How the ecological adventure in the planetary mystery of In Other Waters gives players hope
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.
In other waters, who was nominated for Excellence in Storytelling and Excellence in Visual Design for IGF 2021, features the player as an AI assisting a xenobiologist, helping him find, sample and catalog alien beings in the oceans of another planet.
Gareth Damian Martin, the game’s creator, spoke with Gamasutra about what interested them in having the player act as a useful AI rather than the main character, the research that made for a fascinating world, and how the connection between the character and the AI capture the game’s theme of symbiosis.
I’m Gareth Damian Martin, and I’m (mostly) the solo developer behind In other waters. This means that I wrote, designed and developed the game, with the sound and music left to Amos Roddy and additional programming and porting by Chris Payne and Zion Siton.
In other waters is actually my first full-fledged game! While I had already had some experiences with string and jam games, my background is mainly in two areas: literature, in which I have a doctorate, and graphic and video design. I’ve also been writing about games for over a decade now, and you can find my writing in many online publications, as well as my own zine, which focuses on play spaces and architecture, Heterotopias.
In other waters came to me during a long summer in Greece where I swam everyday in the Aegean Sea; the moods of the sea and its creatures captured my imagination. I opted for the idea of playing the role of an AI in a biologist’s wetsuit because I wanted to explore how text games could receive a richer and more varied interaction, and the idea came about. sprouted from there. As someone with a long-standing passion for science fiction interface design and marine biology, In other waters was really the meeting point of my own obsessions and interests.
In other waters was built in Unity, and thanks to a visual scripting tool called PlayMaker, I was able to create the game without writing a single line of code myself (although some of the code was written by my programmers from useful tools Chris and Zion!). Accessible tools are a key part of my story with In other waters, as someone who doesn’t come from the traditional game development background, being able to invent workflows that worked for me was the difference between being able to make a game and, well, no!
A lot of what I love about games is learning about a place’s past. Metroid Prime was one of my first loves, and In other waters is inspired by the world of this game, which always seemed to have more to offer the more you watch (and scan) it. But I also wanted to make a game about humanity’s relationship to the world around us, to nature and to life itself, and therefore a key part of the game had to be a process of uncovering hidden or hidden stories. .
Narratively, Ellery’s journey through the dark history of the planet is designed to evoke the process of discovery we go through as we read the natural history of our own planet, where wonder often turns into horror as we discover our own impact. on the world around us. Having a young daughter and seeing her have this firsthand experience, where the excitement of reading about whales, for example, cannot be separated from discovering the violent history of commercial whaling, motivated my design of this narrative structure. My goal was to do In other waters a game that takes the player through the desperation of discovering the history of climate change and human ecological destruction towards a position of hope, where new ways to exist in symbiosis with our environment, and to understand his life scientifically , might be possible.
There is a lot of research behind the world of In other waters. In to create a game where the player could study their environment, I needed to create a world to study, a world where ecology had a certain meaning, but also where wonder and mystery were always present. Usually I started with the different biomes in the game and used them as frameworks to help me create the creatures. What kinds of adaptations are necessary for a toxic environment? For deep water? How can creatures survive in Brine Pools? How can they communicate or interact with each other?
The game features a comprehensive scientific taxonomy, with which I consulted experienced biologists during development, to provide an accessible system that would accurately reflect the classification systems used in biological science. It was vitally important to me that the game represented biological science with a certain level of precision and that the alien creatures on the planet made sense as living entities. moment, such as recent studies of fungal communication networks in old-growth forests, or recent advances in understanding the intelligence of cephalopods. In this way, the game acts as an introduction to biological concepts that players, if they wish, can learn more through their own research and apply them to the creatures of our incredible oceans.
As a solo developer and having a history in graphics, I knew I wanted to harness the power of limited color and symbol languages to evoke the biomes of this alien world. Carefully selected two-color palettes are used throughout the game to capture the atmosphere of each region of the ocean, while a cohesive and focused set of icons and shapes make the otherwise abstract world clearly readable for the player. .
The interface design, inspired by Japanese industrial design and the lively interfaces of the 80s and 90s, removes the currently fashionable trend for complex arrangements of holographic lines and instead focuses on tactile interaction, asymmetric layouts and the clean block colors. This carefully researched minimalism is the result of careful iteration and research throughout development, with the goal of creating an intuitive yet playful and mysterious user interface and evoking exotic imagery using simple tools.
In other waters is, at bottom, a narrative game. However, unlike most storytelling games, you never see the world you’re exploring, the character you’re talking to, or even your own character. This is because, by making the player an AI locked in the systems of a wetsuit, In other waters flips the script over to the typical video game setup and instead explores the potential of text, abstract visuals, signals, and systems to evoke an entire ocean and the stories it contains.
For me, the power of the game lies in the way it plays out on the imagination of the player, and therefore the visual style of the game had to support that. There’s a delicate balance to conjuring up a world rather than simply describing it, and so I’ve gone through many iterations of color palettes, symbols, shapes, and animation to try and make the world come alive and alien. I knew I was going in the right direction when people at shows and conventions dreamily took off their headphones from a long gaming session as if they had just surfaced from the depths of the ocean. This is what I wanted to capture, this feeling of being immersed in a world that lives as much in his mind as on the screen.
For me, the emphasis was on creating an experience that was true to the idea of “studying” life. I’ve watched hours of live deep sea exploration from projects like Okeanos Explorer, and tried to create a gameplay experience that captures the set pace of observing and sampling those dives. Because of this, Ellery will be recording sightings, naming and ranking creatures live, and commenting on player actions to give that sense of “ongoing” science. The Analysis and Travel System also encourages players to reflect on every step forward and observe the world as they do, something we so rarely do in games when we rush headlong into a new goal. .
I also designed In other waters so that it is up to the player to decide which species he wishes to study. At any time, they can interrupt the main story to learn more about a creature of their choice. This allows the player a more expressive role than in a linear narrative structure, but I have taken care to ensure that any discoveries that the player may possibly make ultimately come back to the central theme of the game, that of symbiosis.
For me, this is a key part of the game’s narrative. While the main story explores a very particular type of symbiosis between the player and Ellery, the various studies demonstrate other forms of symbiosis and other ideas about the game. how different creatures relate to their surroundings. Game taxonomy is not only an encyclopedia of tradition or world-building, but rather is a narrative in itself of symbiosis, adaptation, and the multiple ways in which life forms bonds of cooperation and cohabitation. , just like Ellery and the player do.
This was the starting point of In other waters – tell a story where the player assists a character, lives alongside him and ultimately develops a relationship with him. Symbiosis was a central theme, and I wanted to explore it at every level of the game. An interesting part of that, which I decided on early in development, is that Ellery should be the author of almost everything. text that the player reads in the game. Each piece of text had to express Ellery’s character as an enthusiastic and committed scientist with a painful personal story, as everything from taxonomy entries describing the creatures to the diary she keeps in the central basis of the game, is written by it. This provided a unique challenge but also a unique set of possibilities.
The result is a game that creates a strong bond between the player and Ellery through a series of carefully chosen techniques. A simple yes / no response system is specifically designed to initially feel limiting, encouraging the player to push against them, and perhaps express their thoughts aloud while playing. This initial tension is used to create a desire for human connection which, as the game progresses, builds itself up piece by piece. Ellery’s Diaries, which appear at a carefully controlled pace throughout the game, give the player a powerful insight into Ellery’s past and his relationship with Minae Nomura.
This relationship is an important part of the game and builds a nuanced image of a queer relationship that goes beyond stereotypes. As a queer developer, this story was very important to me, but it also plays an important role in creating an intimate bond between the player and Ellery through the trust they have in them.