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UI interface with teal and yellow colorway from In Other Waters Image: Jump Over The Age/Fellow Traveller

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One of 2020’s most unique games takes place inside the minimap

In Other Waters is out now on Windows PC and Nintendo Switch

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Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

I know so much about Gliese 677Cc, the planetary setting of In Other Waters. The alien ocean is a weird, wonderful ecosystem of strange stalks, spores, and creatures scattered among its depths.

I’ve noticed the odd behavior of the ocean’s flora and fauna. I’ve observed the “translucent crest” of a crab-like creature. I’ve ventured through tunnels, places that perhaps only few have visited before.

But I haven’t really seen any of it.

I’ve collected so much information, but everything I know about this world is shared secondhand. That’s because almost all of In Other Waters is spent looking at a map, peering through the lens of an artificial intelligence program’s user interface.

I can help, but I cannot be present

The game opens as I learn that a xenobiologist, Dr. Ellery Vas, has been stranded in the strange ocean of Gliese 677Cc after receiving a distress call from a colleague, Minae Nomura. Vas has a complex, AI-driven diving suit to keep her alive as she explores the ocean looking for Nomura.

The user interface I’m controlling, as the AI, is for this diving suit — and I must guide her through the ocean, diving deep into the alien atmosphere to seek out Nomura’s research. I’m not there to explore or to experience any of this alien world myself. I’m there as a tool to help Vas survive in the ocean depths.

The gameplay is contained within the interface of this AI, which consists of a map surrounded by buttons, and I’m to click buttons and fiddle with levers to move around the ocean while keeping Vas alive. She gives me directions, explaining where she wants to go and what she wants to see. I collect spores and samples, according to her wishes, which she analyzes.

This is where I learn most about Gliese 677Cc, through Vas’ notes. Almost the entirety of the game, save a few brief systems, is seen through this lens: a map and some buttons. The actions of the game are not entirely unlike that of a point-and-click adventure. It’s repetitive, and eventually, it takes on a rhythm.

It also hardly even feels active most of the time. I’m just there to keep things moving so that Vas can do her job. But the game comes to life in the narrative, which exists in the periphery of the experience. I’m to understand what’s happening, but I’m never able to see it for myself. I’m limited to the sensory functions designed for me, and I have no other way to see the world.

Vas will often tell me to check something out on the map, and I’ll click on it and run a scan. She’ll have me rotate a lever and guide my waypoint — and thus, her diving suit — to the next area of interest. Each time I do this repetitive motion, Vas tells me something new about the world. Sometimes, I collect a sample that I’ll have to use later.

I want to see the creatures I’ve discovered with Vas. I want to see what these stalks and spores look like when they’re swaying with the ocean current. Though the colors of the game — teals and yellows of various shades — are compelling, I want to see the ambers and greens of the ocean floor. There are long stretches of gameplay wherein I’m simply messing with controls and gliding along the map, and I found myself wanting something to break up the static feeling of the map. There are interface changes, but it always remains minimal.

Vas makes it clear that she needs me — the AI — to navigate through the space, but it’s clear to me that I truly need her. Without her, the map of the world would mean nothing without the context she provides; it’d just be dots and lines, nothing else. The ocean and its fantastic creatures would have no meaning. The game would just be clicking buttons and looking at representations of things.

In Other Waters’ framing is interesting in that way. It creates an entirely new way of viewing something — through a bunch of lines and dots — and creates a lush, wild world that is delivered through the reports of your human charge. The system itself was designed for this, and never complains.

But I’m not an AI system, and I want to share in every detail with the human who feels dependent on me to keep her functional and exploring this strange world. Without her observations, the map and its contents mean little to me. With her narrative, seen through her human eyes and explained to me through the text of her comments, I get a sense of purpose. I know what I am and why I’m doing this. I’m just as dependent on her for meaning and she is dependent on me for the more practical matter of getting around. It’s the sort of intimacy that makes you feel close to something, even if it isn’t alive.

I am learning a new perspective, after all — that of the AI. Thinking about the experience in these terms helps me become more open to the idea of long stretches of map and user interface, where my only meaningful interaction with the world is through Vas’ words.

In Other Waters is heavily focused on the narrative, uncovered through exploration, notes, and sketches, and that’s all I have to go on to connect with what we’re doing, and why it matters. I struggled the most with this limitation early on in the game, when I was still learning the systems and rules. I embraced this perspective as the story continued. In fact, the minimal styling helped create a more immersive world, one with an understandable scope. That’s the benefit of a game that’s, essentially, all map. There is so much to learn about the game’s world, but I always felt grounded. This version of the world was already giving me more information than Vas, even though I needed her to tell me how it felt to be there.

It’s fascinating how that can turn a bunch of lines and dots into a rich, living world.

[Disclosure: The writer wrote once for Heterotopias, a digital zine and website created by In Other Waters developer Gareth Damian Martin.]

In Other Waters is out now on Windows PC and Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a PC code provided by the publisher.

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