Emotions. Those things that everybody has, but nobody wants to talk about. It’s an absurd irony that the most difficult feelings we must deal with – misery, loneliness, and anguish – are the same feelings that push us into solipsistic secrecy and isolation, making those feelings that much worse. Sea of Solitude’s metaphors are not subtle, as protagonist Kay wakes between the waves of a black, turbulent expanse of water that has drowned her home, and finds that she has become a monster, that her despair has become a monster, and that the people she loves have become monsters.
You know, like that time you were drunk and burned a frozen pizza. And it’s not like you even wanted that frozen pizza because gross, frozen pizza, but its smouldering demise was the unexpected catalyst for a mental inventory of personal failures and humiliations and tragedies, a scorched monument to your wretched inadequacy with even the olives blighted beyond redemption. And so you wept, picking at the charred peppers like scabs, the salt and bourbon on your breath a cloying perfume as you asked the empty kitchen “where the fuck is my other sock”, your dignity dissolving on the linoleum next to a single, sad lump of what could’ve been chicken or mushroom, but it was kind of hard to tell now and it didn’t even matter because nothing matters besides the sucking void where joy used to be, and the murky spectres of shame stepping out from the corners of your broken consciousness to remind you of every stupid mistake you’ve ever made, and also the dog that pissed on your school bag in front of the other kids in grade eight. You? Maybe that was me.
Sea of Solitude is about coping with trauma by acknowledging it, and as such, the game is a series of memories of significant events in Kay’s life that have contributed to where she is now, most of which she wasn’t entirely able to recognise at the time. With this new perspective, however, she realises that – and this is something that should be obvious, but much too frequently isn’t – everybody has problems, not just Kay or you or me or that one ex who texts at three in the morning.
And sometimes, our problems can’t be solved. Instead, we must let go and move on.
Which can be even more difficult.
So, that’s how you end up drunk, with a burned frozen pizza and existential dread and the musty stench of dog piss, stuck in that flimsy space between purpose and ennui. Or, like, whatever. YOU DON’T KNOW ME.
This isn’t the first game to feature a narrative about mental illness – Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one recent example – but its exposition of circumstances is perhaps unique and equally important. Kay is a victim of collateral damage, her world crumbling as a consequence of others’ distress and not (necessarily) a serotonin level imbalance. I think this makes for a much more empathetic plot, because clinical depression isn’t a diagnosis that most people understand but a sequence of shit situations making everything shittier is a universal experience for those of us who got through our teens and 20s. Okay, maybe that was also just me but writing this review has been totally therapeutic so shut up.
Its intriguing and somewhat unconventional premise notwithstanding, however, Sea of Solitude occasionally trips over its own intentions. Gameplay is simple, limited mostly to navigating feelings platforms and obstacles as Kay monologues about this and that, but some parts – moving a thing from one location to another while avoiding a mob of spooky, mocking girls is the most egregious offender in this category – seem unreasonably frustrating. And, I mean, life can be unreasonably frustrating, but unless your boyfriend has actually turned into a gigantic sorrow-wolf commanding a cohort of Kelly-from-geography-class clones, it’s not like this game is going for maximum realism. Life is hard enough already.
In 2019's launch schedule of murder simulators and more murder simulators, Sea of Solitude is a sombre, provocative, and meaningful respite, a moment of quiet contemplation and emotional support for those of us who need to be reminded that a burned frozen pizza isn't the end of everything.