In 2005, a video game called Shadow of the Colossus changed the world of gaming. Amid a swell of your usual action and shooter video games, Shadow stunned players with its immense, stylistically barren world inhabited only by monstrous behemoths that obstructed your mission: restoring life to a beloved companion. It was called “a work of art,” and all for the strength of a narrative with few lines of dialogue.
This week, an independent developer called Uppercut games released a video game called Submerged. Comparisons with Shadow of the Colossus only make sense.
Nearly a decade after Shadow, Submerged seems like it was poised to be that next game that defined “meditative,” “minimalist,” or any other indie arthouse game buzzword you can imagine. Much was made of the promise of a world free of combat, with a heroic tale of determination and sacrifice.
You play as Miku, a young girl ferrying her gravely wounded brother across a massive ocean after the violent dissolution of their family. Drifting into the middle of a long lost city, you must navigate the waterways and scale the decaying remains of hotels, steel factories, and skyscrapers in search of medicine and supplies. It’s an adventure colored with tinges of climate change and a future reclaimed by nature.
And that’s where any meaningful comparison with Shadow and other artsy games ends, for better or worse. Submerged could have been a game about familiarizing yourself with the land (or lack thereof), but instead it squanders its beauty on monotonous storytelling, breaking a cardinal rule in the process.
Games, in their ideal form, are designed to give players a lived experience, whether it’s your own or completely alien. About midway through Submerged, as I coasted out at sea some distance from the nearest buildings, the shadow of a giant bridge loomed over me in the twinkling night sky. Gentle piano chords hummed as the echoes of nature complimented the serene tides. It was perhaps one of the few moments that I truly felt like an insignificant creature among the rubble, eking out my continued survival one scrap at a time.
Ironically enough, Submerged is at its most beautiful when you’re doing nothing: bobbing in the gentle waves, looking out to a distant monument bathed in sunlight, or watching as an immense whale breaches the surface underneath the calm moonlight. And at that point, when the game encourages this void of participation, when doing nothing is actually the most enjoyable state, Submerged becomes less like a game and more like a film—something passive.
But too much of the game’s narrative breaks the age-old storytelling mandate “show, don’t tell.” Or, rather, it tries to follow the rule—but what it “shows” isn’t worth seeing. It flirts with drawing parallels between the restoration of one family and the destruction of so many others, contrasting the destroyed civilization with Miku’s quest to save her family. But instead of gradually uncovering the lost remains of this city’s former inhabitants, I spent more time pointlessly collecting rudimentary drawings—almost neanderthalic in nature—meant to evoke that element of “show” without much of the actual effort.
The city’s own narrative never needed to be a sweeping epic, but it lacks those smaller, more meaningful moments that would have added some much-needed weight to its gorgeous scenery. As it is, the tale of the siblings at the game’s heart, despite being performed on a much smaller scale, seems far more interesting than the larger mystery of what happened to this city. Maybe that’s intentional, maybe not. But either way it’s disappointing.
Maybe it’s unfair for me to criticize Submerged based on what I feel it should have been, rather than what it is. But when the game puts so much effort into ignoring its more striking elements, it’s hard not to imagine something better.
As my time with Submerged ended, perhaps the most egregious narrative gap of all came to light. Throughout the game, as you collect the vital supplies necessary to keep Miku’s brother alive, the watchful eyes of the city’s mutated inhabitants look on through the night. Relegated to brief cutscenes, their presence is a missed opportunity to further explore the city’s tragedy. To top it all off the inclusion of a befuddling deus ex machina toward the end serves to finally negate any tension built up over the course of your journey.
As the credits rolled and the city fell back into the horizon, any sense of conclusion was lost among all these narrative shortcomings. I had not left the city any different, nor did the city truly impact this family. These are simple storytelling techniques. Why a game with such passion for the artistic ideals of masterpieces that came before it can’t capitalize on them is a question ultimately better left deep below the surface.
Joseph Knoop is a freelance games journalist and part-time comic book geek. His favorite games include cute animals, so Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater probably counts. Talk progressive metal and jazzhop with him on Twitter @JosephKnoop.
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