Review: In Other Waters finds wonder through abstraction

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In Other Waters is something special. It’s the sort of game that takes a seemingly simple idea—in this case, an underwater exploration driven entirely through a minimalist user interface—and delivers on that to perfection. It’s a game where you’ll never set eyes on the place you’re exploring, other than through the abstraction of a topographical map, and yet its world is one of the most beautiful you’ll encounter in a videogame. It’s a game that’ll introduce you to all manner of weird and wonderful alien life, made all the more weird and wonderful for the fact that the most you’ll see of said life is a biologist’s sketches. It’s a commentary on humanity’s relationship to the natural world, made all the more impactful the abstraction through which you experience it.

In In Other Waters, you are the AI embedded in a malfunctioning diving suit on an alien planet, piloted by xenobiologist Ellery Vas. She came to planet Gliese 677Cc in search of her missing partner, Minae Nomura, but the oceans of this world hide many more secrets—not least of all, the first true alien lifeforms to be encountered by someone from Earth.

But you are not Ellery Vas. You are the AI that controls the diving suit she relies on to get around, to navigate the obstacles that the waters present, and to collect samples for investigation. As such, you don’t see the world as Ellery does—you see it filtered through your own user interface: a topographical map and an assortment of other tools. 

In this, In Other Waters vision of an alien world is absolutely stunning. The interface itself is a work of art in its own right, with a limited colour palette—yellow highlights set against shades of blue—giving it a minimalist charm, offset by a very modern approach to the icons and details. There’s just as much beauty in its functionality, too; every piece of the interface has its purpose, though what that purpose is may not be clear right away. It is, for the most part, very intuitive, but with a few deliberate quirks that encourage exploration of the interface itself, at least in the early parts of the game.

The centre of this interface, literally and figuratively, is the map. It’s designed as you might expect a mini-map to be in any other game, with the surrounding world reduced to lines marking changes in the structure of the seabed. Significant drops and rises—which are typically impassable, but not always—are made apparent by the altered brightness of the background colour. When you encounter other life, you see it represented as little yellow dots that flit about or sway in the current.

Navigating the ocean floor is a collaborative effort between you and Ellery. Rather than free-roaming, you move around by finding waypoints using a radar; Ellery will then tell you a little bit about what she sees, and you can move to that spot before scanning for the next one. This keeps movement limited, but deliberately so—as the AI controlling the diving suit’s powered locomotion, you’re the one doing the actual walking, but being limited to what your instruments can show you means you have to rely on what your companion can see. It also allows for a more controlled, mazelike structure to the game, that both guides you forward and creates obstacles for you to navigate. 

As well as those waypoints, you’ll also be scanning the lifeforms you encounter and collecting samples for Ellery to analyse whenever you return to the lab. Every time you discover something new, Ellery’s colourful descriptions add life and texture to a world that you can only see in the abstract. 

It’s this that makes this world so enchanting. It brings imagination to the fore in the same way that reading a book does, augmenting what limited sensory information is available to you directly. Have you ever read a fantasy book with a map at the front, and regularly flicked back to that map to see how the section of prose you’re reading fits into the context of the world at large? In Other Waters is like that, but on a smaller, more intimate scale.

You’re not completely reliant on Ellery’s eyes, though—you’d be surprised at how much information and mood can be conveyed by simply adjusting the colours of the interface you’re working with. Near the water’s surface, where the light of Gliese 677Cc’s suns still reaches, the UI is warm and bright—lemony yellow and aqua blue. As you venture deeper, the colours darken, too, and in doing so make the world feel more oppressive.

In some areas, you have to make your way through a strange toxic bloom; here, the background turns to a murky green and the yellow takes on a more sickly hue. In places of particular danger, the interface’s once-yellow highlights shift all the way red. Even if you can’t see what Ellery sees, that’s enough to build up the tension you’d expect to come with such exploration.

Through all this, In Other Waters manages to construct a world that is full of alien wonder, the abstraction of the interface and Ellery’s vivid descriptions making it all the more impressive. That’s a perfect fit for the story that In Other Words wants to tell: a personal tale of someone looking for her missing partner in the wake of a rough patch in their relationship, but also a commentary on the way that humanity exploits natural resources. This is a vision of a future where corporations leads a charge to find other planets to harvest indiscriminately, after Earth’s been picked clean; in that context, the discovery of alien life on a world previously thought to be devoid of such poses important moral questions for Ellery (and, by extension, you).

Such themes have been tackled time and again across all manner of different media, but few works approach it with such nuance and finesse as In Other Waters. The combination of game design, aesthetic, writing, and atmospheric soundtrack all come together to sell the vision of a world that’s all the more beautiful for how little of it you can witness directly. So many games lose themselves in sensory overload, but In Other Waters carries a less-is-more approach to sublime ends.

Score: 5 stars

In Other Waters is developed by Jump Over The Age and published by Fellow Traveller. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Windows, and MacOSX.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.