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We're all looking for that one game that takes us out of - looks around - all of this, right now, right? For a lot of us, that game is Animal Crossing: New Horizons (reviewed here). And don't get me wrong, I am having a wonderfully chill time on my island, with my new pals, talking nonsense about bugs, unanimously hating decorated eggs, and getting anxiety pangs over the price of root vegetables.
I've also been dabbling in The Touryst, which I picked up on sale just the other day and recommend for Switch owners. But In Other Waters is something else - a relaxing but eerie, entirely chilled but kind of confrontational experience that is, genuinely, unlike any other game I've played before.
The work of, mainly, one person - namely Gareth Damian Martin, aka Jump Over The Age - In Other Waters takes the player to an alien world. More specifically, it takes them to the deep and potentially dangerous ocean of an alien world. And there, it asks them to wander, to follow beacons and hunches, to explore and record discoveries and to take their time and study every detail. It asks them to keep moving, and to stay alive. It asks them to lose themselves in the other.
It does this in a way that the vast array of extraterrestrial-themed video games of the past and present haven't even considered: by putting only a map screen and a selection of icons and control panels in front of the player. You don't see any of the exotic alien life you're logging, the swaying stalks and fast-swimming creatures. They're words on the screen, descriptions in a log.
And as for this underwater landscape, with its caves and waystations, its rapid currents and darkened corners: it's all rendered as one big map, with contour lines lending height and depth, and little dots representing the various species native to this world. There are no grand vistas to behold, like so many open-worlders of the here and now. Everything is viewed through a graphical interpretation of what that thing, or that place, actually is.
That may sound boring at first; but once your brain is on board with In Other Waters' very particular controls - you have to switch between active screens, and different sections within those, to perform even basic actions - it immediately begins to fill in the blanks. That strange being that darted across your radar just now? It's in your mind's eye, perfectly rendered.
Across countless entries, penned by the character you're not directly playing as but supporting - one Ellery Vas, a xenobiologist - the submerged landscapes of Gliese 677Cc come alive like few virtual worlds can. (You, by the way, are an AI inside Ellery's life-preserving suit.) This is a kind of role-playing that feels as pen-and-paper as it does digital; like you could stretch this out across a table, maps and compasses everywhere, cards full of otherworldly flora and fauna, and it'd work just as well. The unique aesthetics aid the immersion, of course, once you're in tune with them; but the words of Ellery are what truly have In Other Waters transporting the player to elsewhere.
What, reading, in a video game? You bet - but it's never dull, and all of the interactions in this slow-unfolding mystery (I won't get into why you're on this planet, but there are plenty of breadcrumbs that need following) are set to the most luscious ambient soundtrack, courtesy of Amos Roddy, who's also behind In Other Waters' enveloping sound design.
These are really only the broadest strokes of what In Other Waters has to offer. It's not an easy game to describe, in much the same way that, early doors, it's not an easy game to play. Your fingers and thumbs will reach for the wrong buttons a good number of times before you're in sync with its systems, its very exacting methods. But when you do: such bliss, reader, let me tell you.
In its spinning dials and stockpile of samples, its radar blips and subtle survival-sim leanings (please, don't fret, it'll be okay), there is uncommon magic. In Other Waters is that rare game that comes along, relatively out of the blue, and says: look, here is something that video games can be, that they've not been before. At least, they've not been in my experience.
Which isn't to say that it's the start of a genre, or that it really warrants classification beyond, I suppose, 'narrative adventure'. But it's the singular creation of a single-minded creator, free to craft a journey uncompromised by player expectation and market trends. And for those reasons, if you care about video games and what they're capable of, you need to give In Other Waters some of your time. If it's more real-world escapism you're after, this should be your next virtual destination.
We played In Other Waters on Nintendo Switch, courtesy of a code provided by the publishers, Fellow Traveller. The game is also available, right now, for PC.
Featured Image Credit: Jump Over The Age / Fellow Traveller
Topics: Indie Games
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