In Other Waters is a narrative adventure that embraces the unknown. It invites you to explore an alien ocean in the distant future and fill in the gaps with your imagination, armed with nothing more than a radar screen and a diving suit with rudimentary artificial intelligence. It’s the biggest project yet from developer Gareth Damian Martin, who’s raising funds for it on Kickstarter today. The game is slated for a PC release on a to-be-announced date.
When I played a demo of In Other Waters, I was impressed by how evocative it can be while eschewing splashy graphics and fully rendered alien landscapes. I was the AI responsible for guiding Ellery Vas, a marine biologist who’s searching for her missing partner Minae Nomura. When Ellery talked to me, I couldn’t do much other than answer yes or no. What I could do, though, was direct her to areas of the map and scan the surrounding environment for traces of Nomura — and anything else that might lurk in the ocean.
The future In Other Waters inhabits is somewhat grim, defined by a lack of resources and a calculated approach to the wonders that may exist on worlds outside our own.
“Earth’s oceans are dead and we’re basically traveling around the universe and harvesting planets for resources,” Damian Martin explained in a phone call with GamesBeat. “The only reason biologists like Ellery find any work is because corporate entities are legally required to do a study of a planet to make sure there’s no life on it. It’s similar to how, when you build a building in a city, you have to do an archaeological study to make sure you’re not destroying someone’s heritage. The same reason you have to check this planet. If there’s no life on it then the planet can be harvested for materials. It’s a continual expansion.”
Damian Martin drew inspiration from books like J.G. Ballard’s Drowned World and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. They’re stories that explore humans’ relationship with nature and how the world might look in the future. Wayne Barlow’s Expedition, which purports to be a collection of field drawings from an alien planet, was also a big influence. Ideas about the environment and interacting with it are important to In Other Waters. Damian Martin says he’s wanted to make art about the Anthropocene epoch, which refers to the period of time where humans have imprinted their influence on the planet in an irreversible way.
“[Geologists are] proposing the idea that humans are now considered to be a geological force,” said Damian Martin. “Our impact on this planet has been significant enough that we’ve permanently affected the geology of the planet. If someone was to find this planet in 100,000 years and look back, they’d find evidence of human existence. There’s been a lot of thought about this, and it’s something I’ve really wanting to make art about.”
Exploring in In Other Waters feels like lifting the veil on a deeply mysterious, incomprehensible world. Though Ellery might be there at first for work and then to find her missing comrade, what she finds is a planet that’s filled with strange creatures. The first time you encounter alien life is thrilling — and the first time you realize it can be hostile is thrumming with urgency and alarm.
The demo was limited in scope, so it introduced me to some of the simpler mechanics. For instance, I had to find a way to traverse a reef filled with poisonous creatures by synthesizing samples of a counteragent with the futuristic tech of the diving suit. Though I didn’t get a chance to see much of the world, I was intrigued by the possibilities. It conveys the sense of being very small in a large, fantastical world.
And it’s all the more impressive that the world is shown with nothing more than lines and tiny blips on the screen.
“I always thought that was such a cool thing that you can only do in games,” said Damian Martin. “Connect really meaningful things to little dots. You can make dots really meaningful because you have mechanical relations to them. You can build upon abstraction in really interesting ways. Because I’m a graphic designer, I also am really focused on producing games that use good design, that also are feasible for me to do as a lone developer.”
Damian Martin is a graphic designer as well as writer. He’s the creator and editor of Heterotopias, a magazine that examines video games from an architectural perspective. He eventually came to game development as he began dabbling in in-game photography and experimenting with Twine, a tool for creating interactive fiction. And last year, he participated in the 2017 DreamHack Jam, where he helped develop the winning game The Tower at Tortenna. He’s recruited composer Michael Berto, who also worked on that project, to create the soundtrack for In Other Waters.
As part of the Kickstarter campaign, Damian Martin will be releasing a full soundtrack by Berto as well as a book of paintings that show the actual creatures you’re encountering in the game. The art book is inspired by the manuals that used to accompany games, and it will feature notes from Nomura about her findings during her expeditions.
The characters in the game almost seem as curious as the alien life itself. Since you play as an AI, you are somewhat disconnected from it all. This relationship is also something that Damian Martin wanted to examine in the game.
“This kind of relationship, with the player being an AI and the protagonist being active and human, is something I wanted to explore, because I wanted to explore this idea of artificial life and natural life and the potential for allegiances between artificial and natural life, artificial and human life, how AI might relate to nature,” said Damian Martin. “Because we don’t often think about that, or I don’t feel like it’s talked about.”