Currently debuting exclusively in the Bundle in a Box, which contains several superb adventure games, The Sea Will Claim Everything is Jonas Kyratzes’ first commercial game. With illustrations by Verena Kyratzes that could happily sit in the kind of book that would have made ten-year old Adam very happy indeed and overflowing with imagination and creativity, it’s wordy and, at times, wonderful, but then there are the other times. Here’s wot I think.
Jonas Kyratzes makes games in at least two distinct varieties. There are the bleak minimalist fictions of The Infinite Ocean and Phenomenon 32, and there are the storybook adventures set in the Lands of Dream, a series of geographically connected games. Perhaps phantasmageographically connected would be more accurate as there’s a distinct lack of sense to the locations. These lands are less of dream and more of deliberate nonsense, aiming for the wonder that can bring but, for a variety of reasons, not always quite grasping it.
If you haven’t played previous entries, which include The Book of Living Magic that disappointed John but pleased a great deal of people, here’s what you need to know. Each area of the game has an illustration with scores of things scattered around it that the player can click on. Interacting usually leads to nothing more than a textual description and this is a game with a great deal of text, although often delivered in snack-sized phrases. A room may have mushrooms growing on the floor and walls. Clicking on each individual one will lead to a tiny joke, dollop of wordplay or slice of surrealism.
There are puzzles, mostly involving more back and forth fetching than a golden retriever’s perfect day in the park, but it’s a game to be read as much as to be solved. The ‘fetching’ doesn’t necessarily involve objects, it’s more often topics of conversation, added to an eventually massive list as progress is made. Despite the graphical interface, which is designed as a window for the player to peer through into the world, most of the enjoyment is found in the many words, both descriptive and conversational. It stands to reason, then, that any individual appreciation of The Sea Will Claim Everything will depend almost entirely upon an appreciation of those words.
Here’s the problem. Sometimes it’s touching, sometimes it’s comic, sometimes it’s cheerful, sometimes it’s a little bit glum – whatever else it is, it’s always strange and that strangeness often fails to cohere. Some sentences are riddled with the game’s own brand of biotechnobabble while others rely on the joy in unexpected rhymes and inventive interpretations. There’s a huge amount of creativity in all of this but at times it can feel directionless.
With a plot about a living building, home to a biotech druid, in the process of having a foreclosure forced upon it, Jonas blends concerns with creation. At times there are tantalising links to the real world, not least of all in the discovery of works by genuine authors alongside books of pure imagination, and there are many allusions to writings and happenings from our world in all manner of unexpected places, not just in the title itself. The actual quantity of stuff to discover and consider is impressive but there are so many strands that instead of complexity of thought or feeling there’s an eventual sense of disarray.
At times I found myself dismayed by the number of neologisms, not necessarily amusing or meaningful, that were being dished out, causing my brain to shut down and skip over them. They became empty space, gaps between communication, reminding me of how much of Neal Stephenson’s work took on the same quality in Anathem.
It’s a shame that the worst excesses of this sort are in the game’s first chapter. The game as a whole is a sizable beast, with an enormous amount of detail to see and absorb, but the first section, which introduces the Underhome location, is probably the least compelling. Fronted by The Mysterious-Druid (The is his first name) who sets the quest in motion, it’s a place partly reminiscent of Wonderland and partly of Moya, Farscape’s living space vessel.
Once you reach the great outdoors, the world opens up impressively and dipping in, talking to a piece of toast for a while and then leaving for a few hours, becomes much more enjoyable. The game is certainly at its best when treated as a kind of gallery to be sauntered through and sampled rather than a quest or narrative to be followed.
Treated as such, it’s Jonas’ finest exhibition to date, with a beautiful soundtrack and a consistently attractive appearance despite the almost overwhelming business of some screens. That initial slog through the Underhome aside, there are fascinating characters to discover and an eventual feeling that the many parts are becoming almost equal to their sum.
Tackled at the right pace, which will be different for everyone, it has many rewards and perhaps the best way to sample them is to ignore the parts that aren’t instantly rewarding. Don’t enjoy a lengthy conversation with a particular dog or a turtle? Skip it, skim it, find someone more interesting to talk to or take a tour of the islands and study any of the thousands of things that appeal more. I can’t help but feel I might have enjoyed it more if I’d treated it as an occasional companion over several weeks rather than consuming it in a few sittings.
The game itself strongly suggests that it would like to be played that way, to be sampled rather than exhausted, and for all my reservations, I stuck with and found pleasure in The Sea Will Claim Everything. I stuck with Anathem too, mainly because I’m an admirer of Stephenson’s output. The same is true of Kyratzes and while this is his best work in the peculiar digital tourist destination that is The Lands of Dream, I don’t find it half as exciting as his more experimental output. Still, it's a first commercial venture so cheap it's almost free and currently available bundled together with some very good company indeed.
The Bundle in a Box is available for almost six more days on a 'pay what you want, more or less' basis, with the current minimum at a ludicrously low $1.39. It also contains: Gemini Rue; Time Gentlemen, Please; Ben There, Dan That!; and 1893: A World's Fair Mystery. Pay $5.51 and you'll receive Metal Dead and The Shivah as well.