The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me
As I get older, I keep finding new reasons to dislike Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” When it first came out and I was just 5 years old, I didn’t like it because Ursula the Sea Witch scared me out of my wits. Seriously, I started hyperventilating and eventually crawled on my mom’s lap to hide in her cardigan and cry through the entire rest of the movie. Yes, we stayed for the whole thing, and, yes, my mother still gets a ton of mileage out of that story at parties.
When I’d grown up enough to think Ursula was awesome instead of a nightmare demon, I disliked “The Little Mermaid” for all the reasons little budding feminists figure out are bullshit. She straight up abandons her family that loves her without any explanation because she saw a guy she thought was good looking, knowing nothing about him or the world he came from (which, if you think about it, proved to be full of assholes once Ariel actually got up there). Those reasons are still valid to me now, but I have an additional beef with the protagonist: Why the hell would you ever leave the gravity-free wonderland of aquatic creatures to go live on land where we have crap like sunburns and air pollution and ugly buildings!?
This is why I will never understand Ariel. As someone who is a terrible swimmer and is only slightly more competent at not drowning, being able to dive under the sea and commune with its delightful flora and fauna is the stuff of dreams! I have watched the BBC’s “Blue Planet” documentary series so many times that I unquestionably know more about the residents of the abyssal plane than I do about stuff that is actually career relevant. I eat up media about the Earth’s oceans because I cannot go see them with my accursed human body. Bad swimming is one thing, but then there’s the fact that the ocean is almost always near a beach, and those are places of skin-frying pain for me. No. I need to get my undersea fix through the safety of a screen.
Thankfully, there are video games! Those are interactive enough that surely I’ll feel even more nerdily happy to be exploring the ocean than when I have David Attenborough’s soothing tones along with me. To that end, I’ve hit up Steam and tried a few games in the hope of having wonderful undersea adventures.
My first attempt was with the game “SubNautica,” which is currently available on Steam in early access form. I don’t usually go in for early access, but this particular game had a reputation for being pretty stable and having some cool features that made it worth the Summer Sale price. “SubNautica” is one of those survival/crafting games but with a sci-fi ocean theme. I’ll be honest: I saw some screenshots of the beautiful underwater scenery in the game, saw that it was possible to build living quarters down there, and was all in. I was consumed by my desire for a kickass sea fort. I could live in my sea fort and watch alien fishies swim by and do some menial crafting tasks. This was going to be great!
Except “early access” still means “this game isn’t finished so you can’t ask for too much.” What I asked for was a sea fort, but because the developers haven’t put in a way for you to give power and oxygen to the little buildings you make underwater, it was impossible for my sea fort dreams to come true. I built three lightless, airless coffins near a coral reef, tried to go exploring for more resources, and was swiftly murdered by an enormous sea monster that didn’t appear on my screen until after I was dead thanks to some graphical glitches. “SubNautica” could be fun some day, but that day is not today.
I switched gears after that and decided to satisfy my need to be a pretentious asshole while still looking for aquatic fun-times. Enter the game “Aquaria,” a “Metroidvania” type exploration game where you take control of a fish lady called “Naija” as she explores really big environments and fights enemies in search of … something. I was never completely clear on that. Lost memories? I think that was the McGuffin this time. Attempts at character motivation aside, this game gets cited by a lot of people as a hidden gem of the early indie-scene on PC. Its controls are mouse-based, and it lets you feel like you’re gliding through the deep seas in a way that makes sense for a fish person. And the plot gets dark, too! The first stage you go through makes it clear that Naija is going to spend her protagonist career fighting ancient, eldritch gods from lost civilizations. A sure-fire way to get me interested in a story is to involve ancient gods or lost civilizations. This had both, so I got really invested.
Now I hate the game more than I thought I was capable of hating a collection of code and art assets. The controls that I had originally thought were thematically perfect turned into a liability on a dime. Being a game set under water, Naija’s movement is based on swimming. Translated into what is actually happening in the game, this means I’m less “controlling” the character and more “clicking to launch her generally in the direction that I want her to go and hoping for the best.” Even this wasn’t a deal breaker until the game started requiring the pixel perfect accuracy of timed jumps in an environment that had the gravity of fucking Jupiter, so when you miss one of the rotating platforms, you also plummet at impossible speed all the way back past where you started the platforming section and into a nest of enemies with homing attacks or spikes. I gave up after a boss battle. This guy’s schtick was that he messed with your movement, so even trying to control my position was pointless, but he was also launching me into spikes. I was surviving by the skin of my teeth, using every healing item in my inventory despite the fact that they were incredibly difficult to find the materials for. (Oh yeah, you need to craft health items in “Aquaria” because fucking of course you do in this PC game from the late 2000s.)
And then the boss launched me through the ceiling of the building we were fighting in. It took way too long to get back to him, and I took a ton of damage from the respawned enemies on the way. I got back to the room, saw that the son of a bitch had gotten back all of his health, and uninstalled the game. This was not the mermaid adventure I had signed up for.
So I gave up. Summer was going to pass without me taking a wonderful trip around the ocean depths. No sea fort. No semi-mermaid adventures. Nothing.
And then “Abzû” came out.
This is what I wanted! Beautiful graphics, movement that feels fluid and natural, and a lively environment to explore! “Abzû” comes from the makers of “Journey,” a game known for its lovely presentation and experiential approach to storytelling. The story in “Abzû” is up to you to find, and you might get it wrong since there’s no narrator to straight up dictate to you. There’s no dialogue at all. You only get three or four instructions as to what buttons do what, and after that you just go. It’s chuck-’em-in-the-deep-end PC gaming pretense at its finest, and I loved it. I made it through the whole game in under 4 hours, but I want to go back in and find the secrets that I know I missed. Oh, and meditation is a game mechanic. I’m not selling this well, am I? Okay just look at that screenshot again. The whole game is beautiful like that, and progression feels very natural. It’s just a lovely experience, and I highly recommend it even to people who don’t have a longstanding dream of gliding effortlessly through a kelp forest in the company of a sea turtle friend.
“Abzû” is available on Steam for about $20, and that may seem like a lot for a game that clocks in under at under 5 hours to get through the main quest, but you could definitely spend more time in there. Meditation while looking at fish is one of the core game mechanics. It wants you to slow down, enjoy the experience of a beautiful undersea adventure, and feel nice afterward.