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.