‘Soon, Only the Ocean’ is One of the Best Games of 2020, But You Can’t Play It

I always find talking about my games of the year particularly challenging. Sometimes that’s down to the fear that I’ve missed something great, and other times simply due to the way that my opinions seem to change the more I try to pin them down. But as we approach the end of this year, there’s one game that has thrown up a completely new set of problems for me.  

Soon, Only the Ocean, developed by the Australian indie creator Max Myers, launched in April this year on itch.io. The game tackled the topic of climate change, charting the death of Glenn Island over a month in real-time. Players were tasked with documenting changes to the water level and collecting weather station data, as well as completing other additional objectives such as picking up litter or taking pictures. But as days went by, the land grew increasingly more derelict and dead. As a result, entering the game today reveals only a husk of what was there before, rather than the lush green space that greeted players on day one. 

It’s a fascinating premise and one that utilizes something that games have traditionally been pretty terrible at — that is, preservation — to make a point about climate change and the feeling of loss that accompanies the death of natural ecosystems. I contacted Myers to find out more about the project and his thoughts on it looking back.

Soon, Only the Ocean

Imagining an Island

“I think I talk about this in the game’s description, but I didn’t design this game to change people’s minds,” Myers tells me. “It’s more a call to action for the people who already believed or already trusted these things to understand that there’s no silver bullet, there’s no easy save. There are things that we already lost.” 

Myers wanted to explore the idea of climate grief that results from the time lag between our actions and when we see their impact on the world. While playing, there’s nothing you can actually do to save the island from its fate, as the damage has already been done. But regardless, the work is still important and necessary for the future: whether that’s collecting trash, documenting changes to the environment, or trudging up the hill to the nearby weather station.  

“I wanted to make a game about experiencing loss and I also wanted to make a game that was about forcing people to do something boring…” Myers notes. “I thought that was a really important experience to put people in. Because I think one of the big things that catches us up is a societal trend towards climate change being this big thing that we have to solve and we have to solve it almost as a singular person. It starts feeling like there’s nothing that I can do or that anything that needs to happen is so beyond my control that I may as well not do anything.” 

Soon, Only the Ocean

Against the Odds

During the development of Soon, Only the Ocean, Myers’ grandmother passed away. Seeing his mother care for his grandmother in her final weeks, he wanted to encourage players to experience that specific emotion of caring for something, even though you know it won’t necessarily change the future.

“It’s that specific version of caring,” says Myers. “Where you know the work that you are doing isn’t going to go into the future, but it’s going to make the person more comfortable for the now, for the parts of their life while they are still here. I also wanted people to understand that the work of climate change wasn’t going to be glorious work. It was going to be cleaning up trash. It was going to be documenting information on places that are going to die anyway… No singular action, nothing that we necessarily do, might save the day overall, but it’s a lot of small actions and it’s a lot of small bits of work, and a lot of scientific inquiry and data collection that will lead to a better world.” 

Another important reminder as to the effects of climate change came in the form of the 2019/2020 bushfires in Australia, which occurred as development on the game was well underway. According to a report commissioned by the World Wild Fund for Nature Australia, up to 3 billion animals were affected by the wildfires, which burned from July 2019 to March of this year. That’s not to mention the impact the fires had on people’s homes, ancestral sites, and properties, and the effect it had on air quality across the country.  

As Myers states, “Seeing the fires over suburban Melbourne where I live go red… and every year seeing the fires get worse and the sky get more red… it all coalesced as this is a game I needed to make. It didn’t matter when I release it, but it crystallized to me that this was an important project.” 

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Soon, Only the Ocean

Making an Impact

I came across Soon, Only the Ocean on Twitter in the weeks running up to its release. However, due to other commitments I arrived slightly late to the experience. As a result, I remember loading into the game and feeling a heavy sense of regret and guilt at my complacency, knowing I would never see the island at full bloom and that the future held only a gradual decline as trees and vegetation died and the water level rose higher and higher. According to Myers, I wasn’t alone. 

“That was a really palpable thing in how I heard people talking about it,” he notes. “There was a difference in the experience, but everyone kind of came away with this thing of there was a sadness to seeing it happen no matter where you came in, which I think is one of the big things for me. I didn’t want people to be like ‘I’m defeated, we can’t do anything,’ it was more along the lines of I wanted to give people an outlet for that grief, that sadness about what was and what could have continued to be had we done stuff twenty years ago.”

Myers knew early on that he didn’t want to make a profit from the game, so he set about trying to find an organisation on the ground putting in the work to donate to. Very quickly, he came across the work that the Indigenous Youth Organisation Seed were doing, particularly around the topics of land rights, fracking, and land protection, deciding that all of the donations made towards the game would go towards this group.  

“I can’t talk about climate change in a colonized country without acknowledging indigenous landowners and indigenous perspectives, and indigenous understandings of the country,” he says. “As a white dude who grew up in Australia, I think that’s specifically important to understand within the Australian context that a lot of our understanding of the environment and the way that we talk about country and land and specifically also the tie in to climate change butt up against indigenous knowledge.”

Soon, Only the Ocean is one of a number of games this year to tackle the topic of climate change that have emerged out of Australia. Another being the incredible post-disaster photography game Umurangi Generation, developed by Naphtali Faulkner, an indigenous developer of Ngai Te Rangi Iwi heritage living in Australia. Both games take vastly different approaches to the subject matter, with Umurangi Generation feeling more attuned to the present moment in representing the anger and indifference that accompany the topic of climate disaster. But both games tackle the topic with teeth, actualizing fears and concerns that present and future generations will have to come to terms with.