In Other Waters

Annoying wise guys like to point out what a sham food photography is. I do know that the burger doesn’t really look like that, right? The pictures would only mislead consumers. Their fatherly demeanour goes hand in hand with an attitude of “I can’t be fooled”. They are smarter than the rest, because they have once compared what they ordered with the photo. It’s really rare to find such an improbable gift of combination.

I like food photography. The more exaggerated, the better. I like to look at pictures of beautiful food. Especially of fast food. After all, which truly excellent restaurant takes pictures of its food? So if you need to rely on pictures to advertise your stuff, please make it look good. Because what is the alternative? Realistic photography? There is such a thing and nobody wants that. It’s those pixelated, greyish plastic panels. A cacophony of grease-soaked buns and glossy, thick sauces. Tomatoes without color. Bread without body tension. If you think you’re going to get a burger in a stand-up joint that looks like it should be awarded, you need to manage expectations.

It must have been one of those food photography critics who, in some prominent place on the internet, felt compelled to badmouth the artwork of In Other Waters. “The game doesn’t look anything like the artwork. All that is visible is the user interface! I won’t fall for indies that pretend to be real games ever again.” And that’s okay because these people’s world-explaining brains would never be able to enjoy the subtle nuances other waters have to offer.

Graphically, In Other Waters consists exclusively of what is information supplement in other games. A map, a radar, an inventory, text windows. You play as an artificial intelligence in the diving suit of a marine biologist looking for her colleague who has disappeared on an alien planet. In the process, she tries to understand the complex interrelationships of the unknown biosphere and use them to her advantage. Not only does the game express an irrepressible urge to explore, it also stimulates the imagination like few other games. The game’s artwork is only one possible expression of what happens in the mind when one dives into these alien waters.

I played it two years ago and still have my own images of the flooded research station in my mind’s eye, the swarms of shimmering creatures gliding gracefully through the vastness of the sea. I get slightly sweaty palms when I think of how I harnessed nature to tame rip currents for a moment and venture into unknown regions. In all this time, my only visual input was a dot on a radar. But I know exactly what it looked like there. And when the dot was in a certain place on the monochrome map, I felt uneasiness – and relaxation when it returned to safety. I made rare finds, learned about marine biology, explored an ancient civilisation and – as an AI – got to know my diving partner personally.

It is usually a quality of books to stimulate the mind through blanks. The deliberate omission of descriptions can exert tremendous power on readers. Video games tend to fill in those blanks because they can depict anything. In Other Waters, however, uses a similar effect to certain literature. It doesn’t matter if it was a technical limitation, low budget or a creative decision: it works and has created a world in my mind that I feel connected to and that resonates more than many graphically presented places from video games.

The artwork did not promise too much at all, quite the opposite. Like a good record cover, it blended with the experience and enriched it. But the wise guys would probably also explain to me that such images would not come out of my boxes, but merely music.

In Other Waters (2020) is the debut work by British studio Jump Over the Age, that crafted another indie hit with Citizen Sleeper last year. I am planning on playing that one soon. But I was warned: you roll dice in that game. Dice! You might as well play Yahtzee. Ha ha.

This post is also available in: German