REVIEW: ‘Sea of Solitude’ is a Deep and Emotional Gaming Experience (Xbox One)

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Sea of Solitude

Trigger Warning: references of abuse, trauma, and suicide.

Sea of Solitude is an adventure game developed by Jo-Mei Games and published by EA Originals. In Sea of Solitude you play as a woman named Kay. As the game begins she is adrift in a boat with a giant monster pursuing her.  We have no explanation of what has led her to this place and what follows is an emotional journey the likes of which I would not have believed possible had I not played the game.

Sea of Solitude takes Kay on one of the harshest journeys of self-discovery I’ve ever experienced in any medium. The game flawlessly melds all of the greatest strengths of video games a storytelling medium and pulls the player into Kay’s world, letting you feel all the things Kay feels. It took me roughly four hours to play through Seas of Solitude and it thoroughly exhausted me. There are moments in the game that truly shook me. Even now I don’t like thinking about them. But that’s only because of how powerful they were, and how close to home they struck. One such moment came while Kay was discovering how much her little brother Sunny was being bullied. As you play through this area we find out that Sunny was being treated horribly by some of the kids at his school. The situation continues to escalate till Sunny gets to the point where he considers suicide.

The gameplay in Sea of Solitude mostly takes the form of a 3D platformer, as the player guides Kay through the world, jumping from ledge to ledge, and swimming from place to place. While most of the moments are not demanding in the skill department, the ever-present threat of pursuing monsters keeps the tension ratcheted up to ten the whole game. I lazily failed a jump early on, saw the result for Kay, and never took another jump, or swim, lightly.

There are also a few sequences where you encounter enemies that must be either maneuvered around or driven off with a flare Kay uses throughout the game. This flare is generally a hint tool for where to go next, but can also be used for protection as well. These sequences of interaction are pretty simple, but their presence in the game is more to represent the emotional struggles that are going on than to challenge the player.

Sea of Solitude

While progressing through Sea of Solitudes’ world it provides you with some collectibles you can chase. Usually, I don’t go out of my way to find such things, but here I found them to be a blessing as there were moments when I could see something coming and had to stall the moment for a bit. Having an excuse to search a corner or a rooftop to find a bottle or a seagull to shoo was a wonderful distraction that let me ready myself for the next gut-wrenching moment.

The visuals in Sea of Solitude are a unique treat and I cannot praise it enough. The art is simultaneously capable of capturing warm sunshine, and clear, crisp blue waters one moment, and then thrashing storms and terrifying monsters the next. Every object, and structure in the world felt like it had been painstakingly crafted.

While the world of Sea of Solitude is masterfully crafted, the characters within it are perfection itself. The emotion on display throughout is so painfully real. Kay’s journey is one of coming to understand the hardships of both herself and those around her. She sees the traumas of lives unfold, and has to learn how to cope, help, or sometimes step away from, these painful situations. This knowledge doesn’t come easy, and facing these situations are, as one would expect, painful for Kay. Especially as many have been going on for years around her and she just never realized it.

I am thankful that the game designers did not choose to go with a realistic art style. To do so would’ve been too much.  Early on I decided no matter how long, or hard, the game got I wouldn’t leave Kay till it was finished. I was so taken with her character to “leave” her in the boat felt heart-wrenching.

This deep connection to Kay, and the rest of the cast of Sea of Solitude is further augmented by the writing and excellent voice work that brings it to life. For this game to sell itself so perfectly, the script had to feel real. And it nails it. The way characters talk feels so authentic to how people talk. And the voice acting delivers that authenticity with the skill to match. Little details like, how Kay’s voice trembles as her uncertainty mounts and sentences trail off unfinished, capturing her confusion. The frustration we hear from her father, as he yells the same things over and over again as if he is explaining himself. Or poor Sunny’s uncertainty when his ”friends” make fun of him and then tell him he can’t understand it’s all a joke. As you hear him slowly start to make himself believe the problem is his. “Everyone else gets the joke. Why can’t  I? Am I that uncool?”

As the story in Sea of Solitude ratchets up to it climax, the actors keep pace imbuing each line with the intensity and feeling the moment commands. This is especially true of Kay herself, voiced by Miriam Jud. By the end of Sea of Solitude Kay’s way of talking felt all too familiar to me. Like I had known her all my life. I contribute this to the magnificent performance of Miriam Jud who voices Kay, as well as the expansive number of moments in her life I had to walk through with her.

Sea of Solitude

Sea of Solitude asks the player to help Kay experience, or sometimes re-experience, moments that have profoundly effected her life. While I will not spoil what these moments are, as they are the crux of the story, I will say that it is a wide range of painful, and traumatic times. Abuses, and traumas of many kinds, and all the dark places they can lead are explored here. It can become a brutal ride at times. As I myself have experienced some of the emotions and feelings that are wrestled with in some of Sea of Solitude’s darkest moments I have to, once again, applaud every one at Jo-Mei Games for handling these deeply personal, and often scarring, moments with both grace and consideration. All the weight they deserve are given, and not a single thing removed. I have never felt so seen in a video game.

While Sea of Solitude was a truly emotional, and ultimately, uplifting experience for me it might not be for everyone. Some moments might not be suitable for some, as Sea of Solitude shows itself in such a raw form. Others may want to have someone present with them, in case it starts to become to much. While I feel compelled to encourage all to experience what Sea of Solitude has to offer, no one should feel compelled to push themselves through something that is hitting them too hard.

In closing, I can only say that my time with Sea of Solitude is one of the best gaming experiences of my life. It is easily in my personal top five games of all time, and I will be shocked if it isn’t my game of the year. If there was any last arguments against video games being capable of being defined as true art, this game puts the final nail in the coffin of that argument.

Sea of Solitude is out now for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.

Sea of Solitude
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    Rating - 10/10
10/10

TL; DR

I can only say that my time with Sea of Solitude is one of the best gaming experiences of my life.