In Other Waters is one of those games with instant visual appeal. Set underwater on an alien planet, a xenobiologist named Ellery Vas is out to find her missing partner after contact is lost with her research station. Breaking with convention, the player acts not as the game’s protagonist, but as her helper, assisting her by serving as the artificial intelligence within a special dive suit as they set out into watery lands unknown. Aided by a wordless user interface that must be navigated to both collect life forms and explore the ocean floor, its design relies on a perfect marriage between intuition and style. Its visual elements, evoking everything from Yellow Submarine to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, are irresistibly attractive. It’s exactly this melding of function and aesthetic that developer Gareth Damian Martin, with his background in graphic and motion design and procedural poetry, sought to build.
Creating a user interface that is both intuitive and forgiving is harder than it looks. The visuals must be clean and uncluttered, but compelling enough to encourage experimentation. In In Other Waters, the gameplay revolves completely around the suit’s panel, a blue and gold arrangement of dials and screens that navigate the player and Ellery Vas across the ocean floor. Its distinctive two-color palette, Martin tells Paste by email, was chosen specifically to make the game recognizable. Citing The Shrouded Isle, he says, “It’s quite rare to take such a limiting decision in games. But as In Other Water’s aesthetic is all about limitation and abstraction as being generative for the player’s imaginations, it seemed to fit. The turquoise came from the color of the Aegean, where I was swimming when I first dreamt-up the game, and the yellow-gold is definitely in that Cousteau world, but I wanted it to be elevated, more saturated, and less nostalgic.” The interface of the dive suit, the central mechanism through which the player experiences the game, meanwhile, is the result of Martin’s fascination with anime of the ‘80s and ‘90s, like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gundam Wing. “There’s a beautiful and bold sense of abstraction to those interfaces which sits apart from the current trend for layers and layers of thin, overly complex holographic interfaces, which I find a bit dull and played-out.”
Martin also looked at Japanese industrial design from that same era, especially audio equipment like radios and synthesizers, taking a pointed interest in the Panasonic Cougar7. He became so fond of the device, he even imported a replica to play with while designing the UI of the game. The result is less busy than the Cougar7, but it retains the utilitarian look that lends the aesthetic some scientific credibility. “I followed that same relationship between radial dials and cut-off square panels that you can see in that radio in a lot of the UI, and wanted to maintain that same sense of asymmetric functionality, rather than perfectly balanced elegance that I saw in that design. I tend to spend a lot of time gathering references like that until I have a really clear sense in my head what will work and what won’t and can then operate on instinct…. It doesn’t take long before you know exactly what will and won’t fit within the very limited color and shape language you set for yourself.”
For a game to rely on a user interface to drive the momentum’s narrative, iteration is key. In In Other Waters, players have to figure out how to use the suit to observe specimens, collect samples and consume them for fuel, as well as gauge power and air supply. Even navigating the ocean floor is done through an on-screen panel. To test how the audience responded to the visual communication of the interface, Martin spent a lot of time at conventions and shows looking over players’ shoulders to see their responses to the design. The goal was to let the audience play and experiment with the controls, but not provide too much friction to be enjoyable. “One thing that was really important to me was also to draw on the ‘reality’ of the actions I was representing, so that the player could follow the logic of their actions even if they couldn’t precisely understand the symbol language. The game’s central compass and rotational lubber, for example, absolutely comes from how you navigate when scuba diving, carefully setting headings by degree so you don’t get lost. And when I was building the sampling system I looked at how deep-sea ROVs take samples in real life, and the slightly ponderous process of aligning a vacuum tube with a subject and then clamping it for extraction. I think this helps the player feel in touch with the world even if they can’t see it, and gives a sense of tactility that is important for understanding what you are doing, rather than just hitting buttons and seeing what happens.
“In a sense the game has two parts,” Martin continues. “I wanted to provide a strong narrative that would have the sense of drive and personal stakes of something like Firewatch or The Last of Us, but I also wanted the player to be able to veer off from that when they wanted and engage with the world, and a sense of exploration, study, and discovery. Part of the originating concept of the game was Metroid-but-as-a-scientist, but also the likes of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation or J.G. Ballard’s Drowned World, where the protagonist is a scientist and has a totally different relationship to the world than a colonist, explorer or soldier would. This led me to explore how you could play as a biologist (or a biologist’s assistant) and towards building systems around that process that might replace the typical game structures of resource gathering or combat.”
In Other Waters covers a number of themes, from climate change to the relationship between humanity and AI. But the gameplay itself is directly driven by how the player explores the ocean floor through the suit’s panel. In order to move the suit, the player must examine landscape features in their environment, and highlight them on a small map on the interface. Animals and plants can be observed and analyzed, and as Ellery discovers new specimens, a picture of an entire symbiotic ecosystem emerges. Functionally, it’s not unlike the now-defunct browser game Extrasolar, where players similarly are led through an unknown planet by documenting unfamiliar life forms. To achieve a perceptive sense of what those forms might look like in the world, Martin hit the books. “A huge amount of research went into this because for me, it’s not interesting to study a world that doesn’t feel connected or believable as an ecosystem, and doesn’t stand up to inspection,” he says. “I read a lot of marine biology, and also drew a lot of inspiration from the work of the biologist Lynn Margulis, who proposes that symbiosis, not competition, is the force that drives evolution and adaptation. Ecosystems in games tend to be very Darwinian; they are all about food chains and predators, and often unrealistically present those predators as frenzied killing machines with no real logic to their behavior apart from their desire to kill you. I wanted to step away from this and present an ecosystem that functioned on symbiosis, which reflected the interconnected nature of life on our own planet. The more I read and researched, the more I saw that there are beautiful and strange mysteries to every layer of life, not just the big flashy mammals like dolphins or whales, but in every limpet or barnacle. That was something I tried hard to pull through into the game, and I hope that sense of wonder at the small mysteries of life is something people will engage with. As a writer, I am totally fueled by research, and so in a way, there’s also a lot of detail that is in the game, but not explicit, and each ecosystem, if the player takes the time to complete all the creature studies for it, has its own narratives and secrets to uncover and theorize about, that sit alongside the central ‘human’ drama.”
That human drama, as Martin puts it, is seen largely from a third-person perspective. While the consciousness inhabiting the suit facilitates certain events, it isn’t personally involved. This symbiosis is unconventional in that in most games, the protagonist is the player. But this choice to separate the roles was deliberate, evolving in parallel to the game’s other design values. “I knew I wanted to make a game that used text and interfaces to help the player interpret the world, and I found something very pleasing in turning the tables on the player and making them the Navi or Siri, the voice in the ear that comes along for the ride.” In taking on this role, the audience in a sense mirrors the role that players have with game protagonists, in that a disjunction is created by the mediated experience of the character’s world and how limited the act of puppeteering them can be. “I wanted to narrativize that disjunction,” Martin says, “to make use of it, putting the player in an unfamiliar role where their limited methods of communication and interaction were evident and obvious. To then build a relationship with someone, despite those limitations, seemed very pleasing to me, and a nice analog for the way we build relationships with characters in games anyway, though restricted choices and proxy actions.”
In Other Waters is expected to debut on PC this spring.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.