When explaining Sea of Solitude to friends and telling them what the game is about, at the core of its very being, Sea of Solitude is about trauma.
After having played through Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice as a schizophrenic, or through a visually artistic endeavor like Gris and its tale of loss; showcasing mental illness and its effects on the psyche is becoming more apparent in the video game world especially in recent years. At some point however, it begins to feel a little too “samey,” and while Sea of Solitude delivers largely on its themes and premise, I couldn’t shake the feeling of, “I’ve played this one before.” Games like the ones mentioned before or even Celeste or Bound all come to mind when discussing mental illness and trauma being depicted in games, and for the most part the metaphorical imagery and the music and what the game has you do within is experience all work together to deliver this message. Some hit the mark, and others fall short in their attempt.
Sea of Solitude at the very least manages to deliver on its narrative front and holds that mark throughout the entire game. You play as Kay, a young woman who must explore a submerged world and piece together her memories to remember and figure her way out. A feathered bird might be her younger brother, and a chameleon and an octopus her unhappily married parents and even a white wolf shows up as the final piece of all the burden and worry she’s put upon herself. Yet, all the while throughout she remains a monster as well and the key to understanding this narrative is to know that almost everything you encounter in the game has a double meaning. The very sea that you explore and coral your way through via boat is a stand in for loneliness and acts as a barrier between Kay and her loved ones. Her loved ones appear as different animals, and the animals physically represent how she sees them on a subconscious level. With Kay herself being a monster, part of the allegory is showcasing that she understands the other monsters, and can reach out to them by getting closer on an emotional level. The voice acting and dialogue hit really hard as we see notions of bullying and suicide with her brother, or the failing marriage between her mother and father. There is a bit more, but those two are the biggest ones that bring the proverbial feels.
It’s here that the game begins its missteps within its dual meaning and metaphorical style of narration. Kay has a backpack wherein she can carry everyone else’s emotional baggage, but very little is done to its meaning or impact other than a one off line when she notices she’s been carrying it around for most of the game. Some of the mechanics aren’t even given their narrative due and are left too much to player interpretation. The game does well enough to hit on the points that sometimes its better to let go of people or that sometimes you harm more when trying to help a person, which for me was great and served as the main points early in the game that kept me attentive. We as people often need that reminder in our lives but within the game it’s often exposed as an afterthought. You get the realization and the “aha,” moment but then its passed off for the next big metaphorical reveal. I wish more time was spent on some of the themes because so many other games like Celeste or Hellblade really go all in on the various issues of mental illness and bring them full circle, but Sea of Solitude just offers it as a one off experience and then grabs your hand and charters you off to the next one.
The game play is simplistic and its mostly a pseudo-puzzle platformer at best. Frequent use of the guide button will always tell you where to go, and if there is any issue with the control scheme or actual I couldn’t find it. Kay can fire off a flare that shows her where to go, but its also utilized at certain points in the game to banish small monsters that chase you or change them into children of light. Outside of those instances, its never touched upon or mentioned why your flare can do this or even why you have one in the first place and for me it felt like a missed opportunity to really explore the character of Kay and her impact on the lives of those she interacts with as well as serving as a game play bridge to the narrative.
I did enjoy the game being about the idea that all emotions can have a good or bad impact and it does lean heavy on the notion that love can be unhealthy or even downright sad. What I got the most from it is that even being alone in the middle of the game can be seen as a nice quiet sense of solitude, but then the narrative story creeps in and you realize it’s a sort of debilitating loneliness. What’s here is good, but it plays too close to what other games have done before it that it doesn’t feel fresh or new and felt all to familiar. The game is only $19.99 on all various gaming services, so its definitely something worth the value of a digital product and if you’re into these type of games, its well worth the time to play through it.