Title: Under the Waves
Developer: Parallel Studio
Release Date: August 29, 2023
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Quantic Dream
I have a confession to make about one of my deepest fears. I am profoundly afraid of the mysteries lurking in the ocean. One recurring nightmare I’ve had over the years involves swimming in water only to look down and see the eye of a massive sea serpent gazing back at me. This fear is so ingrained in me that even swimming in video games can trigger panic attacks if I’m not constantly vigilant beneath me. So, playing “Under the Waves” was a way for me to confront this fear.
Under the Waves follows Stan Moray, who starts working as an underwater maintenance staff member for an oil company called Unitech. However, Stan is using this job as an escape from something haunting his thoughts. Plagued by nightmares, Stan tries to perform his duties and find some semblance of peace. Yet, something lurks beneath the waves that nobody was prepared for.
First and foremost, I need to address the overwhelming sense of solitude in this game. Stan spends most of his time ruminating to himself and conversing with Moon, a small submarine he uses for work. In between, he has conversations with Tim, Stan’s longtime friend and handler, and his wife, Emma. These conversations carry a subtle awkwardness as if everyone is avoiding something in the room that the player isn’t aware of.
This isolation persists until near the end of the game when Stan finally opens up to both Tim and Emma about what he has been witnessing during his time on the job. These moments seem to eerily capture the essence of a panic attack, unsettling me as they mirrored some of my own experiences in ways I didn’t expect.
Many of Stan’s reflections end with self-blame for various occurrences in his life and regrets about wanting to undo everything. I initially expected a horror story set in the depths of the sea. Instead, this is the story of a man so overwhelmed by grief that he can no longer function. A man who believes he belongs in a job that doesn’t care about him and forces him to sit alone with his thoughts as a form of punishment.
I can personally relate to this, which continues to affect me as I attempt to process what I played. Stan’s grief and how he copes with it parallel my own experiences following a traumatic death for which I still irrationally blame myself. While anyone I’ve spoken to reassures me that it wasn’t my fault, “Under the Waves” was one of the first games that made me feel like someone not only understood my grief but also put it on display.
This game was challenging to process, and even as I write this review, I struggled to fully grasp everything I experienced. Under the Waves didn’t just immerse me in Stan’s thoughts and musings; it made me feel as alone as Stan on this journey. I had only a few interactions, and the sights I witnessed alternated between the beauty of the sea and the destruction caused by humans.
As Stan completes his tasks, players can explore and collect items from shipwrecks, plane crashes, and other discarded objects in the sea. Plastic jugs, casually thrown away, are among the most prominent collectibles. These items can be repurposed into items that Stan needs, such as transforming plastic into oxygen containers. These resources are crucial to ensure players don’t run out of air while exploring.
However, by the end of the game, I had collected over a hundred plastic containers and amassed more than thirty oxygen containers, along with an expanded oxygen meter. Realistically, I was never going to run out of air during my playthrough. This game mechanic was used to illustrate a point: that everything we discard could be recycled, resulting in an excess of resources. It made me realize that for every small section of the sea I explored as Stan, there was so much more out there that needed to be cleaned up.
The developers included a subtle detail that drives this point home. It’s so unassuming that players won’t think about it until the end of the game. Any resource Stan uses is carelessly discarded back into the ocean, whether it’s flares, an empty oxygen container, or debris from a mine. He thoughtlessly abandons these items, and Tim scolds Stan for it. Stan himself won’t comment on it, except when the player forces him to pick up the litter he left behind.
Apart from these environmental aspects, gameplay revolves around swimming and interacting with items in a manner similar to other titles from Quantic Dream. It’s evident that the few truly interactive parts of this experience are the ocean and the impact Stan has on it, as well as what the ocean, in turn, does to Stan. The developers force us, as players, to immerse ourselves in the themes of isolation, guilt, and grief by placing us in the same suffocating loneliness that Stan endures. All we can do is try our best to make a positive impact on the small areas we can and hope it’s enough.
I initially approached Under the Waves with the intention of conquering a fear I’ve harbored since childhood. Instead, I found myself confronting parts of myself that I hid not only from others but also from myself. It was one of the most discomforting experiences I’ve ever had playing a game, but it’s an experience I know will stay with me for years to come.
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