In Other Waters explores an alien ocean through a unique interface

Inotherwatersheader

I’m almost ready to leave the enticing waters of Subnautica, so I was pleased to find another alien ocean to submerge myself in this morning. I’ve just played the demo of In Other Waters, a narrative-driven exploration game about investigating a strange planet and doing xeno-biology.

Unlike with Subnautica, my impression of what that world really looks like is entirely in my head. All I actually see of planet Gliese 677Cc is a real-time map, with dots and contours that represent the wildlife and terrain. It’s a great reminder that your imagination can do far better graphics than any video game, and developer Gareth Damian Martin is looking for funding on Kickstarter.

Here’s the pitch:

“An alien ocean, rich with impossible life. A lone xenobiologist, adrift in a world of secrets. An AI, waking from a dreamless sleep, ready to guide humanity to a terrible truth.

“In Other Waters is a unique exploration game which balances narrative depth and meaningful relationships with a Metroid-like world of intersecting pathways and alien landscapes.

“Casting the player as an Operator AI, tasked with guiding Ellery Vas as she explores the planet-spanning ocean of Gliese 677Cc, In Other Waters is structured around an ever-growing, tactile interface. Through this unique mode of interaction players will chart underwater courses, scan environments for vital clues, and navigate this unearthly ocean.”

I like how its Metroid-likeness doesn’t come from finding coloured keys or whatnot, but from studying the world and its ecosystems. In the demo you have to find something to protect you from a fungal-toxin, and that involves figuring out why the nearby fauna seems to be unaffected. Moving from place to place feels a bit ponderous, but I can forgive that when each location contains intriguing imagination fodder.

I’m getting this from the trailer rather than the demo, but it looks like it’ll pull the same trick as drone-hacking game Duskers, which manages to make you utterly terrified of alien threats that only appear as squares. Minimal description can lean on your imagination to create beauty, but the same applies to horror. Come to think of it, there’s actually a little bit of that in Subnautica too – a leviathan dot appearing on your radar can be more unsettling than seeing one in the flesh.

You play as the suit’s AI, and can only communicate with your wearer by saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It struck me as a silly limitation, but then I started thinking about AI safety – one suggestion for how to contain a potentially dangerous AI is to limit its outputs, so it can’t persuade the humans interacting with it to do anything dodgy. As well as exploring that alien ocean, the game will also ask “questions about the nature of “natural” and “artificial” life”. Depending on what questions developer Martin has in mind, it’s a part of the game that could be just as interesting as the xenobiology.

My interest was already piqued, but it reached peak piq-osity when I saw Martin mention the book he’s doing as a side project. It’s inspired by Wayne Douglas Barlowe’s (fictional, obvs) xenobioligcal study called Expedition, and Martin’s book will apply the same idea to the world you explore in Other Waters. A few months ago I set my desktop background to cycle through the illustrations from Expedition, after stumbling across the book via this Twitter account. They’re some of the strangest depictions of life on an alien world that I’ve ever seen, so Martin is definitely looking in the right place for inspiration.

If any of that sounds interesting, you can check out the Kickstarter here.

12 Comments

  1. unacom says:

    This looks very enticing. I especially like the idea of not being the protagonist.
    That aside, thoughts arise to be pondered: “How could a malign/benign AI affect the protagonist with only binary output-options?” [read: how could I totally wreck this?]
    Will watch this closely.

  2. khamul says:

    Hmmm. When it comes to the Safe AI thing, I can’t help thinking that ‘how can we make sure our AI slaves can never break free of their chains’ is the wrong way to solve the problem.

    Anyway, for truly weird but compelling alien worlds, try this: link to amazon.co.uk

    For proper weirdness it’s hard to beat what hard science comes up with.

    • anon459 says:

      I’m going to check that out; speculative evolution is great. Alien Planet: Darwin IV is another good one: link to youtube.com

      Have you been to the speculative evolution wiki?

      • anon459 says:

        The book for Darwin IV is even better btw

      • khamul says:

        That looks great!
        It’s clearly based on Expedition, which is referenced in the article above, so we’ve gone full circle. But Expedition is now on my reading list.

        I’d like to get the DVD – I think my boys would really enjoy it, and I doubt they’re old enough for the book yet – but it looks like it’s no longer available.

        • anon459 says:

          Oh wow, ha, yeah it is. I guess I hadn’t quite read the whole article here. That makes this game even more interesting lol.

          I found the DVD on Amazon right here: link to amazon.com

          “The Future is Wild” is a similar thing that looks interesting, but I haven’t seen that one.

        • clonex10100 says:

          Yep, same. This made me really interested in expedition. But the book is only available used, and from most sites it costs $80!

  3. cpt_freakout says:

    This looks really great, and looks like it has the potential to have divergent narratives since you’re not the ‘real’ protagonist. Thanks for the heads-up!

  4. Ben King says:

    I was also pretty excited about this and signed up through the website for early access to the demo. The writing was interesting and the descriptions curious and vivid but the gameplay really consisted of just going from point A to point B and clicking on simple icons. I could not truthfully say that I enjoyed it. Still, I enjoy the UI and the slim attractive layout which reminds me pleasantly of my time with Mu Cartographer. I was lucky enough to pick up a slim Wayne Barlow picture book from a used books score years ago, it had some vivid depictions of hell I’d recommend googling if you enjoy his alien work.

    • oyog says:

      Sounds like you’re describing Barlowe’s Inferno. It is very good, though the world building isn’t nearly as deep and absorbing as Barlowe’s Expedition.

      He’s also illustrated a Guide To Extraterrestrials and a Guide to Fantasy that I was particularly fond of as a kid. I like to believe I’ll get around to reading all the books he references in those but I’ve already got a mountain of books to read.

  5. Captain Narol says:

    That games looks interesting, I’m curious of what it will look like in finished state.

    The premices reminds me of Extrasolar, a great free ARG browser game in which you do some planetory exploration and xenobiological observation throught a remove drone that takes pictures :

    link to rockpapershotgun.com

    That was really an amazing experience that got me hooked for months, and you can play it for free so don’t hesitate if (slow) exploration and serious Xenobiology are your stuff !!

  6. MajorLag says:

    > It struck me as a silly limitation, but then I started thinking about AI safety – one suggestion for how to contain a potentially dangerous AI is to limit its outputs, so it can’t persuade the humans interacting with it to do anything dodgy

    Using only the SNES controller for input, it is possible to reprogram Super Mario World into a completely different game: link to youtube.com

    For a sufficiently advanced AI, having a limited output might only make persuading humans to do whatever it wants a tediously slow affair.