Video games rarely treat profound emotional issues, as feelings don't match too well with the noise of big battles, impressive hero stories or rescuing the world. But there are also games, like the action-adventure Sea of Solitude, which builds a stunning world around our innermost fears, deliberately playing with our fears, worries, and desires. The game is created by German Indie developer Jo-Mei and challenges gamers to deal with their own feelings, but also with those of other people. It manages without high scores, without competition. Everyone is alone. It's a game that doesn't want to be fun.
The city of fears
Players take control of Kay, the young protagonist who makes her way through a flooded city. The city, her hometown, is not a realistic setting, but a kind of dream world. In it, she is accompanied by the monsters of her own past - literally. The quarrels between her parents, the emotional isolation of a friend and the terrible experiences of her brother haunt Kay as enormous monsters that she now has to face. They are dangerous creatures ready to devour you if you are careless.
Kay meets several characters on her journey, which help her remember and process the events of her past - a flying girl, who appears to be the happy version of the protagonist and her little brother, who glides through the air resembling a giant crow bird. The game has a robust basic idea, which is implemented very well: The father, who always wants to please everyone, for example, has become a huge, monster-like chameleon. The mother, who wants to control everything, appears as an octopus with supporting, but also oppressing tentacles. A sea monster gliding underneath the water surface represents Kay's fear of the unknown. The schoolyard bullies that plague brother Sunny turn into gruesome shadows chasing us and whispering their threats.
Purely on the metaphorical level, Sea of Solitude manages to wonderfully represent feelings like loneliness and forlornness, depression, as well as a fear of loss and attachment. However, the action-adventure doesn't stop there and inserts story snippets and dialogues that are supposed to explain backgrounds. Unfortunately, this rather hurts the game, as the text feels pretty clumsy when it comes to explaining the feelings and situations. While none of the dialogues are unrealistic or unbelievable, they are superfluous most of the time - you understand the story without them.
The developers, therefore, fill in every room for interpretation and take away a chance to interpret the feelings of the characters yourself. This makes Sea of Solitude lose some of its emotional impact. The game is essentially a platformer that tasks us with different but not extremely demanding challenges in its levels. In some areas, you have to cross the water, which is very dangerous. Kay's subconscious, represented by a massive lake monster, can appear at any time and eat you if you are not fast enough.
Other game mechanics include shooting light signals to ignite lamps and lure shadows away, avoiding gusts of wind when climbing, or stealing ghost shards. Optically, the simple, but detail-rich game world looks great. Lighting in the city can change from midday sun to dark and stormy weather, or evening light tinting the whole town in red. Besides, the game also provides us with different sections, like a world of snow and an abandoned school. While you can search for collectibles like seagulls or bottle posts, they sadly don't provide any real added value. You neither learn more about Kay and her story nor do you experience a side story. All in all, the plot is very linear, as there are no decision to make.
Sea of Solitude touched us very much, as it is successful in portraying people's feelings and emotions in a way, that they appear honest and credible - it hits right in the heart. Like when Kay touches her boyfriend, and his beautiful glow disintegrated and shows a monster inside. Love can crush and constrict people, even if it is meant well.