It’s been years since I’ve seen my mother.
When I go to call her, it’s a crapshoot. Half the time I’ll pull out my phone, hesitate over the call button, and then flip over to Twitter instead, desperate for any awful thread I can bury myself inside of. Calling my father is easier. He’ll ask about what I’m writing, and then go off on an MSNBC-fueled tangent about Donald Trump, or tell me about how he’s modding flight simulators now. My sister and I have engaged in a mutual, unacknowledged communication armistice for nearly a decade. Sometimes when family calls, I just let the phone ring, not even hitting the ignore call button.
I go through this because it’s too unbearable, too exhausting to be vulnerable. It takes a lot to open myself up to relationships filled with as much hurt as joy, as draining as they are innervating. And as protective as these measures are, when the sense of isolation becomes overwhelming, it’s hard to ignore that this drowning feeling is partly one of my own making.
And that’s when the shame drops. When the sucking sensation, like a black hole has opened through your torso, makes your ears ring with just how unbearable you feel as a person.
So, only a few minutes into Sea of Solitude, when a monstrous, feathered or furred aquatic monster-woman stopped me dead in my tracks and screamed that I am a selfish piece of shit? I felt pretty called out.
Sea of Solitude is about trauma. The sticky, mud-like kind that cakes and cracks and stings because of the thousands of cuts and abrasions we’ve accumulated. The kind that builds up while we push it down and ignore the blood seeping from our knees and elbows as we try to carry on—distracting ourselves from how it crusts on us like barnacles, loading us down until we no longer recognize ourselves or our loved ones.
Kay—ashen, red-eyed, and monstrous—is our protagonist. She has about as many answers as we do. What we learn, she learns. Answers are given and taken away, and then recapitulate and recontextualize themselves. In this way, it mimics my own experience with trauma and recovery. This is a game about mental illness, even if it eludes that distinction. As grounded as it is, Kay’s journey is far more interested in a grounded metaphorization than clinical realities.
We spend most of the game touring psychic landscapes as we platform across sorbet-colored European architecture or skim over the sea of the unconscious in our little propeller boat. As with Kay’s traumas, we often have to use symbol and metaphor to get at our own, to understand, communicate, and reckon with things we’d often prefer not to name, let alone realize, that are too immense and painful to grapple with initially. Different representations for different traumas, all separate but intersecting.
I explain my mother as a giant squid, shooting ink out to escape, unaware of how her long, long arms can constrict around her children. Or how my stepfather switches Noh masks and no one can predict what meaning the next one will convey, or what’s underneath (if anything at all). How the build up to their divorce was them waging war, lobbing my baby sister back and forth like a live grenade. The living room of my lost childhood home transported to their lost beach house, while I make a meager spaghetti for our dinner. I’ve broken the noodles in half before putting them into the pot. My mother once said this makes them cook faster.
Psychology is messy, murky, and Sea of Solitude gets at that with inconsistent metaphors, opaque symbolism, bottled messages to the self (an intertextual nod to The Police), and gameplay that shifts with the protean landscape we’re required to traverse again and again. A half-submerged sea-monster, a beautiful crumbling snow wolf that reveals the tragedy beneath, an exploded office tower filled with flaming vents and a chameleon lording over it: This is the symbolic dissonance Sea of Solitude deals in. The ligature that makes it work is the mundanity of Kay’s traumas—unhappily married parents, a neglected sibling, a boyfriend she hurt by trying desperately to help. They’re all relatable traumas for a fantastical psychic space. It’s blunt. Earnest, but sincere.
Unfortunately, as relatable as Kay’s circumstances are, very little room is allowed for reflection. Divided into episodes dealing with new traumas or facets of a previous one, Kay zips through her recovery at a breakneck pace. If Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was an exhausting and constant revisitation of the same suffering for 14 or so hours, Sea of Solitude has the inverse problem. Kay (and we as players) are never afforded a moment to rest and sit with a sense of relief, understanding, or cathartic grief. A short moment puttering around on the ocean is all we get before being launched into the next trial. And while I’m reticent to advocate for a longer game, or a more open world, this is an instance where both would benefit the thematic ideas Sea of Solitude is invested in.
The strength of this game is not in its platforming or puzzle design (both of which are more frustrating and repetitive than engaging—despite their thematic resonance), its stunning visual aesthetic, or even its brevity. It hits many marks, misses other, and its messaging can at times be cloudier than I’d like. But walking away from it, the giant thrumping heart that powers this adventure is an understanding of what nearly every other game about mental illness radically fucks up.
It’s not that we’re monsters because of our trauma—it’s that our trauma makes us see ourselves as monstrous in a world filled with beauty, gentle color palettes, and warmth that we cannot access, where static discharge pushes us back from the sustenance of love. It understands all that. And here is where the game truly succeeds.
Sea of Solitude gives us a boat. And a light. And it accepts that we must sometimes think of ourselves as a contradiction of insignificance and grotesquery, as we wind our way through the path of recovery. That, monstrous though we may feel, we can still affect change in our lives, and the lives of others. Healing is possible, if complicated, non-linear, and often contradictory. Sea of Solitude wants us to see ourselves better than we do, but won’t abandon us when we can’t.
Sea of Solitude was developed by Jo-Mei Games and published by Electronic Arts. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One and PC.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.