Many of the most popular video games have open worlds for players to explore. Games like LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD and even MINECRAFT rely heavily on the world they build specifically for the player to poke around, whether it’s custom designed or randomly-generated. Creating these expansive open worlds takes a lot of time and resources. How then, can you offer the all-encompassing, immersive experience of an open world game on a smaller budget? The developers at Jump Over the Age came up with a genius idea to counter this problem in their new game IN OTHER WATERS, by having the player play in an open world… without fully seeing it. IN OTHER WATERS follows Ellery Vas, a diver and xenobiologist, who’s searching through a world full of unidentified, never-seen-before creatures—but you don’t play as Vas, you play as the AI program in her suit.
The refinements and minimalism start with the gameplay, which takes place entirely through a user interface with a minimap in the middle. In the center is a yellow dot, representing Vas. Around her are other symbols that represent different elements in the game. Small, circular dots represent other organisms and triangles represent different areas that Vas can move to. The goal of the game is to move to different positions and either examine different organisms or get a sample of them. This simplistic gameplay expands as it goes on, with Vas collecting a variety of organisms to help on her journey. The different organisms you find along the way have unique attributes that endow Vas with specific abilities. My personal favorite is a specimen you find that can destroy obstacles in Vas’ path. When you think you might be stuck or lost, it allows you to break down barriers and go down a path that was blocked. It conjures a lot of the same surprise and delight you would get in a Zelda game when you blow up a wall and find a secret passage.
Admittedly, it can get a bit annoying playing the game, as you’re visually presented with the same interface for the entire duration of the game, with most of the variation happening in the minimap, but it’s impressive how much mileage they get out of that deceptively simple UI. It should be said that it isn’t entirely the same visual every time. There are different colored layouts to represent the biomes of the distinct worlds you swim through and new tools added on to your menu to progress the game. In both these ways, the game does a good job of using simple visual changes, along with some great natural ambiance, to immerse the player in the world of the game and keep things fresh. Even if where you’re “immersed” is occasionally as claustrophobic as a deep sea diving suit.
This is what you’re going to be looking at the whole game, so get used to it. It is pretty though.
Despite those purposeful visual limitations the story is engaging, with a surprising amount of twists and turns. One might assume that there would be some emotional distance from the story playing as a sentient diving suit, but if anything, the opposite is true. The story unfolds on a message board built into the UI, which is how you communicate with Vas. She types messages to the player and you can respond with an approve button or disapprove button. Since Vas is telling you what is happening, instead of you seeing it on the screen in front of you, a different kind of suspense is created not seen often in video games: you’re forced to hang on to her every word. Perhaps more impressive is how this forces the player to create a connection with Ellery Vas. you need her in order to garner all the information about a given situation, necessitating the turn from strangers into partners. IN OTHER WATERS concerns itself primarily with dueling themes: environmentalism and artificial intelligence. While on the surface it feels like these might be at odds with each other, the developers do a great job of balancing both themes. You spend the game relying on and cultivating a relationship with Vas as she attempts to survive in an environment indifferent to her. It’s not complex, but it fits with the game’s minimalism, expressing larger concerns through a far more refined story of survival.
I wonder if when robots take over, if they will see the world like this.
IN OTHER WATERS is a unique and minimalistic approach to video games when many favor going as big and outlandish as possible. The game is able to do a lot with a little, able to bring a great story with suspense through the point of view of an AI robot, create a great relationship with a character you don’t see, and feature surprisingly engaging gameplay. IN OTHER WATERS doesn’t need theatrics, instead relying on smart, refined execution of story and a simple reinvention of some of the bare basics of video games. It’s a refreshing change of pace and a unique way to tell a story after being told for so long that hours-long RPGs set in huge open worlds are what we’re supposed to desire, especially in quarantine. IN OTHER WATERS proposes a dip in different ideas and luckily, is able to back them up.