I think that the German developer Jo-Mei had trouble differentiating between concepts of loneliness and solitude. The official synopsis for their third-person action adventure Sea of Solitude emphasizes personal loneliness that turns people into metaphorical monsters. Loneliness is something you can feel, mostly involuntarily, despite people being around you. The titular solitude, however, is something you choose to be in to reflect your thoughts. Which kind of loneliness Jo-Mei has aspired to in their game, then, unwanted or purpose-driven? Maybe both, more or less intentionally. Solitude is definitely something the game’s heroine Kay strives for in an imaginary world of monsters she thinks up.
Kay wakes up a in a sea, curled up in a rowing boat cut adrift somewhere along a sunken city. She’s a monster but a very cute one with black tangled fur, red eyes and freckles adorning her round cheeks. Other beings she encounters are monsters, too, but big and scary. Sea of Solitude is a mix of narrative experience and simple puzzle-platformer. The gameplay revolves around the idea of cleansing the darkness from immediate surroundings to make a way forward. The first two chapters feature the labyrinthine flooded city where you can easily end up lost. To make matters worse, there’s a monster swimming around and if you’re too slow to wade across streets, it’ll gobble you up bones and all. Here, the game can take you back to an entirely wrong spot with only a dead-end to bump into. Luckily, loading up the most recent section will take you back to the right path again. A flare Kay can shoot up will point to the direction she should go. Also, a glowing ball of light and a mysterious flying girl lead Kay across the turmoil her mind has cooked up.
The flooded city streets, so prominent in the game’s promotion, are only a small fraction of it. As the sea level descends, the rest of the adventure will take Kay to places like a ghostly school, a desolate railway station, a ruined tower, an abandoned marketplace, and an icy wilderness all the way through to a deserted island. Everything, from the environments and the monsters to Kay herself, is rendered in a lovable, reduced detail, making Sea of Solitude visually a singular, vivid and charming experience. After the initial confusion of the opening chapters, the game gets more straightforward as It goes. There are a few hazardous set-pieces to tackle, though. Warding off a swarm of nightmare pupils or platforming up and down the tower through its timed dangers might prove somewhat tricky for those people who are used to narrative experiences going automatically along by simple button presses. For everyone else, these scenes shouldn’t be too hard and thus, the game lacks proper gameplay challenge. There are bottled messages to collect and seagulls to shoo off but they act more like a distraction than something you should seriously pursuit.
It’s not actually Kay who’s having issues but the people closest to her, affecting her own mental well-being. Twelve chapters mark the length of Kay’s journey, amounting to some five hours of playtime, where she has to deal with bullied little brother, parents on the verge of a divorce, and a perfect boyfriend who turns out to be a mentally unstable and terribly insecure person. All of them show up as monsters, fashioned after different animals, and they have to be redeemed back to their human selves. The thing is, they all have a tendency to wallow in self-pity and vomit their ill feelings on poor Kay who feels guilty for their miserable state. As a somewhat heavy-handed metaphor, Kay’s backpack fills up with all the corruption she cleanses – until the burden proves too much to carry. Why she’s still black and furry while everyone else turns up okay? Sometimes, other people’s problems are just their own business and there’s nothing you can do about them, no matter how much goodwill you show. Then, it’s finally time to look up after someone who matters the most, namely yourself.
Often, though, the story doesn’t meet up with its intentions. For starters, if we’re supposed to believe that Kay is suffering deeply from loneliness, she acts and sounds too spritely. Elsewhere, the game tries too much, says too much, and falls into harping on the same string. That, in turns, ends up as repetitive gameplay sections. Things that seemed exciting at first, like leading shadowy children back to the light, become just boring after they are repeated to no end. The game is fully voice-acted in English but the actors are all amateurs, mostly the German developers themselves. For example, Kay’s key role is played by the game’s lead animator. Obviously, everyone speaks English in a thick German accent. I’m sure they did their best and the amateurish acting is mostly sympathetic but especially in the more emotionally laded scenes, the voices and the characters don’t always meet each other and leaves them a bit detached.
However, despite all these neglects, I wouldn’t have Sea of Solitude in any other way. I wouldn’t want Kay without her sassy German accent or the story without its often pathetic but honest symbolism. Sea of Solitude might be flawed but that makes it more human than any perfect game would ever be. There’s a little bit of classic Ico in the game, especially in the way the journey is concluded, and more than a passing resemblance to Hellblade as an imaginary pilgrimage through a retrospective hardship. When Sea of Solitude states it’s a personal journey, it really is so. It could be about anyone’s passage to understand better not only themselves but also the people around them and that’s the game’s biggest strength.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.