Scuba diver’s wet dream? Or just a floating goldfish?
Until now, most sandbox-style video games have leaned toward Grand Theft Auto’s design philosophy. In these living, breathing virtual worlds, players are free to act on whim. This freedom has usually meant blowing up whatever they want. Endless Ocean may be one of the first open-world games where death and destruction isn’t the primary mode of interaction. Players don a wet suit and take on the role of a freelance scuba diver. Their domain is the Manoa Lai sea, a fictional puddle in the South Pacific that’s home to a wild variety of sea life, dramatic underwater topography and, of course, tons of sunken wrecks.
Players explore Manoa Lai’s depths at their leisure. With a shimmering New Age score featuring singer Hayley Westenra, Endless Ocean aims to soothe. But the calming waters and placid aquatic wildlife can leave you snoring. None of Manoa Lai’s potentially dangerous sea life poses a threat. The bends and other potential diving maladies are off the table. The player can’t drown, die or even prune up. This invulnerability is both liberating and problematic. By stripping away any sense of danger, you also lose the giddy wonder that comes with exploding your comfort zone. When the player encounters the pulse-quickening sight of a massive humpback whale or an ancient ruin, the initial buzz quickly wears off, leaving you to seek the next point of interest.
Part of Endless Ocean’s problem is the way it shoehorns—but doesn’t fully integrate—elements of proven Nintendo games into the mix. Players can train dolphins a la Nintendogs. But they’re also required to pet all the sea life, even the spiny poisonous ones. Like Pokemon Snap, players have access to a camera, but there’s no way to personalize, share or even name their shots. It’s also Pokemon’s “gotta catch ‘em all” impulse that drives players to encounter and catalog every life form in the game. It’s hard not to become an Ahab, ruthlessly elbowing past familiar wonders in search of that last unseen fish. Endless Ocean’s violence-free approach to gaming is admirable and it has great potential as an educational tool, but the game’s emotional range feels as flat as its glassy seas.