Under The Waves is a narrative adventure game about the engulfing power of grief and our impact on nature, particularly the ocean. Made in partnership with the EU’s Surfrider Foundation, Under the Waves is developed by Parallel Studios and published by Quantic Dream. You can assume that playing a professional diver working for the largest off-shore drilling company in the world will show you an underwater world in need of protection because of how connected we are to the environment. The game goes further into exploring how one man connects himself, his loneliness, and his grief. As you become attuned to the ocean depths, you also begin to understand the personal story of a man trying to move on from losing someone he loved the most.
In the game, you play as Stan, a professional diver operating in the depths of the North Sea. Isolated underwater, he starts to experience strange events that will make him question his sanity. Following his daily routine that oscillates between pulled into underwater mysteries and the basic upkeep of his underwater facility, Stan slowly falls into himself and begins to question who he is in the wake of his loss. Set in the techno-futuristic 1970s world, Stan’s future is uncertain and as he clings to the past, it grows deeper.
While you run through everyday work during the day, collecting trash polluting the ocean, diving in caves, and taking pictures of sea creatures, at night, you’re gripped by your grief in a nightmare that feels otherworldly but familiar at the same time. Realizing that Stan is in a sort of self-imposed solitude, you’re pushed into a difficult choice as things grow increasingly strange.
The balance between the beauty in presenting a realistic ocean world and the nightmare of grief is stellar. The game is fit with fantastic animals that can help guide you, like an octopus leading you to a cave or a Jo (a friendly seal who lives near your base) guiding your way back to the path you need to be on. You begin to build an intimate relationship with the ocean, almost as if every part of it, as you get more familiar with it day after day. In that, it’s clear that the developers have a love of the natural world, of the ocean, and they have created a section of it to amaze players and pull you in deeper and deeper.
Under the Waves uses a blend of cinematic visuals and poignant storytelling to keep you invested as you cycle through the days and how Stan grows and shrinks in his time alone. While you can explore the world around you, the game’s narrative is set, and that restriction at base in terms of what you can do helps add a majesty to the ocean when you do leave the confines of your Airlock and adventure.
The two ways you traverse the ocean are by swimming and in your submarine, called Moon. You explore caves, wrecks, and underwater plants with Stan’s special wetsuit, following trails of mysterious manifestations of his memories as they begin to come to life along the way. In order to keep moving through the world you need to manage your oxygen when swimming and Moon’s durability and gas when you’re moving from one mission to the next. In order to build the resources you need to explore the ocean, you need to craft.
But in crafting, you also clean the ocean, collecting plastic metal, tapes, electronics, and more. As you clean the ocean you get more items to craft with and keep you exploring deeper. While there is this small survival element to the game, Under the Waves doesn’t lose itself in this resource management. Instead, it adds yet another element of immersion to the game which accents the retrofuturistic setting in interesting ways.
Through dialogue, you hear comments about the ocean’s pollution from Utrench, the company that Stan works for, and the importance of being a steward. In taking on responsibility in the ocean, you find yourself able to confront the past instead of running from it or, rather, acting like it’s not there.
That said, Stan and voiced dialogue is only one element of the storytelling in Under the Waves, the other is found in collectibles across the ocean, like images and tapes that teach us about the past. Additionally, you can also find collectibles, some of which allow you to interact with them in an interesting way, like a guitar minigame.
Under the Waves is narrative magic. The beauty of the ocean paired with gorgeous and immersive sound design that captures the sounds of the environment without interrupting a rousing and atmospheric score is a kind of dynamic that has to be played with headphones on or with the loudest sound bar. The game is a layered visual experience that grows as you explore, taking pictures of wildlife, diving into caves, and in all the vastness of the ocean, you never lose Stan as the anchor of the narrative.
Under the Waves excels in its ability to treat the ocean as a character along with its protagonist. By creating dynamic situations for you to interact with the underwater world and adding in animals that are also fantastic companions—like Jo, the seal that lives near the Airlock—Under the Waves is an immersive beauty of a game. So much so that it’s easy to lose track of time as you explore the depth of the ocean and, ultimately, Stan’s emotional state.
Where the game offers a gorgeous look at the world below the ocean’s surface, the care given to Stan’s development as a character is equally stellar. Everything about the game is emotional, and its Stan’s isolation and grief that makes it that way. Under the Waves‘s narrative is fantastically written, but its the mechanics of Stan’s everyday routine in the Airlock that capture the loneliness of life under the waves where we hear small comments of Stan’s life in minute moments as he looks at pictures he’s hung up or when he picks up a guitar. Under the Waves thrives in its small moments as much as in its vast ocean. Every morning you make coffee and check the weather, but more importantly, you can stop by the mirror after a nightmare. Sometimes this yeilds an introspective moment where Stan reflects on the dream, but at other times, it’s just you and the mirror.
A mechanic that does yield some of the graphics’ funnier moments is also capable of connecting you Stan directly as you move the sticks of your controller up and down to move Stan’s face. While some movements are funny animations to look at, others are deeply somber, and the more time you spend as Stan, the more lonely standing in front of the mirror can be.
Under the Waves is a fantastic game that uses the vastness of the ocean to craft wonder and solitude, moving you from avid adventurer to sad man in a way that feels dynamic and intimate no matter the task you’re completing. Parallel Studios succeeds in making you care about the ocean and more importantly, just making you deeply care. Under the Waves is cinematic in scale with engrossing gameplay too.
Under the Waves
Under the Waves is a fantastic game that uses the vastness of the ocean to craft wonder and solitude, moving you from avid adventurer to sad man in a way that feels dynamic and intimate no matter the task you’re completing.