No matter how hard I try, I don’t think I can remember the last time I have not felt lonely.
Over the past two years, I have faced a series of severe personal issues. They have left me emotionally and psychologically scarred. There are times when I find myself unable to get up, unable to go out, unable to feel anything but hatred and anger towards myself. I start overthinking about those personal issues. I let them control me, I let them define me. My friends try to cheer me up, my loved ones try to cheer me up, but they can’t. Even when I am surrounded, the loneliness is still there. Sometimes, I feel so terrible that I start to question who I am as a person. I start to feel like I am the problem. Maybe I am just not trying hard enough to feel good. Maybe I’m failing as a human being. Why is it that I am unable to deal with my emotions, with my issues? Why am so weak, so worthless? Why do I struggle so hard to feel happy? Why am I so miserable?
This is how I have felt for nearly two years, now. In a curious turn of events, it was also two years ago that I first heard of a video game called Sea of Solitude. I came across an interview of the game’s writer and director, a German developer named Cornelia Geppert, working at Jo-Mei, an independent studio. She described her then-upcoming game as a story about loneliness, that aimed at truely depicting what it feels like to be lonely. I was very much intrigued. Geppert seemed so passionate about her game – and I just love listening to passionate people – and the story she wanted to tell moved me very much. I started following Cornelia Geppert on social media, and I promised to myself that I would play this game someday. For some reason, however, I didn’t play it when it was released over the summer, this year. It took me some time. Perhaps I was waiting for the right time. Perhaps now was the right time.
Christmas can be a tough time for lonely people. That is exactly what happened to me this year. The loneliness that I have constantly felt over the years has now reached a level that I cannot bear anymore. On Christmas Day, I took the decision to reach out to a therapist, for the second time of my life, to try and solve my psychological issues; this time, for good. This may or may not be a coincidence, but on the same day, I have also decided to finally play Sea of Solitude.
There are two reasons why I am starting this review with a very intimate confession about myself. First of all, Sea of Solitude (or, as it can be very conviniently abreviated, SOS) is a game that will question your intimate feelings and make you reflect about your own life and emotions. Second of all, just like this review, the game begins with a confession from Cornelia Geppert herself. SOS, as it is revealed, is very much inspired by actual events and characters from Cornelia’s life. Kay, a grown-up woman depicted as a little girl – and the game’s protagonist – who speaks with a German accent, is a fictional avatar inspired by Cornelia herself.
But while the game is based upon Cornelia Geppert’s personal story (as well as that of other team members of Jo-Mei), the game never feels too personal, too intimate, too subjective. On the contrary, it depicts loneliness in a very universal way – and reaches a level of truth I have rarely seen in a video game.
Please note that this review will contain spoilers for the game. If you don’t wish to be spoiled, I recommend you stop reading here, go play the game (it’s pretty short, but great, trust me), and come back here later!
Monsters & Tears
In the interview I stumbled upon two years ago, when I first heard about Sea of Solitude, Cornelia Geppert described her game like “a mixture between Ghibli and Silent Hill” (that’s actually the sentence that had me on board!) – and I can see what she meant there.
Graphically and aesthetically, the game did remind me of Ghibli and anime. There’s a true beauty in the levels that Kay explores. The game’s style also reminded me of games such as Ico, Journey or the more recent Rime. The textures, the animations are all very well made, and Kay’s journey looks and feels very poetic. As for Silent Hill, being a huge (huge!) SH fan myself, I can see where the inspiration came from. Just like in the psychological horror series, SOS is a journey in the protagonist’s own mind. As she uncovers the secrets of this “sea”, Kay reveals the truth about herself. Everything in SOS makes sense and serves the story (well, actually, not everything – I’ll come back to that in a bit, but most of it). This is one of Silent Hill‘s most brilliant aspects, and SOS does it justice pretty well.
When she introduced the game at E3 last year, Cornelia Geppert made this statement: “When they get too lonely, humans turn into monsters.” This sentence still haunts me to this day. And it serves as the premise for the game: when the story starts, Kay has turned into a monster. She is trapped in the middle of the ocean. Not just the ocean, but a vast ocean that is actually made of her own tears, and that is a representation of her own mind. The only equipment she has in this “sea of solitude” is a boat (fans of Silent Hill 2 will instantly remember James Sunderland’s traversal of the Toluca Lake by boat). Thus begins her journey towards self-acceptance, and towards overcoming her own loneliness.
Kay is a human being. Like all of us, her mood swings all the time. This is reflected in her mind, where the whether can change all the time, switching unexpectedly from sunny and quiet to stormy and agitated. The water level also changes. The happier she gets, the lower the ocean of tears will be.
This world isn’t without dangers. Similarly to the town of Silent Hill in the eponymous series, Kay’s mind is inhabited by dangerous monsters. Those monsters she faces are either representations of herself, or representations of the people close to her. Careful, that’s when the actual spoilers start!
There is Kay’s little brother Sunny, who has turned into a lonely and sad monster, after he was the victim of bullying and harrasment at school. Something which contributes to Kay’s own feelings of loneliness and despair, as she blames herself for not having been able to realize the gravity of the situation and help her brother. Kay will have to face little demons that are manifestations of Sunny’s bullies.
We also come across a beautiful and majestuous white wolf – a representation of Jack, Kay’s boyfriend. Except underneath the white wolf mask, there is also a monster: Jack suffers from severe depression. Instead of stepping back and letting Jack heal, Kay wants to help him so bad that she starts to become obsessive and actually does the opposite of her original intent: she makes him suffer even more.
Kay’s parents are also depicted in the form of monsters. They used to be in love. But then… Life happened. Perhaps they weren’t actually meant for each other. But then, they had kids. Then, they bought a house together. Soon, it became too late for them to break up. So they remained together, even though their love towards each other had long faded. They started hating each other. They became frustrated and angry. This anger turned into despair, this despair turned into loneliness. Their mutual hatred became so powerful that it started to destroy Kay herself. Hence why they became monsters in Kay’s mind. In a particular sequence of the game, Kay actually has to climb up a tower on top of which sits her father. The tower, a manifestation of the father’s mind, is filled with actual flames, that represent his hatred and anger.
There are also monsters representative of Kay herself: self-doubt and self-destruction. Self-doubt taunts and bullies Kay throughout the whole game. It gets in her way and keeps throwing self-deprecating insults at her: “You’re worthless”, “You’re pathetic”, and so on. If you have ever suffered from depression, this monster might make you feel uncomfortably authentic. Self-destruction is an even more dangerous monster that roams the “sea of solitude”. Every time Kay falls into the sea, the monster eats her alive and consumes her forever… Or does he? Kay can start over, and try to overcome her personal demon again.
These monsters act as obstacles in Kay’s adventure. They try to stop her from helping her brother, her parents, her boyfriend. At first, Kay does not understand why these monsters are so aggressive towards her. Towards the end of her journey, however, she realizes that what these monsters truly wanted was not to hurt her, but to make her focus on herself. Kay has to realize that she shouldn’t always try to solve other people’s problems and conflicts. The one person that needs help is herself; the loneliness that she has to focus on is her own. Once she realizes that, Kay becomes able to control her monsters. They look much less threatening, and actually become helpful.
The game unfolds by letting you face these monsters one after the other, with the gameplay mainly consisting of platform sequences. In order to restore order and peace in this tormented world, you’ll find yourself repeatedly chasing and restoring “orbs of light”, fragments of Kay’s joy that have been corrupted by loneliness. Finding these orbs and “healing” them will help Kay overcome her personal demons, and find balance in her mind.
SOS isn’t without flaws – and this is actually one of them. While I found the game’s story absolutely moving, sincere and authentic, the gameplay sometimes doesn’t quite line up with the story’s standards. There is some sort of discrepancy between Kay’s emotional journey and what you, as a player, actually have to do. You never really feel like you’re actively overcoming Kay’s demons. What you do is just follow the game’s fairly linear path, chase orbs of light, steer a boat, complete platforming sequences, and that’s pretty much it. It’s not that the gameplay is bad, it’s just that it’s a bit redundant, and not as engaging as the story. It didn’t quite bother me at first, but towards the end of the game, I couldn’t help but feel that the game lacked more gameplay mechanics. Something interesting which the game never tackles, for instance, is the concept of Kay’s backpack. It is supposed to represent the “emotional baggage” she carries with her everywhere, and which she fills with the negative feelings she encounters. It could have been an interesting game mechanic for the player to have to deal with this backpack – not unlike how Death Stranding forced the player to constantly take care of the heavy packages that Sam Porter Bridges carries on his back.
Before I move on with the rest of my analysis, and since I am on the topic of the game’s flaws, I also found the game’s voice acting a little off – something which can be easily forgiven considering the game was likely developed on a small budget. As for the writing, while it remains the game’s greatest asset, it was sometimes a little bit too obvious. Considering the game’s depth, I don’t think everything had to be so literally explained. It could have remained a bit more subtle and metaphorical – the way Silent Hill does, for instance.
Still, these are minor flaws (which I am only addressing for the sake of objectivity) in a game that, in its entirety, made me reflect upon myself in a way no other video game ever had. Which brings me to the true beauty of SOS: what it reveals of yourself.
Your own “SOS”
While most of the monsters and situations depicted in SOS are pretty straightforward (sometimes a little bit too much, as I just pointed out), what I loved about the game is that there is still enough room for ambiguity and interpretation. Regardless of the subjectivity of Kay-Cornelia’s story, the player is welcome to bring whatever he wants to the game, as it will remind him of his very own life, and his very own personal issues.
For instance, there’s never any definite explanation about the seagulls: throughout the whole game, Kay encounters birds, which are just standing there in random areas of her mind, and which she can “shoo” away. While I found it interesting in terms of gameplay (it adds a bit of exploration to the otherwise quite linear adventure), the game never really tells you what this means, story-wise. Which means you can interpret it the way you want. Personnally, it reminded me of the kind of “parasite thoughts” that I have in my head all the time. They can be positive or negative, but they’re always obscuring the more important thoughts. These “parasite thoughts” can be easy to cling to, and they may get in the way of what really matters. So sometimes, to make space for the most important stuff, you have to let go of these thoughts. Just like Kay, who lets go of the seagulls in her mind. “Letting” go is actually one of the essential themes of the game, so I think it kind of fits. Same thing with the “bottles at sea”, which are items that you find throughout the game that contain messages from “someone”. These messages are often misleading thoughts, that reminded me of how I often find myself following the wrong paths, having the wrong solutions to my problems.
Another thing which I interpreted based on my own experience is Kay’s name. While it can be seen as a nod to Cornelia Geppert herself, “Kay” being some sort of short version of the “K” sound at the beginning of “Cornelia”, it mostly reminded me of the word “Okay”. Because you see, when I feel lonely, and people reach out to me for help, asking me how I feel; instead of letting them help me, and admitting the truth, I tell them: “I’m okay”. Even though I’m fully aware that I’m lying. “Don’t worry, I’m fine, I’m okay”. “Kay” is doing the same thing. Her very own name is a lie. She is not “okay”, but she tries to convince everyone, including herself, that she is. And that’s why she remains a monster. Only when she stops helplessly taking care of others and starts focusing on herself does her “monsterness” start to fade away.
One of SOS‘s greatest strenghts is that it tries to represent all kinds of lonelinesses – depression, bullying, social exclusion, unhappy relationships… Which, in a weird way, means that there is room for everyone.
For instance, I didn’t quite connect with Kay’s brother’s story: even though I thought it was a great representation of the issue (and a very welcome one as this is not a subject that is often addressed in video games), I never faced bullying, myself. So I did not empathize as much with Sunny’s story, as I did with Jack’s depression, for instance.
The moment I connected with the most, however, was the chapter that dealt with Kay’s parents and their hopeless marriage. There is a sequence in particular, in which Kay stands in the middle of an arena, and both her parents, in monster form, are throwing insults at each other. These insults actually take a physical form and start to hurt Kay. But the parents don’t even see her, as they are too focused on their anger. Kay, meanwhile, is doing everything she can to gather orbs of light and restore peace in her parents’ relationship. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that it’s not a child’s job to carry their parents’ couple on their back. As I was desperately trying to fix things between Kay’s mom and dad, it reminded me of my very own fear of conflicts, and how I have often tried to solve conflicts I wasn’t even involved in. It made me realize that this tendency of mine actually started with my parents, which I have so often witnessed arguing in front of me, to the point that it made me fear conflicts forever. It also reminded me about the fact that it was my parents’ toxicity that triggered most of my own problems. Just like Kay, however, I need to understand that there is no way I can change the past, no way I can change who my parents were and what their couple was. I just have to let go, and accept the things the way they are.
And I think it’s pretty great: I feel like whatever your story might be, you will feel represented in SOS. I think that’s the first time I have ever felt that in a game, actually. It made me feel like my own negative emotions were not just personal, but universal. It made me feel seen, it made me feel less alone. The struggles I am facing everday, and which have been there for as long as I can remember, have never been so accurately depicted in a video game. And I think I have learned something about them, and about myself, thanks to the game.
The “lesson” SOS can teach you, if you are looking for one, is that loneliness – just like all other human feelings – isn’t something you have to be afraid of, nor is it something you have to flee, to escape. Actually, the more you will try to destroy your loneliness, the stronger it will become. It will drown you into tears. What you have to do instead is embrace it, accept it. You have to find balance in all of your emotions. You can find positivity in your negative thoughts, just like you should be careful of the negativity that can come with positive thoughts. Too much joy can turn into obsession; while self-doubt can turn into a healthy and wise advisor.
It’s all about balance. And acceptance. And this is the lesson that I am taking with me after finishing Sea of Solitude, as I’m about to start the next chapter of my journey towards self-acceptance and self-love.
Thank you Jo-Mei, and thank you Cornelia Geppert, for creating such a powerful game. I had not been so moved by a video game in a while. This made me feel less alone with my feelings. It made me feel a little better, a little more hopeful. I can’t wait to play whatever game comes next!
Sea of Solitude is available on PC (via Origin), Xbox One and PS4. It was developed by the Berlin-based indie studio Jo-Mei, and was published by EA under the “EA Originals” label. You can buy it here!
- Cornelia Geppert: A video game that helps us understand loneliness, a TED Talk given by Sea of Solitude‘s game director, November 2019.
- Sea of Solitude Reveal at E3 2018, EA Play E3 conference, June 2018.
- First Gameplay and Developer Interview with Cornelia Geppert, January 2016.