We’re accustomed to games, even the most nuanced, beginning with a clear problem: an outlaw on the run, a world in peril, a loved one kidnapped and held hostage by a gorilla.
“Sea of Solitude,” however, starts with an overwhelmed plea, a phrase spoken with equal amounts of desperation and hopelessness: “Change me.”
These words might be all too familiar to anyone who’s battled anxiety, depression or so much as had a sleepless night, and this is how we meet Kay, a teenage girl whose once human form has been replaced with demon-red eyes and feathers darkened as if by an oil spill. Though monstrous, we’re not scared of her; Kay herself is a character who seems afraid, fatigued and ailing.
We will in moments meet a proper monster. And though some of these creatures have the ability to swallow Kay whole, death never appears to be their ultimate goal, not when emotional manipulation will slowly and more excruciatingly allow someone to gradually kill off everything they love about themselves.
“You have no idea what you’re doing — as usual,” they may say. Or more crassly: “Ugly runs in your family.”
In the midst of a summer blockbuster season, where escapism, barbecues and superhero films reign, video game giant Electronic Arts is publishing the deeply personal “Sea of Solitude,” an exploration into the terrors of loneliness from Cornelia Geppert’s Berlin-based Jo-Mei Games. Prior to “Sea of Solitude,” the company survived by developing mobile and browser games for third-party clients.
“Sea of Solitude” is not a game-as-medicine; at times, its tenseness borders on survival horror, requiring Kay to evade shadowy, ghastly forms with bullying whispers. The Geppert-directed game works in metaphorical ways, putting emotion ahead of plot and in turn making the argument that interactive entertainment should be able to speak as thoughtfully and meaningfully about mental health as film, television and music, where works such as “Maniac,” “Us” or even the songs of Billie Eilish have inspired conversations about what it means to be human.
While “Sea of Solitude” is far from the first game to look honestly and seriously at weighty subject matter, it advances the notion that play is a storytelling device and not just a means for competition or puzzle solving.
“I want them to enjoy the ride,” Geppert says of her goal for those who play “Sea of Solitude.” Yet she also wants those who experience the game to walk away with a different idea of what winning means.
“I want people to see that whatever you are up to — whatever your next goal is — it’s not about that you come out at the end with the perfect score, that you’re the supehero and everything will be fine. That is not the case. This is about having a more calm way of going through life, and that you will know that bad times will come again, and very good times will come again, no matter what you do.”
Reaching new players
“Sea of Solitude” garnered instant attention when it was publicly unveiled at the 2018 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, where it was among a handful of anomalies that stood out among games centered around action and violence. It also drew attention for being part of the Electronic Arts roster, a studio known for its sports series (“FIFA”) and its stable of blockbuster-driven studios working on games such as “Star Wars: Battlefront.”
But what was once niche content targeted to indie-hip audiences is now suddenly in demand at larger players, in part due to a growing belief that subscription-based models will be the future of game distribution. If games are to speak to those not already playing them, it won’t be because someone just awoke to the majesty of a “Fortnite” or a “Call of Duty”; it will be games like “Sea of Solitude,” which show the medium can capture the full breadth of human emotion.
That wasn’t Geppert’s goal in creating “Sea of Solitude,” but it’s one of her hopes. She likes to tell a story about presenting the title onstage at an E3 press conference and then being approached by a bathroom attendant. “The bathroom lady — I think she was in her mid-40s — and she said, ‘Cornelia, I was so overwhelmed by your presentation. I’ve never played games before, but I think I need to play this game.’”
While topics related to mental health aren’t new to games, they’re far from the norm. Ninja Theory’s “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” used action and horror elements to delve into psychosis while Accidental Queens’ mobile “Another Lost Phone: Laura’s Story” tackled themes of sexual identity, bullying and domestic abuse.
“Night in the Woods” from Infinite Fall tackled coming-of-age-existentialism and post-traumatic stress disorder. And with “Psychonauts,” Double Fine Presents sought to explore, with exaggeration, mind games and emotional stress. A sequel for the latter is due next year, and while the “Psychonauts” games specialize in action and humor, they also carry plenty of heart.
Bringing such themes into the games medium, where players are wont to experiment and simply see what is or isn’t possible to accomplish, isn’t easy.
“I think ‘Psychonauts’ is a very humanist game,” says creator and Double Fine founder Tim Schafer. “It’s very empathetic to those characters; even the villain is redeemed. You go inside his head and learn about childhood and you literally see him fight his personal demons. It helps you understand him as a person. I think that is the philosophy of ‘Psychonauts.’
“Even though we get into issues of mental illness, and we do it with comedy, we treat characters with respect,” he continues. “We draw upon personal experiences with those issues rather than just stereotypes.”
What makes “Sea of Solitude” so enrapturing is that it truly feels like one is learning to understand Geppert’s personal experience. Though developed with a team of 12, “Sea of Solitude” unfolds like a conversation between the player and designer.
When we meet a fearsome bird, the narrator stops us from running, telling us the character is sad rather than predatory. Such small moments upend the idea of villain and victim and make it clear “Sea of Solitude” is ultimately a quest for understanding.
Geppert pauses while dialing down into such topics, wanting to stress that she is not a medical professional. “I need to say it again, this is a personal story,” she says. “I didn’t write it to show a specific way to become more healthy.
“Sharing is a good thing in general. I’m a person that is very open with emotions. I have this voice and I love to share. Other people can look at me and say, ‘There’s someone opening up. I can do that too.’”
The monster inside
There is an underlying mystery to “Sea of Solitude.” We immediately want to know what happened to Kay to transform her and how she can be normal again. But that question fades before we’ve finished so much as an hour of the game. While Kay may not look human, she is far from abnormal.
“Sea of Solitude” is not a game about curing Kay of the monster who has taken her over; it’s a game about understanding that we all have something of a monster inside us, and maybe sometimes that in itself is normal.
“When there is a hard hit in life, when something hits you hard, you look at your life and think, ‘What is going on with me? What are my issues? How can I be more common-like?’ Sometimes that’s in your 20s. Sometimes that’s in your 30s. Sometimes it’s in your 60s. It doesn’t have a time, but everyone has that.
“This,” she says, “is figuring out life always contains hard parts. You can’t remove them forever. It’s just the way you deal with hardships — that’s what you can improve. But it’s impossible to forever become completely happy.”
Books, theater and film have long explored such ideas, but there’s a difference in a game. When we read or watch something, we’re removed — a spectator — and can disassociate ourselves from the character on a stage or screen.
But when we’re the ones moving Kay through the water-submerged worlds of “Sea of Solitude,” we feel not just a responsibility but a kinship.
For too long, Geppert says, she wondered, “Why is everyone else figuring out life easier?” But through the development and play-testing of “Sea of Solitude” she realized she’s not alone.
“No, not at all,” she says. “Literally everyone has these types of inner struggles and fears. This is a story about all of us.”
“Sea of Solitude”
Developer: Jo-Mei Game
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PS4, XBOX One, PC