If there is any game that has come from Australia with a more heartful, potent, and downright valuable message to tell than Submerged, then I haven’t encountered it. Coming from the team that made the excellent-but-derivative Epoch games I wasn’t quite expecting to some across something so serene and meaningful, or so beautiful, pained and melancholic. But that’s what I got, and kudos to the team for giving me a reason to believe in the power and value of games again.
Submerged is at its core a deeply frustrated warning against the humanity ignoring the 97-odd per cent of climate scientists that insist we’re set for a bad time if we don’t hurry up and start dealing with carbon emissions and man-made climate change. It presents us with a world that has been flooded, where only the tops of structures remain, and people can only move around through the use of rickety, fading boats. Not that there are many people left to need boats, mind you. It’s a full apocalypse, with the strong implication that the only people that are left are the luckiest (or unluckiest) and hardiest of survivors.
With apocalypses and gaming, you’re typically going to conjure mental images of anguished, violent nightmares, like the worlds of Fallout and The Last Of Us, where death and strength go arm-in-arm, and we see the worst of humanity in its full glory. But not with Submerged. As apocalypses go, Submerged is a breathtaking, beautiful, serene one, complete with abundant signs of nature taking back over as dolphins and whales crash through the water, and fireflies glow as the hover within decaying buildings.
So it’s an odd kind of frustration that the developers have built into their game here. Where other game developers would throw monsters and guns at players to provide an easy, brainless, violent outlet for the frustration, Submerged instead expresses a deep melancholia at what has transpired, and challenges players to reflect on the series of events that may have led to the world being left in this space. Though there is a story that does explain a lot of it, it’s cryptic and left open to plenty of interpretation. There’s no real sense of danger in the game at all. Rather, accompanied by a desperately sad musical score, players are tasked with taking control of a young girl and simply exploring a part of the world, looking for the few remaining resources such as bandages, fire, and so forth to protect her injured, ailing brother.
Beyond the environmental message, the relationship between the girl and her brother is intimate and touching, and told with a deft, mature touch that is subtle and respect’s the player’s intelligence. It also provides a strong symbiosis between the global message of the apocalypse and the personal story of two people, and in doing so it reminds us that people, in theory, should have a symbiotic relationship with nature, rather than the aggressively oppositional one that we too often take.
As a game itself, Submerged is simple, but so incredibly elegant. Put in simple terms, it’s a treasure hunt, in which the girl will zip around the water while periodically pulling out her telescope and scanning buildings for collectable objects (supplies) in the distance that she can take back to a shelter to help nurse her brother back to health. When she discovers a cache, she’ll need to scoot over to the building that the object is hidden within, and clamber all over it looking for a way to access it.
In practice this works like the climbing sections of a game like Uncharted, minus the shooting bits. Getting to the supplies requires some light puzzle solving and spatial awareness, but there’s no pressure to tackle these goals quickly, very little consequence for failing beyond wasting time, and, indeed, at every moment the game encourages you to stop playing and drink in the scenery. No it’s never challenging, much less frustrating.
Indeed, one of the best gameplay features is a full-featured screenshot mode that pops up when pausing the game, with rich control over the camera positioning, and this is the perfect tool for really appreciating just how beautiful the art direction in Submerged is. The most expensive blockbusters aren’t this beautiful. That’s how good it is. The water is serene, and the way the light bounces off it as the sun moves through a gentle day/ night cycle is so mesmerising that there would be times I would simply put the controller down and watch the virtual day pass me by, just to watch the gradual, subtle effect that light has on the environment. The world itself is small, but there’s not a square centimeter of it that is not meticulously designed to heighten the emotional impact of the narrative. For example, the first time I came aross the giant ferris wheel, with only the top half of the ride remaining above water, was in the depth of night, and the way the full moon cast a deep shadow across it was haunting and etherial, but also peaceful and oddly calming.
The environmental storytelling that runs through Submerged is in general sublime. Each building and object jutting out of the water has its own little story to tell, and when you encounter key points of interest you’ll be greeted with a short cut scene to introduce the building. You’ll not find out much more about those buildings within the game’s explicit narrative, but the way they are designed and what you’ll see as the girl clambers around them will give you a strong indication of the building’s history. Submerged has a palpable sense of history to it, and I hope this is just the start of a franchise, because I would love to see everything about it explored in more depth.
What impressed me most about Submerged is that it never tries to be more than its concept. It set out to be a simple narrative-driven and emotional experience with a strong environmental message, and it achieves just that. With no unnecessary actions to distract those with limited attention spans it might be perceieved as “dull” by some, but in practice it’s a reflective, mature, and artful work, and this here is where games should be going.
– Matt S.
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