The oceans have always has a hold on us, an obsession with the sea that’s propelled mankind across the entire globe. Maybe it’s some primordial urge to return to the water from whence we came. Or maybe it’s just because we really like getting wet and smelling like the beach. Who knows.
Video games have also had a long affair with water. In olden times, the mark of a great 3D engine or game was how good the water looked, but there’s a huge difference between a game that merely includes water and one that surrounds the player in it entirely. Insomniac Games has answered the call of the ocean with their beautiful and fantastical Song of the Deep.
Certain things instantly attract my attention in a game—a sense of wistful nostalgia, the twisting of a fairy tale or mythology, something that evokes the sense that you’re about to experience as much a story as a game. Song of the Deep checks all these boxes. It opens with a girl talking about her father and the stories he would tell her every night after he’d come home from a long day fishing.
Fantastical tales of underwater civilizations, magical beings, and dark monsters fill her mind before bed until one day, he just doesn’t come home. So, like any good daughter, she builds a makeshift submarine and goes out to find him. Her narration of each new locale and creature hinges entirely on the tales from her father, so, in a sense, she already knows these strange places and creatures she encounters, if only from afar.
It creates a sense of intimacy between the player, the girl, and the game’s oceanic world. Song of the Deep, though purely created from the minds of Insomniac, is a good reminder that different cultures and even locations within similar cultures form their stories around their own special needs. In this case, a sea-going father on the coast isn’t telling his daughter tales of Sleeping Beauty and Briar Rose, but of magical mermaids and dark twisty creatures that live in lightless depths.
Song of the Deep doesn’t necessarily take many chances with its gameplay—it’s a beautiful exploratory side scrolling game with an emphasis on opening passageways to new locations. It has analogs in recent and classic games like Metroid, Guacamelee, UnEpic, Steamworld Dig, Axiom Verge, and so many others. The gameplay here is solid, but nothing we haven’t seen many times before.
The appeal of Song of the Deep isn’t in the what, but the where. The deep ocean and deep space share a lot of similarities in terms of the dangers of the unknown, but where space is essentially a lifeless cold place, the ocean is full of life that is frequently as alien as anything we could imagine from the stars. Games that thrive on this alien nature of the sea can create a sense of wonder and beauty unlike any other location—something Song excels at.
The watery depths guide your sub along in liquid ways. Currents can prevent you from reaching new locations or speed you along. Forgotten anchors can act as sticking points to allow extra maneuverability or stability thanks to a retractable claw that can grab, punch, and hold on to obstacles. The ocean also affords no shortage of caves and side passages to explore, which can hold unseen riches and danger.
Electric jellyfish, armored fish, creepy tentacled things, mermaids, and other strange forms populate this deep world and you’ll encounter them among colorful reefs, barren dark depths, and the crumbling remains of ancient civilizations that aren’t quite as extinct as we might think. Sea monsters lurk in these waters, creatures of myth and legend just waiting to be discovered and, yes, probably dealt with forcefully. Yet combat isn’t a central theme here—you’ll have plenty of aggressive creatures to dispatch, but Song of the Deep is far from a shooter-centric game.
There’s a certain appeal to having even combat be something more complex than merely mashing a button to shoot guns. Here, especially for the first part of the game, you’ll need to use the claw to grab hard shells or spiky sea anemones and throw them at attacking creatures. The claw is a weapon in its own right, particularly when upgraded, but this type of action affords even the combat-heavy portions a slower pacing that fits perfectly in with its storytelling exploration groove.
Song of the Deep isn’t a perfect example of its genre, but it manages to create a remarkably effective sense of atmosphere and place. Twisting the standard narrative to a girl braving the depths to save her father lets Insomnia tell a familiar story in an appealing and engaging way. This is a game where the sea is as much a character as the girl. The story book presentation allows the developers to play with the mythology of the sea and our fascination with it as an unknown space full of magic, wonder, and danger. For that alone, Song of the Deep is worth diving into.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.