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Monday, February 6, 2023

'Sea of Solitude' Captures the Loneliness and Anxiety of the Pandemic

When we first meet Kay, the protagonist of Sea of Solitude, she cannot remember when she last saw the sun and no longer recognizes her own reflection. Dark fur covers her limbs and her eyes glow like embers. Consumed by loneliness, she has transformed into a monstrous caricature of herself. This nightmarish fable from Berlin-based developer Jo-Mei Games takes place inside a young woman’s deteriorating psyche, depicted as a drowned city populated by the manifestations of her inner demons. There’s a giant who screeches out the self-loathing monologue in Kay’s head and a serpentine beast that lurks beneath the waves, threatening to capsize her rickety boat. All of the people in Kay’s life—her brother, who is being bullied at school; her parents, embroiled in divorce; and her partner, devoured by clinical depression—have degenerated into monsters as well, too trapped in their own cyclical traumas to see a way out.

Kay’s struggle to stay afloat, literally and figuratively, may feel familiar to many people who have spent an uncomfortable amount of time locked in with their own thoughts over the past year. Fittingly, Jo-Mei released Sea of Solitude: The Director’s Cut, a collaboration with French developer Quantic Dream, exclusively for the Nintendo Switch on March 4. Though Sea of Solitude’s initial release in 2019 with publisher Electronic Arts Originals predates the pandemic, few works feel as tailor-made to the claustrophobia and alienation of the world we’re now living in.

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With the director’s cut, “we had the opportunity to refine or change everything we ever wanted to do with Sea of Solitude,” says Cornelia Geppert, creative director of Jo-Mei. In addition to upgrading the gameplay and adding features including a photo mode, Jo-Mei hired author Stephen Bell to rework the script and a team of professional voice actors to read it. Geppert acknowledges that the original’s German-accented dubbing was “distracting,” and part of why some critics called the game a “missed opportunity.” The revised script takes a less-is-more approach, pairing down the ham-fisted dialog and allowing the atmospheric visuals to do more of the heavy lifting. The result feels cleaner, sharper, and lets the emotional core of the game shine through.

Since its initial release, Sea of Solitude has had a far wider impact than Geppert ever anticipated. While other games, including A Night in the Woods and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, have explored issues surrounding mental health, few have managed to illustrate depression, anxiety, and loneliness in such a mesmerizingly beautiful fashion. The seascape, which oscillates between saturated colors and murky, ominous hues depending on Kay’s mood, feels like a children’s book set in motion. Something about the haunting artwork and the archetypal struggles it represents resonated with players. Within months, emails poured in from all over the world.

“Hundreds and hundreds of fans—kids, adults, parents—contacted us and expressed how much it helped them to not feel so alone,” Geppert says. Parents wrote about how discussing the game around the dinner table had allowed children and teens to open up about their own issues. “Some people even changed their lives for the better. One person left an abusive ex-husband and they wrote to us a year later to tell us that they are happily in a new relationship.”

While depression and anxiety are common narrative fodder for film and television, Geppert believes that video games have enormous potential to explore them in a different way. Unlike passive forms of storytelling, a game forces players to assume agency.

“In movies, it all gets washed over you,” Geppert says. In Sea of Solitude, the experience is different. “It was interesting to hear from fans that they were sometimes so afraid that they avoided going forward, but eventually they would realize that they needed to do it. [You’re] going through the story at your own pace, deciding to overcome your own fears.”

Professional psychologists weighed in on certain aspects of the game, but Geppert is quick to disclaim that she never intended Sea of Solitude to be a clinical tool. She hopes that it will give players solace during the pandemic, as well as open up dialogs around mental health within households. When Geppert first designed the game, however, she did so mainly as a form of personal catharsis. “What you do as an artist is let your feelings out by putting them into your art,” Geppert says. “Because I’m a game developer, it was natural to portray my feelings in my medium.”

In 2014, Geppert fell into a toxic relationship with a man that left her anxious and isolated in a way she had never experienced. At first, everything seemed perfect. Within a few months, they were talking of marriage. It wasn’t long though before his behavior began to shift, at first so subtly that Geppert wondered if she was imagining it. His constant stream of communication would go silent—at first for an hour or two, then for days on end. Toward the end, he was disappearing for two weeks at a time. Whenever he resurfaced, he would shower her with affection, she would forgive the unexplained absence, and the cycle would continue.

“It was hell,” Geppert says. By the time her partner confessed that he suffered from depression, Geppert was a fraying, nervous wreck. Months of swinging between the emotional highs and lows had led her to neglect her relationships with friends and family. Realizing she needed to take care of herself, she started therapy and began reaching out to others in her life.

“As I talked to other people about my issues, friends, family, even strangers, started to open up to me,” Geppert says. “All of this heavily influenced my writing on Sea of Solitude. I took all those stories people told me. The monsters [in the game] became monsters representing loneliness, representing self-doubt.”

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Geppert’s background as a graphic novel illustrator helped bring her monsters to life. The magnetic, destructive partner became a white wolf, whose handsome facade conceals the snarling, black dog within. Kay’s brother became an immense bird, desperately trying to fly away from the spectral children taunting him. All of the creatures in this world are multifaceted, with designs that can shift from frightening to sympathetic. They’re the kind of characters that might have felt unusual in the gaming world a decade ago, but now fit right into a generation of indie games tackling difficult topics with nuance—titles like Omori.

“I am part of a movement. I love being in the games industry at a time like this,” Geppert says. “I like to say that our industry is becoming adult, that we’re growing up. We’re not afraid anymore to talk about more serious things.”

When our own world feels half-submerged, when the monotony, crippling uncertainty, and isolation threaten to bring us down, there’s a need for conversations around serious things. Sea of Solitude’s cel-shaded dream space is a pleasure to explore, one that could easily be enjoyed as a pure adventure game, but that invites players to go beneath the surface. Kay’s story is ultimately one of resilience and radical empathy, of the ongoing fight to retain a sense of self in the darkest of times.

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