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Enclosure or Escape: What the Ocean Can Mean in Video Games

For so long a barrier to exploration, now developers should be looking to the seas to expand our gaming adventures.

Above: 'The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD' screenshot courtesy of Nintendo

The ocean can be many things. It is at once chaotic and ordered: We can predict its tides, but not its moods. We can prepare for its caprices, batten down the hatches and harness its winds, but we can never really protect ourselves, not fully, if it suddenly decides to swell and rise and drown us all.

She has inspired poetry, literature, art and song, but often the sea is portrayed as something untrustworthy—an untamed, raw and powerful force of nature containing leviathans, krakens and other terrifying monsters of the midnight murk. It's a plot device: the great and wild unknown, with deep and dark secrets, that's always thwarting plans, sinking ships and dragging people down to a watery grave.

But in video games, the ocean is something almost entirely apart from what it's been portrayed as for millennia. In many examples of games that have a sea, it's easily recognizable shorthand: You can't go past this bit. It's the same as a cliff, a fence, or a wall, albeit often with the addition of your character instantly dying if they try to venture into its waters. Nobody likes an invisible wall, but sometimes that illusion of an endless world is more important than a proper sense of immersion.

(Also, swimming out into the ocean is kinda tedious, and you probably shouldn't be allowed to do it.)

'Grand Theft Auto V' screenshot courtesy of Rockstar

There are also games that settle for a safe middle ground between going where you please and immediate fail states: You can swim in these sparkling seas, sure, but you'll probably drown. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, for example, features a stamina meter that gives Link a reason to get back into his boat, the King of Red Lions. Falling out and having to swim is, therefore, a bad thing, or at the very least a temporary inconvenience. It's been claimed too many times that violent video games encourage similarly aggressive acts in their players, but nobody ever considers that games can also teach us that swimming is a terrible thing. When the floods come, we'll all drown, and your K/D ratio won't be able to save you.

But even if she's a big salty bastard that wants to exhaust you and fill your lungs with her bubbly breath, the ocean is bloody beautiful, isn't she? Hence all the poems about being drawn to her, suffocating in her embrace, and all the songs comparing drowning to love, which is usually quite a nice feeling. There's apparently something incredibly romantic about the idea of gulping in big mouthfuls of the wet stuff, like it's an involuntary bodily response that turns out to be just a terrible idea. Like love. Oh.

Some games, like Grand Theft Auto V and Watch Dogs 2, feature the ocean in their open worlds as a matter of geographic unavoidability. Both games are set on the Californian coast, after all. But the sea in those games glitters and glows and reflects the sunsets, and it's hard not to think that the developers probably put a lot of time into making it, if you'll forgive the phrase, totally Instagrammable.

'Abzû' screenshot courtesy of Giant Squid Studios

When you look out at the vastness, the blueness, the literally unfathomable unknown of the sea, there's some basic human instinct that makes us feel total awe. That's something that developers have tried to recreate in games, but it's tough—the sense of a far-away horizon and the periphery stretching off into the distance you get in real life is hard to replicate. Virtual reality experiences like Ocean Descent and Ocean Rift attempt to show a sense of depth, but they're both set underwater—something most people won't recognize from real life, since getting a scuba diving license is a total faff.

Related: Watch our short documentary about the emergence of VR gaming

And then there are games like Abzû, that show an ocean teeming with life. It's beautiful, but it's not real. If you've been to basically any British beach, or even watched a single episode of a documentary about the sea, you'll know that the actual ocean is often quite dull underneath that blanket of waves. It's very empty, punctuated by the occasional whale or lost clownfish.

Abzû is stunning, but it's fictional. It's the same as Assassin's Creed's view of history—basically, everyone important who ever died was assassinated by you and your sleeve-knives—and that's something important for a video game: being entertained is part of the product.

Why is it that developers are willing to tackle gigantic games that attempt to depict a whole galaxy or universe, but nobody's really trying to make the ocean?

But it would be lovely to see games that treated the ocean with the same terrified reverence as you can see in literature. The ocean is so often a metaphor for life: unpredictable, incomprehensively long, and full of things we can never know. But games, being a medium in its infancy (or adolescence, perhaps) is a few decades behind.

Let me put it another way: Games are still very excited about outer space.

Films have mostly done space. (They've now, apparently, moved on to personal relationships, only in space. See Arrival, Passengers, Interstellar.) But for games it's still quite exciting, because it's a way to reinvent slightly tired genres. Zombie games? Totally passé. Zombies in space? Sign me right up.

Triple-A games love space. But it's the indie game community that is doing, in my opinion, the most interesting things with the setting. Games like Lifeless Planet, Orchids to Dusk and The Swapper all take place in space, but each does something unexpected, intimate and weird. They explore the fear of being far from home, of being powerless and alien, of having to use unfamiliar tools and geography to guide you. They tell of never being able to go home.

'Submerged' screenshot courtesy of Uppercut Games

The ocean, unlike space, has a weird dichotomy: There is both above and below. On the one hand you have underwater exploration games, like Endless Ocean, Abzû, and Subnautica; on the other, titles on top of the waves, like Wind Waker, Submerged and Even the Ocean. Of course, there are some that do both, but usually there's a distinct sense that you're supposed to be above or below for most of any given game.

So why is it that developers are willing to tackle gigantic, hard-to-make games that attempt to depict a whole galaxy or universe, like No Man's Sky, Elite Dangerous, Spore and EVE Online, but nobody's really trying to make the entire ocean? It's a hell of a lot smaller, after all. Perhaps it feels too mundane, too close to home, and not all that fantastical. But I'd argue that it's actually the other way around. It's not quite true that we know more about space than we do the depths of our own oceans, as 95 percent of the Earth's seas are unexplored. There's got to be inspiration amid all of that virgin territory.

I can't wait for more indie developers to do fascinating things with the ocean—games exploring loneliness, discovery, fear and the great mystery of the unknown itself. And these experiences will all be set in the depths of this blue marble we've called home since forever. To quote a wise crab: Darling, it's better down where it's wetter.

Follow Kate on Twitter.