By Christopher Livingston on March 3rd, 2014 at 9:00 pm.
Each Monday, Chris Livingston visits an early access game and reports back with stories about whatever he finds inside. This week, island survival in Under the Ocean.
Where tropical trees once stood, only stumps remain. Beaches are covered with the corpses of crabs, caves littered with the shattered remnants of boulders. An accidental fire burns, warming no one, near a crate stuffed with forgotten items. This island was once beautiful, serene, a paradise. Then I arrived, bringing the apocalypse with me. The apocalypse called crafting. And it all began because I wanted to eat a chicken.
The great thing about a game that doesn’t assign specific goals is that you get to invent your own. I’ve just begun playing the sequel to Under the Garden, called Under the Ocean, an indie crafting/exploration/survival game set on an island. It’s currently in its eighth alpha and available through early access on Steam. The moment I set foot onto the island, carrying only an empty backpack, an empty toolbelt, and (conveniently) a map of the island, I spot a chicken. I pick up a long stick and hurl it like a javelin. I miss. The chicken dashes away faster than I can follow, and thus, my goal is born. I will kill and eat that chicken.
And I don’t mean I’ll bash the chicken with a rock and shove it raw into my mouth. I will do it civilized-like! I will hunt that chicken like a gentleman: with an enormous firearm of my own making. I will cook that chicken like a gentlemen: over a roaring fire and with an appropriate side-dish. I will consume that chicken like a gentleman: in a hand-crafted dwelling, safe from the elements. Just because I’ve been marooned on a remote island is no excuse for acting like I was born here.
Of course, my civilized dinner may have to wait a while as I attend to slightly more pressing needs, such as the fact that I am starving, dying of thirst, and nearly passing out from the pain of an open, festering foot wound I received from another of the island’s inhabitants: crabs. Unlike chickens, crabs don’t flee, they advance. They are also pointy and pinchy, and just as hard to kill with a thrown stick as the chicken was. I find a yarrow plant, and some hovering text informs me I can use it as a bandage. My leaking foot-wound crammed with leaves, it’s time to explore the rest of the island.
My map is not super-duper helpful, consisting only of lines and no landmarks or icons. It’s also easy to get turned around: this is a side-scrolling game, but there are also branching paths that take you depth-wise into the island. While running down these interior paths, the game also scrolls sideways, meaning that even while running north or south you’re still running left or right. This is never not confusing, which is probably why the developers are planning a major change in the next patch, turning the game into a more 3-D experience, as shown in a developer tweet here.
In a cave, I find a waterfall to drink from. Coconuts are plentiful, so I collect them and eat them when hungry. In the sea I spot some fish, there are worms on the land to presumably use as bait, and a small, pretty bird dips and dives overhead, chirping gaily. As I run around, I collect whatever I can stuff in my pack. Sticks. Grass. Rocks. Flint. I manage to gather enough items in my belt to fashion my first tool. An axe.
I knock down trees and knock the downed trees into smaller bits of downed tree. I have no particular plan to craft with them just yet, I’m just doing it because I suddenly can. I run back to the beach I washed up on, bludgeoning to death every single pinchy crab I find. I leap into the ocean to see if I can kill fish with it. (I can’t.) Worms, though? They’re dead. The pretty little bird I saw earlier tweets and chirps and bobs in front of me. I smash it out of the air and pummel it into the ground. With a tool suddenly in my hand, I’ve gone a little mad. I even chase that chicken with it, but he’s still way too fast for me.
Eventually, I calm down. I start gathering the fruits of my frenzied axe-tack and start making them into other things. I make a pickaxe, to mine the boulders for ore, coal, clay, and sulphur. I fashion a workbench, because of course there’s one of those in this game. I make a forge for smelting and a construction bench for gravity-free home-building. It’s not long before the island begins to lose its charm, becoming a wasteland of fallen timber and scattered stones.
Soon, however, I’ve got something to show for all this destruction: a house! Well. Sort of. House-building is three-dimensional in some respects, specifically respects I can’t quite figure out. Also, all the house-building videos show dozens, even hundreds of logs being used, and I don’t think I have quite that many trees available. So, while my house is essentially just a wall I stand next to, rather than a dwelling I can live inside, the thatching up top does seem to keep the rain off my head. As for the window I’ve installed that doesn’t seem to work, I’m just going to pretend it’s actually a framed picture of the wall behind it. Good enough!
Most importantly, I’ve built a fireplace in my home (well, next to my home) which means I can cook, which means it’s time to get back to my mission: killing that chicken. On my workbench, I fashion some poles, and in my forge I smelt some ingots. I make gunpowder from sulphur and shot from iron ore. I’ve created a pistol and ammo, and I am ready to go hunting. Also, I’m extremely hot. Boiling hot. I’m burning up. Literally, I am on fire. I am passing out. I am unconscious.
Huh! Looks like the pile of detritus I keep outside my home included some dry grass, which caught fire from the forge, which set fire to me. Which is a neat thing for the game to allow to happen, really. I awaken back out in the lagoon, paddle in, and scurry back home. I collect my new pistol, cram it with all the gunpowder and shot I’ve fabricated, then scurry around until I find that chicken again.
I find it! I aim and fire! I miss!
I try to take another shot but the gun just clicks. It takes me a while, but I eventually realize that loading the gun with five consecutive measures of powder and shot really only counts as one load, the last load. Which means I wasted all that extra ammo, which means I need more coal, more iron, more sulfur, which means more scurrying around to find any remaining unmined boulders, and more chipping away at them in the dark caves, then sorting through tiny bits of stone to separate the useful bits from the pointless bits. Coal is particularly hard to come by, and even when it’s there, it’s hard to recognize.
Eventually, I’ve got my pack loaded with ingredients again. Not content with my pistol, I forge an even bigger gun: a blunderbuss. I carefully fill it with one sprinkling of black powder and one handful of shot, being sure to bring along the rest in case I miss again. Then it’s back out to track down the elusive chicken. I find him, aim, and OH WAIT THAT’S JUST A TUFT OF GRASS DON’T SHOOT.
I somehow manage to not shoot. Eventually, I find the real chicken and shoot him right in the ass.
I stick the chicken into my toolbelt and quickly butcher him into his various components: pelt, bones, guts, head, and of course, meat. I run back home, spotting and killing a second chicken on the way, thus keeping with my general theme of animal genocide. I stick the chicken in my fireplace, and watch as the meat first dries, and then becomes cooked. I’ve done it. A meal, cooked, in a home. A home-cooked meal, in other words. And all I had to do was destroy every plant, animal, and mineral on the island.
Wait! I forgot I was going to have a side-dish! I run out into the night, past my mounds of worthless stones, unused planks, discarded workbenches and broken sticks. The only living creature I can find is a worm. I bring it home, cook it, and eat it. Civilized as all hell.