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A graphic showing eight characters in Saltsea Chronicles. The characters are portrayed in a risograph-esque look that makes them look like colorful storybook characters. Graphic: Ana Diaz/Polygon | Image sources: Die Gute Fabrik

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In Saltsea Chronicles, community is a salve for the post-post-apocalypse

The game lends a potent mythology to our current crises 

Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Throughout historical periods of exploration, naturalists assembled cabinets of curiosities. These explorers amassed an amalgamation of biological artifacts — like shells, preserved bugs, and stuffed birds — along with other items or sketches from their travels, and placed them in wooden cabinets.

The propensity to collect, perhaps at the cost to the original inhabitants of a certain land, has long dominated video games. Heroes like Link from The Legend of Zelda or trainers in Pokémon help themselves to the spoils of the land in pursuit of a singular goal. Saltsea Chronicles, a new narrative adventure from the makers of Mutazione, takes a radically different approach. Instead of plundering lands and people, the player directs a collective of people who carefully approach each island’s unique culture. This crew doesn’t hoard any resources, but instead fills out an almanac of stickers to memorialize the journey. It’s a small touch, but it’s a defining example of the type of intentionality brought to Saltsea Chronicles. It makes for an incredibly thoughtful and ambitious narrative experience, even if the game jumps a little hurriedly between characters and the unique social questions their experiences prompt.

Saltsea Chronicles opens with five friends nestled around a fire. I click through dialogue options where I’m given the choice to hear a story about the “past” or the “future.” I click the latter, and I’m regaled with an illustrated legend that speaks of a world where “hoarders” took too much and gave too little. These hoarders built glittering skyscrapers that made the seas jealous and rise as a result. Now, all that’s left is a smattering of islands in a body of water called Saltsea. The group buzzes with anticipation over an upcoming sea journey of their own, but they hit a stumbling block: Their captain, a silver-haired person named Maja, disappears in the night. It’s up to the group to search the sea and find their friend.

An image showing a conversation between three characters. The top says: Looks Sketchy. In italic print it says: Hellie looks up, a bright smile lights up her face. Hellie says: My dear Nikita! You came back! It reads: She wraps her arms around Neshko in a warm hug. Nesko smiles, a little sniff. Image: Die Gute Fabrik

Saltsea Chronicles emulates an approach and structure typical to television. Developer Die Gute Fabrik used a writers’ room to create the game, and some of its most dramatic moments echo the soap opera-esque storytelling of the studio’s debut game, Mutazione. Each of its twelve episodes follows the same general structure: Hang out on the boat, observe a crew meeting during which characters decide where to travel, and then nominate themselves to explore an island.

During each episode, I am able to pick two characters to explore a unique island, where they can learn about its history and inhabitants. After I explore as the two crewmates, the duo returns with information. At that point, I read another crew conversation and pick dialogue options, making decisions like where to travel next or whether or not to accept a new crew member. Each island is stunningly rendered to emulate risograph print techniques associated with storybooks.

Personal stories and the conflict that arises between characters become the vehicle for the writers to explore weighty political and social questions. The Grace, a serene island populated by counselors who help people grieve, explores concepts of restorative justice through a character named Tukk. This person, as it turns out, murdered three people. Upon seeing Tukk, a crew member named Molpe bursts in rage. She later presses a local leader named Afen about the decision to protect this person. Afen doesn’t deny the pain this person caused and says, “But harm comes from harm. If you don’t stop to heal it when you see it… It will only continue, passed on. One violence to another.”

An image showing The Grace. The scene is portrayed in a risograph-esque look that makes the temple look like it’s from a storybook. It has ruins of statues, mangled trees, and it’s overgrown with moss. It’s depicted in a soft pink and blue hues. Image: Die Gute Fabrik

The developers also explore questions of tourism and exploitation on the lush volcanic island of Youlouca. We meet Bobbi, a local tour guide who bristles at our arrival and complains of the visitors, referred to as “incomers,” who are creating noise on the island with an excavation project. Swarms of scientists have descended upon Youlouca to lead an excavation of ancient technology, and yet, no one cares to learn about the cultural heritage of the island. Over the course of multiple trips to the island, a crewmate named Neshko will get to know locals and newcomers alike, and learn to engage the local culture in a way that honors the heritage of the island.

As a reviewer who found the larger social themes of the game intriguing, it sometimes felt like island-hopping and character-swapping left certain ideas or social critiques feeling undercooked in a single playthrough. Each character has their own wants, needs, and desires that provide exploration of a different theme and story. If you inhabit different characters — which the game will force you to do — then you see the world filtered from each of their perspectives. At points, this led to deliciously provocative moments in the game, where the player literally has to occupy the perspective of someone who caused the community harm and must hear others air their grievances. However, it also led to situations where each character’s specific interest might not line up with the game’s numerous themes, so you get a situation where you’re presented with a moral question but no real reflection on it.

An image showing a boat scene portrayed in a risograph-esque look that makes the temple look like it’s from a storybook. It’s depicted in a soft pink and blue hues. Image: Die Gute Fabrik

Prior to starting Saltsea, the game assures you that no answer is wrong. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t have to make tough decisions as its characters. Luckily, I never felt like I was penalized for a “bad” decision. In an interesting design decision, however, I didn’t always know for whom I was selecting dialogue. The game highlights which character is speaking, but when I was presented with options, it wasn’t always clear which character I was inhabiting as I made my decision. There were times when I accidentally forced a character to act like a dick, because I mixed up which character I was controlling, or whose dialogue options I was selecting. It could be a frustration point for some players, but it also served as a reminder that sometimes we struggle to find the right words.

At certain points, I couldn’t help but feel like this game was trying to do a little too much. Dealing with themes of climate change, generational trauma, community, and loss is a lot to pack into one game. It also presented an ambitious number of character perspectives for players to navigate. Still, life today with all its woes also feels like a little too much, and I respect a team that unflinchingly sails into the headwinds of the weighty issues that have come with life in 2023.

Saltsea Chronicles was released on Oct. 12 on Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.