experience of finding and exploring in this game is so immersive and serene that I might actually go back to collect them all. There’s even a few side missions for you to take photos of various fish. Just wait until you see a whale and swim alongside it, it is magical.