In Other Waters is, at its heart, a simple science fiction story. A scientist follows another scientist to the oceanic depths of Gliese 667Cc: an exoplanet well outside our star system. Down there, she discovers a terrible secret. Half the game is a mystery surrounding that secret, the other half is discovery, and in this the player takes on the role not of the scientist Ellery Vas herself, but instead the AI inside of her depth suit. Controlling her movements and occasionally responding to her dialogue through simple yes and no commands, the moment-to-moment of the game is dedicated to the drudgery of being a robot.
I say “drudgery” because I think there were some active decisions made in the design of In Other Waters that produce some wildly different feelings in me as a player and as a critic. On one hand, the game clearly wants me to discover the strangeness of Gliese and its aquatic life. We’re told repeatedly that the plants and animals we encounter are the first life humans have found in the universe (apart from themselves), and so I’m constantly bombarded by Vas’s wonder that the tubers and creatures and pods that dot the sea of Gliese exist at all. I see them move on the map, their extrusions and muscle-whips undulating in the water, and I think “Dang, well that is pretty cool.”
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But between these moments, I also work as a submersible suit. I have to scan for possible nodes that my suit can move to. I have to manually select those nodes. I have to check my heading to make sure that I can move to that point without running into anything. I have to verify the movement and then, slowly, scoot my way there. If there is a sample to collect, I open my interface, search for it, and pluck it into myself. Powering up from a station or using a tool requires a drawn-out series of clicks that primes and then actuates a system in front of me.
Both the wonder and the manual click work I describe here take place through the screen-dominating interface of In Other Waters. I get the impression that this is simply the way I see the world as an AI — my sensory inputs being what they are. I see the world as a topological map. I hear via warning bleeps. I operate via operations, not touching or feeling or considering, but instead going down the planned mechanisms of how I can affect the suit and the world around it.
In Other Waters looks great in screenshots precisely due to this interface. It has a particular Alienesque quality, all viewfinders and bars that communicate essential functions, but that doesn’t stop it from being a blockage between myself and the alien world. Years ago I wrote a piece about what games like Metal Gear Solid really do when they ask you to “play the radar.” My conclusion then was that they ask you to take on a specific relationship with prediction and information. You’re looking at what the radar says is important, not the field in front of you. You’re making choices about things you can see through the apparatus, not things you can see as a player.
On one hand, In Other Waters expands that up into an entire game. On the other, in making it a game that is, moment-to-moment, about looking at and manipulating an interface, it is extremely boring. It’s the same set of rote actions repeated again and again. Eventually I started to get mad at the game because of it. I got angry about the curved lines and the detailed animations of these little fiddly knobs. I was unhappy with the very way I saw the world, and with the very limited modes of vision and experience I had been strapped to as a player and a character. I became angry about my lot in this robot’s life.
Boredom and anger can be productive, though. And so it was through the lens of being extremely pissed off that I encountered the big themes in the latter third of In Other Waters. Without getting too heavily into spoiler territory, we learn exactly why Vas finds Gliese so fascinating.
She comes from a dead Earth with toxic oceans. She’s an inheritor of the planet we live on — the one that is currently and constantly assaulted by a thousand different anthropogenic cataclysms. Gliese, meanwhile, represents a new opportunity. The mystery of the other scientist is, of course, solved over the course of the game, and it brings along with it a history of corporate pollution and ecological catastrophe and Big Questions about how we should interact with the environment in front of us. In a move of cognitive estrangement, we’re asked to reflect on our lives and how we live in response to our world.
But while this was all happening, I was still sitting there, both bored and seething, thinking about the interface and how tired I was of having to operate it. So, for me, In Other Waters presents those important questions. But it also forces me to ask about how those things are given to someone. Thinking about the Anthropocene, or our current moment when humans are the primary mover of the global climate, is notoriously difficult. You might experience its effects in your weather, but it isn’t just your weather. You might be able to see it in bar graphs or warming charts, but the generational effects of eroding shorelines and annual floods and searing heatwaves are absent there.
The way that information is communicated matters. The medium is the message, as some Canadian guy once said. In Other Waters demonstrates that so very clearly. To reach wonder and lessons about how we should change our lives, I have to pass through something clunky and annoying. When I hit that moment of needing to make decisions, to really reflect, I am fundamentally unhappy and primed to be anything other than reflective and contemplative.
And I don’t know what that means about the success of the game. I’ve seen, from reviews and social media, that some people find it soothing and thoughtful. Underneath my frustration, I can see how someone else might experience these things. What I actually got was absolute rage at being dragged around by a scientist dropping profound thoughts at every turn — while I did the basic labor of keeping her alive and guiding her around some of the most dangerous hazards in the universe. And, of course, when the game focused on where an AI such as myself came from, I was even angrier.
What seems at first to be a game about exploration and environmental ethics took me down an entire new pathway, and (maybe unintentionally) made me consider the perils of making the posthumans we produce experience all of our emotions. In boredom, I came to something like a happy rage in In Other Waters.