(This is second in a series on looking for the best cooperative experience in video games. If you’re curious, feel free to check out my previous post on Deep Rock Galactic)
If you’ve ever lived along the coast, you know the power and draw of water. It is primordial, something before language to live along that knife’s edge. Seeing out so far that the naked eye cannot tell for sure where one line ends and another begins lends credit to just how precarious our existence is.
When growing up, I lived close enough to Galveston Island that, if I wanted to, I could load up my 1994 Ford Ranger and head down I-45 South and be there in 30 minutes. Galveston wasn’t the prettiest of beaches. In fact, in the late 2000s it might have actually been disgusting. The amount of dead seaweed to appear in those years was so alarming that The Atlantic had been investigating and had consulted with oceanographers to narrow down the reasons why seaweed piled high along the shores. Still, Galveston was our beach, and we did with it what we could.
In fact, the history of Texas’s relationship with the geography may be just that: “we did with it whatever we could.”
The ocean is also one of those phantoms that we long to understand and that continues to surprise us. The depths of the ocean haunt us with its ecosystems and strange fish, and it has been on the receiving end of myths and legends. The Loch Ness monster, the Kraken, Moby Dick, and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Herman Melville wrote extensively of the ocean, even in its poems. The whiteness of the whale inhabits the blankness of the sea. In a History of the U.S. Navy class, I will never forget the lessons by our professor who adamantly reminded us that we do not belong on the water, that it lacks geographical landmarks, and that madness lurks close by.
It is with this amazing and deep relationship with the water that I approached Rare’s video game Sea of Thieves, a cooperative exploration game that handles the haunting nature of the ocean in a far lighter and more playful way. You play as a pirate, alongside other pirates and, maintaining a collaborative sense of wonder and optimism, you fight revived skeletons, you carry the booty from buried shores back to the boat, you set sail and weather storms, and sometimes you are sunk by the Kraken. But each time you fall off the boat in a drunken mess, each time you are eaten by the Kraken, each time you are stabbed by a skeleton, you are brought back in a way that is all in good fun.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the technical design of the game is stunning. I have never encountered the water that I have in this game. The most important thing about the water that I want to tell you about is its volumetric, full-bodied feel. When I went fishing with my father, or when I’ve been on cruises, the water has a current and tide that is unforgiving to your gastrointestinal system if you are not prepared for it. Flying off the boat in a storm, going underwater, and looking up to see the tide roil over your avatar is a sight you have to see. On the calm waters of the morning, seeing the sun rise and cast this pillar of light across the ocean is a sight you have to see. Understanding how the tech design team managed to fill the water with as many different shades of blue as Eskimos have words for snow is an achievement all its own. For that reason alone, you should look up footage or put down $1 and get Xbox’s Game Pass to see for yourself.
Beyond that technical genius of the water, the lighting, and the aesthetic logic behind the game, it is a beautiful canvas with little to paint. Don’t get me wrong: since its release in 2016, Rare has stuck with the game and released some pretty incredible updates, including the advent of Tall Tales, which are story based, multi-part quests you can travel along with your crew. Solve mysteries, fight the bad guys, and learn more about the world of Sea of Thieves. That is all well and good. But while they have created an idea of being a pirate, I think they don’t even realize what the deeper implications are of traveling on the ocean.
There is so much good to talk about when it comes to setting sail. You and your crew pilot a sloop, a brigand, or a full-sized galleon, and you have to do a lot to make it work. The anchor, the angle of the sails, how full the sails are, the direction of the wind, the chance of harsh weather, the constellations in the sky, the relation of you to the map down in the lower decks, where you have to communicate with your team where to go, the crow’s nest which gives some of the most beautiful views in the game; it all adds up to an incredible navigation experience.
But for what? Like I said before, you gather treasure chests of gold and return them. Mere fetch quests. There are different alliances on the ocean, and doing quests for them increases their reptutation…but for what? More cosmetic options. One alliance is no more or less convincing to join and feel an in-group relationship with than any other. When flying a banner on your ship, it should feel like a commitment. Instead, it feels like clothing for a day at school. The lack of voice acting, the lack of legends or lore, the lack of a rich campaign to introduce us to the world, the lack of any legends or major characters to anchor us to islands or environments. It all adds up.
Real opportunities are flat out missing in the beginning of the game. You are simply given a boat, when we all know that the quest for Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi to find a ship at the beginning of Star Wars was no small undertaking. Why not give a crew a measly sloop at the beginning, regardless of crew size, in order to build incentives to invest into something larger?
Why is there a completed map for pirates at the beginning of the game? What explorer was given a map with everything already marked? Why not have a total fog of war on the map and only reveal what they have seen? The whole point of the ocean in the sailing ages was not knowing just how far it was until land would be in sight. Navigation was dramatically important specifically because human perception could not handle the flatness of the water. In Sea of Thieves, I don’t think I have encountered a single moment where no land was in sight. At all times, there is some coastline along the horizon.
I experienced a greater haunting and fear in Outer Wilds, a game that does Sea of Thieves better than Sea of Thieves does itself, albeit in a different genre. When you explore planets, you have absolutely no idea what to expect, and the terror involved (especially in Dark Bramble) was enough to make me stop playing the game for a week, because I did not want to go back to that place. If you have played it, you know that the Dark Bramble places you in a milky whiteness, with specks of light in the distance, and you do not know whether the specks are the way out, or the beholder of a horrific abomination that can eat you.
It ate me.
That is what Sea of Thieves needs. It needs consequences and real mystery. It needs progress and setbacks. It needs not only to understand the visual aesthetic of the ocean, but it needs to address the deeper and almost suicidal need for the ocean, whatever the cost.
One could argue that Sea of Thieves is not going for that type of tone, that its levity and happiness is as deep as the grog pint you drink from. But I would say that to express that sort of optimism about the water is to be uninformed of what nature is at all. It’s indifference to us, as Werner Herzog has tried to explain again and again, is what gives us the desire to go and overlay our stories onto it. It is the difference between the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic, all psychoanalytic terms easily applied to the ocean. This is what the ocean does to us, and no amount of Disney-fication can make me forget that.