Unexpected Depth

HIGH Filling a taxonomy entry and finally getting an illustration.

LOW Occasionally rushing while power and oxygen meters dwindle.

WTF The amusingly rudimentary names Dr. Vas comes up with.

In Other Waters is the sort of thing I applaud every time I see it in the videogame industry – it’s the kind of mature, intelligent sci-fi that rewards patience and curiosity. Although I presume its minimalist visual style is mainly down to being developed almost entirely by a single guy, one could wager that In Other Waters looks the way it does to root out those looking for more direct stimulation. This is a title for people who don’t mind a lot of reading.

Set a couple of centuries into the future, In Other Waters tells the story of Dr. Ellery Vas, a biologist whose search for a missing colleague has led her to an ocean planet that’s teeming with life – the first time alien activity has ever been documented. We don’t play as Dr. Vas, however, but a mysterious AI that she comes in contact with soon after she arrives.

Our job is to use our utilities to guide Dr. Vas across the ocean floor as she records her findings and looks for clues relating to her lost partner. While she gives frequent, vivid descriptions and analysis of an undersea ecology that features vast, swaying forests of reeds housing complex organisms going about their routines, all we see is a topographical map full of little dots that represent lifeforms. It’s one step above a text adventure.

In Other Waters doesn’t do a great job of explaining its UI, and the fact that everything is so tiny doesn’t help – the text size is right on the edge of what I consider acceptable for the Switch. Even once I’d familiarized myself with all of the suit’s functions, there’s a deliberate laboriousness to carrying out even basic actions. Just moving requires that we scan for a safe location, switch to a different mode, give Vas the order, watch her slowly swim to the designated point, and then scan and repeat. Like I said, In Other Waters requires a lot of patience.

The reward for our persistence is a wondrous alien landscape, constructed with a level of detail that’s not just rare in this medium, but required for this game, in which so much is communicated through text. Gareth Damian Martin – who wrote, designed, and programmed In Other Waters largely by himself – is either well-studied in the field of biology or able to fake it convincingly. His descriptions of otherworldly wildlife rival that of a good sci-fi novel, albeit one that could have used an editor to clean up the abundant typos and run-on sentences.

However, please note that “minimalist” does not mean “half-assed.” Even with such a limited tool set, Martin frequently finds new ways to set the tone. Changes to the color palette underline mood shifts, such as when the screen turns a sickly shade of green to indicate that we’ve entered a toxic area. Sound effects are used sparingly but memorably. Amos Roddy’s lovely, celestial score hangs in the background for long stretches but then leaps into prominence when breathtaking discoveries are made. In Other Waters is a classic example of doing more with less.

This work is about more than just soaking in the atmosphere, however — it’s about unravelling a mystery, and Martin wisely avoids cheap melodrama when it comes to the meat of the story. I had theories about several of the plot’s core questions regarding the origin of our AI character or the relationship between Vas and her missing partner that were all more clichéd than what we actually get. Although there are jaw-dropping revelations to be found, they’re logical and treated with a refreshing groundedness. Vas never suddenly turns into an action hero. She’s a scientist, and the story treats her like one.

Although players do have some agency over the flow of events – exploring and scanning thoroughly, for example, fills a taxonomy log that eventually treats us to illustrations of the alien life – we’re largely being led on rails. In fact, the few times that In Other Waters tries to be a capital-V videogame are when it falters. Namely, there are a couple of regions in which hazardous conditions steadily eat away at our power and oxygen meters, forcing us to move at a fast clip. Not only does it run contrary to the measured pace of the rest of the game, but it means that we don’t have time to sit around reading Vas’s descriptions of the things we’re scanning.

What’s particularly unforgiveable is that the biggest reveal occurs under such conditions. I was awestruck by what I was seeing in this moment and wanted to take in every detail, but In Other Waters was telling me that I needed to keep moving. It was a poor decision, as the majority of this experience clearly illustrates that not every game needs a fail state.

Still, I suppose the fact that I wanted to absorb every detail is indicative of how strongly In Other Waters rises above the limitations of its presentation. When I think back on my time with it, I don’t remember it as dots on a map – I see a broad seabed buzzing with curious alien life. Few developers would have the resources to portray this undersea world in all of its glory, but while Martin’s approach might have begun as a compromise, it’s executed with such confidence that In Other Waters feels like the only game he ever would have wanted to make. For those who like their sci-fi on the sophisticated side, it’s one of the year’s hidden gems.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Jump Over the Age and published by Fellow Traveller. It is currently available on PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately eight hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains Mild Violence. I have no idea what that’s even referring to. There’s no violence whatsoever.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Dialogue is text-only. The game’s interface is small, and alerts that options have become available can be difficult to notice without their accompanying audio cues. The game is playable without sound, but the frustration of accumulating to the UI will likely be compounded.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. there is no control diagram. The left analog stick and A button are used to select points to move to. The right analog stick is used to scan objects identified after sending out a ping with B, and X returns the player to movement mode. L cycles through other nodes, and R closes said nodes. Zooming in and out is done with ZR and ZL, respectively. Up and down on the d-pad are used to change levels where applicable. All actions can also be performed by pressing corresponding buttons in the UI using the Switch’s touch screen.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Mike Suskie
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