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How ecological adventure In Other Waters's planet-wide mystery gives players hope

"My aim was to make In Other Waters a game which brings the player through the despair of discovering the history of climate change and human ecological destruction towards a position of hope."

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.

In Other Waters, which was nominated for both Excellence in Narrative and Excellence in Visual Design for IGF 2021, casts the player as an AI assisting a xenobiologist, helping her research, sample, and catalogue the alien beings of another planet's oceans.

Gareth Damian Martin, the game's creator, spoke with Gamasutra about what interested them in having the player act as a helpful AI rather than the main character, the research that went into creating a compelling world, and how the connection between the character and the AI captures the game's theme of symbiosis.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing In Other Waters?

I'm Gareth Damian Martin, and I am the (mostly) solo developer behind In Other Waters. That means I wrote, designed, and developed the game, with sound and music left to Amos Roddy and additional programming and porting by Chris Payne and Zion Siton.

In Other Waters is actually my first fully-fledged game! While I had previously done some twine experiments and game jam games, my background is primarily in two fields: literature, in which I have a PhD, and graphic and video design. I have also been writing about games for over a decade now, and you can find my writing in many online publications, and also my own zine, which focuses on games spaces and architecture, Heterotopias.

How did you come up with the concept for In Other Waters

In Other Waters came to me during a long summer in Greece where I swam in the Aegean every day; the moods of the sea and its creatures captured my imagination. I settled on the idea of playing as an AI in the dive suit of a biologist because I wanted to explore how text-games could be given richer and more varied interaction, and the idea bloomed from there. As someone with a long-standing love of sci-fi interface design and marine biology, In Other Waters was very much the meeting point of my own obsessions and interests.

What development tools were used to build your game?

In Other Waters was built in Unity, and thanks to a visual scripting tool called PlayMaker, I was able to create the game without writing a single line of code myself (although some code was written by my helpful tool programmers Chris and Zion!). Accessible tools are a key part of my story with In Other Waters, as someone who comes from outside of a traditional games development background, being able to invent workflows that worked for me was the difference between being able to make a game and, well, not!

What drew you to create a planet-wide mystery? What compelled you to create a planet filled with a secret history for players to uncover?

A big part of what I love in games is uncovering the past of a place. Metroid Prime was one of my first loves, and In Other Waters draws inspiration from that game's world, which always seemed to have more to offer the more you looked at (and scanned) it. But I also wanted to make a game about humanity's relationship to the world around us, to nature and life itself, and so a key part of the game had to be a process of uncovering histories that are concealed or hidden.

Narratively, Ellery’s journey into the dark history of the planet is designed to evoke the process of discovery we experience when we read about the natural history of our own planet, where wonder often becomes horror as we discover our own impact on the world around us. Having a young daughter, and seeing her experience this firsthand, where the excitement of reading about whales, for example, can’t be separated from the discovery of the violent history of commercial whaling, motivated my design of this narrative structure. My aim was to make In Other Waters a game which brings the player through the despair of discovering the history of climate change and human ecological destruction towards a position of hope, where new ways of existing symbiotically with our environment, and understanding its life scientifically, might be possible.

What thoughts went into creating an entire alien planet? How did you come up with this surreal, captivating world?

There's a lot of research behind the world of In Other Waters. In creating a game where the player could study their environment, I needed to create a world worth studying, one where the ecology made a certain kind of sense, but also where wonder and mystery were always present. Generally, I started with the game's different biomes and used them as frames to help me create the creatures. What kind of adaptations are needed for a toxic environment? For deep water? How can creatures survive in Brine Pools? How can they communicate or interact with each other?

The game features a full scientific taxonomy, with which I consulted with experienced biologists on during development, in order to provide an accessible system that would accurately reflect the systems of classification used in biological science. It was of vital importance to me that the game represented biological science with some level of accuracy and that the alien creatures of the planet made sense as living entities, and so this taxonomy is filed with ideas expanded from the cutting-edge biology of our current moment, such as recent studies on fungal communication networks within ancient forests, or recent advances in understanding cephalopod intelligence. In this way, the game acts as an introduction to biological concepts that players, if they wish, can learn more about through their own research and apply to creatures in our own incredible oceans.

The UI forms a vital part of the game's exploration. What ideas went into creating it?

As a solo developer and someone with a history in graphic design, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the power of limited color and symbol languages to evoke the biomes of this alien world. Carefully selected two-color palettes are used throughout the game to capture the atmosphere of each region of the ocean, while a consistent and focussed set of icons and shapes make the otherwise abstract world clearly readable to the player.

The interface design, inspired by Japanese industrial design and anime interfaces of the 1980s and 90s, does away with the currently fashionable trend for complex arrangements of holographic lines, and instead focuses on tactile interaction, asymmetrical layouts, and clean block colors. This carefully-considered minimalism came out of careful iteration and research throughout development, with an eye to create an intuitive and yet playfully mysterious UI and to evoke exotic imagery through simple tools.

What drew you to the game's visual style? How did it strengthen the feel and themes of the game?

In Other Waters is, at its heart, a narrative game. However, unlike most narrative games, you never see the world you are exploring, the character you are talking to, or even your own character. That's because, by casting the player as an AI locked inside the systems of a dive suit, In Other Waters flips the script on the typical video game setup and instead explores the potential for text, abstract visuals, signals, and systems to evoke a whole ocean and the stories contained within it.

For me, the power of the game lies in the way it plays on the player's imagination, and so the visual style of the game had to support this. There's a delicate balance to evoking a world rather than plainly describing it, and so I went through a lot of iterations of color palettes, symbols, shapes and animations to try to make the world feel alive and alien. I knew I was going in the right direction when at shows and conventions people would dreamily take the headphones off from a long play session as if they'd just surfaced from the depths of the ocean. This is what I wanted to capture, this feeling of being immersed in a world that lives as much in your own mind as it does on the screen.

How did you decide what activities Ellery could take up in the game? How did you create play and interactions from discovering places and animals?

For me, the focus was very much on creating an experience that was true to the idea of "studying" life. I watched hours of live-streamed deep sea exploration from projects like Okeanos Explorer, and tried to create a play experience that captured the purposeful rhythm of observation and sampling that those dives have. Because of this, Ellery will record observations, name and classify creatures live, and comment on the players actions to give that sense of science "in progress". The scan and travel system also encourages players to think about each step forward, and to observe the world as they do, something we so rarely do in games when rushing headlong towards a new objective.

I also designed In Other Waters so that it is up to the player to decide which species they wish to study. At any time, they can interrupt the main narrative to learn more about a creature of their choice. This allows the player a more expressive role than in a linear narrative structure, but I was careful to make it so that all the discoveries the player can optionally make ultimately lead back to the central theme of the game, that of symbiosis.

For me, this is a key part of the game’s narrative. While the core story explores a very particular kind of symbiosis between the player and Ellery, the various studies demonstrate other forms of symbiosis and other ideas of how different creatures relate to their environment. The game’s taxonomy is not just an encyclopedia of lore or world-building, but is instead a narrative in itself about symbiosis, adaptation, and the multifarious ways in which life forms bonds of cooperation and cohabitation, just as Ellery and the player do.

What drew you to make the player the AI instead of having them act as Ellery? How do you feel this shaped the experience in an interesting way?

This was the starting point for In Other Waters - telling a story where the player assists a character, lives alongside them, and ultimately develops a relationship with them. Symbiosis was a core theme, and I wanted to explore that at every level of the game. An interesting part of this, which I settled on early in development, is that Ellery should be the author of almost all the text the player reads in the game. Each bit of text had to be expressive of Ellery’s character as an enthusiastic, committed scientist with a painful personal history, as everything, from the taxonomy entries describing creatures to the journal she keeps in the game's hub base, is written by her. This provided a unique challenge but also a unique set of possibilities.

The result is a game which creates a strong bond between the player and Ellery through a series of carefully-chosen techniques. A simple yes/no response system is specifically designed to feel initially limiting, encouraging the player to push against it, and perhaps vocalize their thoughts out loud while playing. This initial tension is used to create a desire for a human connection that then, over the course of the game, is built piece by piece. Ellery’s journals, meanwhile, which appear at a carefully-controlled pace throughout the game, give the player a powerful insight into Ellery’s past and her relationship with Minae Nomura.

This relationship is an important part of the game, and builds a nuanced picture of a queer relationship that goes beyond sterotypes. As a queer developer, this narrative was very important to me, but it also plays an important role in creating an intimate connection between the player and Ellery through the trust Ellery places in them.

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