When talking about videogames as an art form, one of the first games that springs to mind has always been Shadow of the Colossus. What makes that art has been explored by many, and even has its own website dedicated to uncovering mysteries. If you’re curious, there’s a great Pop Fiction episode discussing the game and how grand its scope was compared to what we have now. Regardless of that scope, it is universally accepted that Shadow is a huge influence on the gaming world with its ability to make you feel sorrow and wonder simultaneously, combined with determination and disgust. It’s sparked many a conversation on the nature of the main character, Wander, and what alignment his motives truly fall under. Again, there have been an incredible amount of articles and speaking of the game itself could take up an entire review, so that’s not my point here.
I was listening to an in-depth analysis of the RPG maker series Lisa by a YouTuber I happened to stumble across, as the video was in my recommendations. (That’s another series I have on my list and I’m saving for later). But he said something that’s not… uncommon, but still profound nevertheless:
I think the truly fascinating power about really good games is they leave people with ideas about what they could do next. They spread the ideas and concepts further by being so good, even if sometimes they leave you wanting, or perhaps even by leaving you wanting [. . .] Some games are just excellent at spawning this desire to add to them, to create something using the ideas it leaves with you[.]
i.e., some games are so profound they inspire fan-games, which can turn into their own projects. Again, I can do an entire other article on this, so I’ll just cut to the chase.
Shadow of the Colossus was a very obvious, very heavy-handed influence on the game I’m about to review, Submerged, but also took ideas from some unexpected places, such as the Grand Theft Auto series.
So click the cut below, and let’s submerge ourselves.
…just. Just click for more behind the cut.
Submerged is a game released in August 2015 for Steam (Windows and iOS), PlayStation 4, and XBox One. If you’re curious about it, essentially, you can find it anywhere. It was developed by Uppercut Games, which contain some old Bioshock devs. It’s also fairly obvious about being inspired by Shadow as well as the game Journey, but what I found most interesting was how the map itself came to be; it is apparently inspired by a Grand Theft Auto IV map of Liberty City submerged in water. While I’m not a big GTA player (I prefer Saint’s Row), even I could see the similarities there from watching many an Achievement Hunter video of them messing around in GTA IV multiplayer. The concept is absolutely fascinating, and proves mister hbomberguy’s point; it’s not only the need to explore more, but the need to draw inspiration from other things, or make fan games.
The game centers on two characters in particular: our protagonist, Miku, and her brother, Taku, the latter of whom is at death’s door.
From here, your goal is simple: Collect enough medical supplies to nurse Taku back to health. As you do so, you explore a city completely flooded and overgrown. This tells us our setting is post-apocalyptic. Miku, however, has a motor on her boat, and there are plenty of upgrades for said motor to make cruising around a lot easier. Its shown in her backstory, however, that her parents made a living spearing fish, and the way she and Taku dress is reminiscent of portrayals of older societies. So, I do have to swallow my words of “Horizon Zero Dawn is one of the first awesomely successful uses of a post-apocalyptic stone age” because for all we know, we could be in one.
Now, obviously, you can play the game pretty straightforward and draw your own parallels between this and Shadow, such as how Miku’s extended time in the city is now affecting her, as Wander’s time in the Forbidden Lands started physically affecting him. This is no real spoiler for anyone who’s played at least an hour of either game. The beauty of Submerged, though, is that it actively encourages you to just take your time and jet around the place, explore to your heart’s content. There’s more than just Miku and Taku’s story to be uncovered; during your explorations, you can find pieces to upgrade your boat’s motor, and some history of how the city came to be, beautifully and silently illustrated by almost picturebook panels.
In fact, that’s another parallel between Submerged and Shadow… how the life in the world and the lack of much spoken communication creates not only a relaxing, beautiful atmosphere, but tension. Shadow has much more dialogue, as the plot is explained in a language we don’t understand through subtitles, but Wander himself never says a word except to call for his horse. Submerged takes this a step farther, with Miku being completely silent except for a few exclamations of surprise, or tiny grunts and breaths. While this can be incredibly calming, and generally is, there was also a sliver of tension mixed in with all the wonder. We see both wildlife in Shadow and in Submerged, so it’s not surprising, and in fact awe-inspiring to see whales surface, birds fly around, and fish hop across your boat. What I wasn’t expecting was to do a double-take, certain my mind was playing tricks on me, and finding out it wasn’t.
These are one of the many creatures you see in the game, and they are very, very sneaky guys.
The thing is, this is advertised as a no-combat game:
Submerged is a third-person combat-free game in which you explore a mysterious flooded city and discover the beauty of desolation in vast outdoor environments.
This is where I became incredibly uneasy. No-combat for us, the player, doesn’t mean we can’t be affected by the environment, or by creatures within it. Portal is technically a non-combat game (sans the very end, but even then it’s more of a survival puzzle than it is you whacking at something with a weapon), and you can very easily die in many horrific ways. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is another example, but you could argue that that’s horror, while this is not. Regardless, there are games out there where you can’t fight, but oh boy, can you get hurt.
While the sea life does nothing but move your boat around, there was zero guarantee these Humanoids weren’t going to hurt me. They, like everyone else in the game, are silent, and a mystery in themselves that is further explored as the game goes on. Once you see your first Humanoid, you start seeing them everywhere; they’re remarkably good at staying in nooks and crannies, or blending in with foliage, but you can literally run right into them. While they still didn’t do anything to hurt me, it added just a dash of horrible, awful tension into my calming boat-rocking, wave-splashing time. You genuinely don’t know if they pose a threat to you or not until the game’s conclusion.
While Submerged is a short game, and the grand, awe-inspiring scope is obviously influenced by Shadow, it takes a bit from the quote I referenced at the very beginning of this review. While you can explore the Forbidden Lands in Shadow all you’d like, there is no reward for it. You can find some salamanders and shrines, but they aren’t necessary, nor do they add much to the story, but rather, the gameplay. In Submerged, the achievements/trophies actively encourage you to go explore and pay close attention to the gorgeous world around you.
The game actively encourages you to go and explore, as there is no time limit on Taku’s condition, thankfully. As such, it actually did take me a few days of exploring the world in wonderment to get all the trophies, completely fill out my map, and beat the game.
I’ve seen this game get lower scores and mixed reviews, which is part of the reason why I put the no-number-score limit on myself. I find it to be almost ridiculous, and arbitrary; a few reviews I read talked about how they wished to explore more beyond the city, and that was their only complaint, but gave it a 6.5 out of 10. I was flabbergasted.
My only real complaint about the game is that after you’ve explored the entire world, gotten your trophies, collected all the supplies for Taku you could and viewed the ending… that’s it. Shadow did offer us some replay value in terms of challenges, especially in the PS3 remake (and hopefully the soon to be released PS4 one as well). There was quite a bit of replayability in it. In Submerged, when you complete the game, you feel like there’s not much more to do with it. I played this a couple years ago and actually had to boot up my game to give myself a quick refresher course on it, since I have been recommending this game left and right to people who I know would enjoy it. That is the downside, but to me, there are so many more upsides: A story told in silence; an emotional connection between brother and sister; what you would do for the ones you love; a world so devastatingly stunning and beautiful; and all the mysteries these concepts leave behind. Are there more cities like this? Some people think not. I think it’s possible, since the entire world is filled with huge cities already. Why would there be just one? Where else is there to go? The mystery leaves you wondering… and wanting to create more, just as stated above.
What it really boils down to is: Do you like exploration games? Do you like Shadow of the Colossus and Journey? Abzû? Games that provide more atmosphere and experience than they do the gratification of running around and killing things or solving puzzles to open doors? If you do, check it out. It does retail across the board for $19.99, so if you feel that price is a bit steep for a couple-day, no real replay experience, then wait for it to go on sale on one of its many platforms.
I dare you to not be amazed the first time a whale surfaces next to your boat. I dare you.