Submerged, the creation of Upper Cut Games, a small studio that consists of three former 2k Australia members, releases for retail August 4th and launches with the premise that a game without a “failure state,” no combat, minimal narrative, and no consequences for player choices can be an entertaining game. It’s a lofty ideal, but does it succeed?
Submerged is set in a future where the planet’s sea levels have risen to the point where civilization has been consumed by water. Ruined cityscapes pierce the placid surface of a sea that has consumed all but the last vestiges of modern life. Two siblings, Miku, the older sister and Tiku, her younger brother, sail into the watery graveyard of a metropolis. Tiku’s unconscious and struggling to survive with a large, inflamed wound to his abdomen. Miku’s on a mission to scavenge the remains of the city for items to bring Tiku back from the brink of death. With Tiku prone and struck senseless from injury, Miku is the de facto protagonist and explorer of this almost-empty corpse of a city.
Miku navigates and traverses the ruins of the city through the aid of a small motorized boat, guiding it past husks of buildings and landmarks in search of items needed for Tiku’s survival. Interaction with the environment is limited to areas designated by patches of red flowers. The patches signify that Miku can disembark and collect bonus crates that contain pictographs which depict illustrated records of what led to the world’s current state or to allow Miku to explore one of the ten structures that contain the items needed for Tiku’s care.
All exploration outside of the boat is limited to these predefined paths. There is a sense of open exploration, but it is illusory. The buildings are generally inaccessible and the areas that are open have rigidly defined paths where the player is led through simple climbing and walking sequences that lead to the main quest items or the bonus narrative elements of the pictographs. There are also motor power-ups for the boat scattered throughout the water that increase the your craft’s boost ability, but they add little to the shallow avenues for those looking to explore Submerged’s setting.
As directly stated by the developers, there is no “failure state” in Submerged. Tiku patiently waits for each item without the pressure of a timer. Miku cannot die. There is no way to plunge to your death while scaling buildings. The boat does not capsize. The mutated humanoid observers that periodically reveal themselves when you are getting close to retrieving Tiku’s supplies will never attack or interact with you.
Submerged eschews traditional gaming narrative methods. Most of the story is implied and open to interpretation. What happened to the world and the city you are tasked with exploring? Climate change? Global warming? Did the polar caps melt after a nuclear engagement? Any or all of these explanations could be valid interpretations.
When you strip Submerged down to the bare essentials, it consists of perhaps one or two hours of gameplay. A completionist seeking all of the engine boosts and pictographs might spend a few more hours exploring the map, but the main quest itself is short and easily completed. Each time an item is found, a little more of Miku and Tiku’s backstory is revealed through four pictographs and short cutscenes that show Miku being watched by the mutant inhabitants of the dead, drowned city and the transformation Miku undergoes as her body is slowly consumed by the condition that afflicts her silent watchers.
Submerged’s design decisions are ambitious, but ultimately fail. There is the dual story of what happened to the world and what happened to Miku and Tiku, but neither is compelling or presented in a way to immerse the player. The implication that the world has been devoured by the sea is nominally supported through the use of the bonus pictographs, but the technique accomplishes little as a narrative device to add anything beyond what the player encounters in the first minutes of exploration. Miku and Tiku’s story seems to involve a family torn apart by domestic violence and substance abuse, with a young boy on the brink of death and his older sister irrevocably transformed by the burden and responsibility of caring for him.
But the tedium of the limited gameplay and the barebones story prevent the player from becoming engaged or finding a reason to care. The bored reaction becomes “so what?” instead of the urgency that accompanies “what’s next?”
Without a palpable conflict or source of tension, the story goes nowhere. Any sense of resolution or character growth or advancement of the story is superficial at best. Submerged’s narrative techniques and gameplay are too thin and insubstantial to offer compelling reason for the player to care, rendering the experiment a well-intentioned attempt that falls far short of its goal.
There is a recent trend in game design that seeks to overcome traditional gameplay elements and tropes, but it seems to me that many of these developers lose sight of the act of creating an enjoyable and engaging game in their pursuit to subvert or bypass these elements.
In a July 29th interview with the developers, PC Gamer’s Shaun Prescott states: “Submerged is a relaxing game and it’s probably going to annoy anyone looking for ‘game-y’ gratification.” I find this to be a curious and disingenuous observation. What else should a gamer look for in a game besides gratification?
Submerged is an exploration game with almost no exploration, a puzzle game lacking puzzles and a story-driven game that fails at making the player care. Submerged is a game that seems to have forgotten what compels people to play games.On Steam Website