Footage of a hulking black monster swimming among the rooftops and balconies of a waterlogged Berlin plays on repeat like a GIF in my psyche, as comforting as it is terrifying. I've been viscerally afraid of giant creatures in deep waters for as long as I can remember -- it probably has something to do with my after-school routine as a kid. My older brother, dressed in steel-toed Docs and long-sleeved black shirts even in the mid-year Arizona sun, would walk me home and we'd plop down in front of the TV. Sometimes it was Baywatch, sometimes it was Terminator 2, but the afternoon our parents told us they were getting a divorce, it was Jaws.
This is what Sea of Solitude does. On the surface, it's a gorgeous and dark adventure from independent German studio Jo-Mei Games and EA, but beneath the monster-ridden waters, Sea of Solitude offers a rich and true glimpse into aspects of humanity that are often ignored by video games. It's an adventure about loneliness, depression and the fractured reality that consumes anyone afflicted by these emotions.
It asks you to journey alongside Kay, a woman who has transformed into a blackened monster, and unravel the mysteries of her self-loathing by battling the physical manifestations of her most destructive emotions. It asks you to dig up the ugliest bits of your own humanity and dip them in the water, where they'll either be cleansed or devoured by an ever-present, slinking beast.
It's also a smooth, fantastical adventure and puzzle game. Not everyone who plays Sea of Solitude will take it as personally as I did, after seeing just the first 15 minutes, but it's designed to tap into these unflattering, uncomfortable feelings, for anyone who's open to it.
Creator and Jo-Mei CEO Cornelia Geppert conceived of the game during a period of darkness in her own life, when she was pushing away friends and family after a rough break-up.
"We want to show how people experience different kinds of loneliness, but also how outsiders, friends and family, see those who struggle," she told Engadget at E3 2019. "We want to achieve all of this in a playful way. If you want to just play the game and enjoy the fantastic setting and the monsters, you hopefully can do so. But if you look at all the little dialogues, and you want to look deeper, then you can feel the whole story, if you really look closely at everything that is happening."
"We want to achieve all of this in a playful way."
Tiny bits of dialogue and details in the background offer a thousand clues to Kay's struggle, as she navigates the waters above Berlin. Massive monsters scream Kay's failures in her face, calling her lazy and apathetic as she fights them off and dodges their attacks. Each beast represents a different negative emotion, and their insults provide hints to their true nature. Early on, Kay meets a flying girl bathed in light and freely follows her instructions; she serves as a waypoint for the player, who can press a button to fling out a flare in her direction at any time. This girl is the idealized vision of goodness, but there are hints early on that even she can't be trusted.
Faith is the soul of Sea of Solitude. Who can you trust, when you can't believe the reality your brain is presenting? When your mind has spiraled into paranoid, depressed delusion and nothing makes sense? Who, and what, can you trust, when you're at your most vulnerable?
Sea of Solitude asks these questions in a poignant, beautiful game filled with spatial puzzles and giant beast battles. Geppert promises to provide answers, too.
"We have some stories that are very explicit," she said. "We wanted not to be complete, that everything has to be the player figures it out -- some stories are explicit so that you really understand. But some, you need to look a bit closer in order to understand and make up your own ideas of it. I don't want to spoil it too much right now."
There isn't much time left for spoilers -- Sea of Solitude hits PC, Xbox One and PS4 on July 5th.
Catch up on all the latest news from E3 2019 here!