Alongside Blue Whales

Thalassophobia is a difficult word. I learned it just this year, and I’m already 37, but I’ve known the feeling it describes since I dabbled in my grandparents’ swimming pool. Wikipedia describes it as the “persistent and intense fear of deep bodies of water.” And: “Those who suffer from thalassophobia go through numerous episodes of emotional and physical anguish.

Anguish. A beautiful word for a terrible thing. And accurate. It does not describe the rational uneasiness probably everyone can relate to. After all, the deep sea is largely unexplored, endlessly dark, and quite hostile to human life.

Thalassophobia, like all phobias, unfortunately is not rational. How would my grandparents’ well-lit, tiled, 1.50-meter-deep swimming pool evoke fear in me? You can see all the way to the bottom and my grandfather regularly poured chlorine tablets into it, the smell of which disintegrated my nasal mucosa. It left nothing threatening… or alive, for that matter. But my thalassophobia regularly made me imagine that the bottom opened mechanically, that I was looking into a gaping, dark abyss and that sharks were rising from the depths. At that time, I entered the sea at most up to my knees.

Years later, I went snorkeling for the first time – in a coral reef. I didn’t want to, I resisted, my parents “convinced” me. The sea was, as we say in Northern Germany, “kabbelig”, that is, “a shallow but restless wave pattern of short, mutually overlapping waves.”

To put it short: I could not see what was below me – at all. It was so unbearable that I had no choice but to give the unknown a face: I submerged and was struck by the beauty of a colorful, busy scene. Despite all the exoticism, it was comfortable and safe. Hundreds of thousands of colorful fish floated around one another, each stranger and more beautiful than the next. Back on the surface, I was relieved to have conquered my fear. Until my foot hit something hard. I was startled and put my head back in the water. In a few moments I had drifted frighteningly far and hit the reef. Beyond the reef stretched an eternal, blue nothingness. It was the most terrifying thing I had ever seen. And have to date.

That is not Finding Nemo. That is real life.

It is not difficult to avoid such situations. But it is in video games. My worst experiences with the phobia were digital ones. The eel in Mario 64. The cage with the crossbow in Half-Life. The sharks in Tomb Raider 2. As early as in the third world of Banjo-Kazooie, I was led through a narrow underwater tunnel towards a gigantic metal shark. Fortunately, it was friendly, but later the game used the same trope again and confronted me with a gruesome snapping fish. I was eager to continue playing, but I was still planning as I fell asleep how I would have to spend as little time as possible in its lair.

Thanks, Rare.

A few years later, I was intrigued by the Wii title Endless Ocean, which allowed you to explore the natural wonders of the oceans without danger. I hoped for a safe approximation of the positive part of my snorkeling experience, and maybe even a therapeutic effect.

For as much as I fear the sea, I am fascinated by it. I dove through the first areas and petted small fish. Unfortunately, far too soon I had to dive into the so-called abyss. I swam through shallow waters until I came to an edge. Behind it: The same endless blue that had horrified me back when I was snorkeling.

I knew it was a game. That I had no health bar. That nothing would be able to attack me. It wasn’t rational. It was a phobia. I kept to the steep wall and my stomach tightened. It was physically unendurable. I pressed the Wiimote’s power button as hard as I could and held it for a few more moments after the endless blue gave way to the soothing black of the TV. Perhaps the title of the game should have been a warning.

.No. Fucking. Way.

All these experiences I had gathered without the self-diagnosis “thalassophobia”. I learned about this in connection with Subnautica. My fascination with the deep sea and my fear of it has never been more manifest than with this game. It literally begins with you standing on the sinking wreckage of an escape pod, surrounded by the endless sea of an alien planet. The first thing you do is jump into the… kabbelige sea.

Even the controller input for that first jump would be too much for me. And then there are the leviathans. Mythical, all-devouring creatures lurk in the depths. Magic: The Gatehring made me realize that even two-dimensional game cards can induce fear of the deep. The leviathans in Subnautica are the embodiment of my deepest fear. So it surely would be wise to simply ignore the game. Instead, I did something else: I watched dozens of videos about the game for days, came across the essay “Thalassophobia in gaming,” and learned something about myself. As it turns out, there are countless videos, blog posts, forum discussions about thalassophobia. I’m not alone. That’s something.

Now that’s just overdoing it.

And then I came across Abzû, which I didn’t really want to play. I was initially interested, because it was made by members of the Journey team and seemed to have a similar tone, but underwater. Journey was a special gaming experience for me. Different, moving, resonant. What kept me from playing Abzû wasn’t the underwater setting, but that I heard it couldn’t hold a candle to Journey.

A few weeks ago however, I played it. And yes, Abzû is a superficial Journey clone. And not a very good game. But I was able to play it, even though it took me to the deepest depths. Because for all its flaws, the game manages to do something remarkable. It celebrates the underwater world as a natural habitat of unparalleled beauty. And for all the kitsch the game throws around – it works. The whole game seems designed to take the horror out of the deep sea. The shark I encounter early on always swims away from me and is even rescued by me later (and fearlessly, but respectfully petted!). I magically restore nature to lifeless landscapes and dive with dolphins as if I were one of them.

And once again I came to a point where I found myself a tiny spot in the eternal blue. In front of me gigantic shadows. Blue whales. Like leviathans. But my stomach cramped only a little. Because at this point, the game had conditioned me and gently led me to this encounter. I was no longer afraid. The blue whales were drawn into the depths. Into the ever darker blue. Into the black. The camera moved close to me. Behind me nothing but the eye of a blue whale. I let go and was pulled along.

Abzû was released in 2014 for PC, PS4 and Xbox ONE and is now also available on the Switch. It is the debut of Giant Squid. The studio was founded by former employees of thatgamecompany (Journey, Flower). Their second work is the very positively received The Pathless (2020).

This post is also available in: German