Sea of Solitude review

Kay is alone. A lantern glows at the front of her wooden rowboat, illuminating the dark sea below. In Sea of Solitude’s flooded city, few places are safe from the monsters that lurk in the depths. Our heroine can hear whispers of them as they slink through the murky water — the most dangerous of which has dagger-like teeth and will swallow her whole. But she’s safe on her boat, one of the few safe spots in the game’s underwater world. She becomes attached to it as if it were a friend. When she has her boat, Kay doesn’t have to worry about treading water; her body can rest, with little risk of drowning.

In early April, the writer Anna Borges published an essay in The Outline about chronic, passive suicidal ideation. She wrote that it’s like existing in the ocean, “not as sea creatures do, native and equipped with feathery gills to dissolve oxygen for my bloodstream, but alone, with an expanse of water at all sides.” Borges wrote that these chronic thoughts are like treading water. Sometimes it’s like swimming through a storm, all waves and rain. Other times, the water is clear and calm — “but you’re always, always in the ocean,” she wrote. Borges keeps herself afloat with what she calls life preservers, a system of treatment and support that are essential when her legs get tired.

At the beginning of Sea of Solitude, Kay only has her wooden rowboat. I spend the rest of the game with her searching for a much larger raft.

Jo-Mei Games/Electronic Arts

Sea of Solitude, developed by German studio Jo-Mei Games and published by Electronic Arts, is about a similar sort of loneliness that Borges discussed: looking over the edge of your rowboat and seeing only oceans and submerged buildings. A Berlin-looking city rests underwater, its pastel hues obscured by a mixture of light and dark blue-green tones.

Kay zigzags across the familiar city, unlocking memories and grappling with her ingrained loneliness. Kay travels by boat, on foot, and sometimes by swimming, often where she’s at risk of being devoured — literally and figuratively — by those feelings, which are represented by a shadowy sea monster with a humanoid face.

But Kay encounters a bunch of other monsters during Sea of Solitude, each of which represents an important person in her life. An oversized raven with sad eyes is a version of her younger brother. Her father is represented by an ornery chameleon; her mother, a feathered octopus-like creature. She also meets a white wolf with a dark interior, an imagining of a recent ex-boyfriend.

The monsters are expressions of the tremendous trauma that Kay’s experienced in her life: the dramatic collapse of her parents’ marriage, the bullying that could have killed her brother, and a toxic relationship and subsequent breakup. There’s a piece of Kay in each of these monsters, reflecting back her own insecurities. The monsters and visions in Sea of Solitude are based in Kay’s reality, but filtered through the self-hate and loneliness she’s experiencing. She sees herself as responsible for what she’s experienced, and so she’s detached herself from the real world, what we see in Sea of Solitude.

For example, Kay’s brother is represented by a scared black raven with huge, sad eyes. Through her confrontation with him in this form, she realizes the pain he’s experienced in his young life, bullied to the point where he wonders if he should even be alive. In a platforming-puzzle section of the game, Kay meets her brother’s bullies inside a school. She dodges their darkened spirits as they whisper nasty things in her direction. But it’s not only the bullies that she’s confronting. Kay also takes on her own perceived complacency in her brother’s life. She berates herself for ignoring her brother’s plight when she was consumed by her own life. For that, the monsters tell her she’s selfish.

Elsewhere in Sea of Solitude, scenes linger on fights between her parents, ones that eventually lead to their divorce. There, the monsters say she’s the burden that caused the split. The monsters that whisper these words into your ear let these thoughts linger for too long, creating a filter through which the world is viewed. In Sea of Solitude, it’s quite literally a dark filter that dulls the game’s colorful world. And when you fail, they devour you whole.

The scenarios that play out in Sea of Solitude, despite its metaphorical monsters, are all very literal. Monsters tethered to Kay’s drowned city each have very specific, personal narratives of their own. Each has its own fantastical elements, but they’re all embedded in Kay’s version of reality. Jo-Mei Games does use metaphor in Sea of Solitude to tell its story, but it’s not abstract like a game such as Nomada Studio’s Gris, which is an aesthetic adventure-platformer wherein the player is bringing color back to a gray world. There are few words spoken in Gris, and that’s where its power is — players are able to interpret the game however they choose. Some see it as a meditation on overcoming fear; others called it a reflection on depression, trauma, or grief. It can also just be a pleasing-to-play game. You can see the emotion there, or you can not.

Sea of Solitude is not subtle in its warning about the power and danger of loneliness. The monsters are not just a metaphor for Kay’s self-hate: They hate her, too. One of the first encountered in the game berates her: You’re a piece of shit! Throughout the game, Kay’s got an internal dialogue that responds to her memories and emotions. She wonders out loud how she could be so selfish, how she could have put such a burden on her parents as she eliminates “corruption” from the city and her mind.

Jo-Mei Games/Electronic Arts

The lack of subtlety in Sea of Solitude makes the game’s intention explicit: to tell a deeply personal story about mental health. There were, at times, when Kay’s voice-over felt a little too precise; her internal monologue walks the player through her emotional state, leaving little to be interpreted. But that may very well be the point. Within the kind of lonely mindset of Sea of Solitude, the internal monologue takes over. Nothing is vague — that voice is always sharp — and it’s easy to become fixated, for the negativity to become repetitive and seemingly inescapable

But for me, the story worked best when it wasn’t so loud and so blunt. Little details hidden in the flooded world suggest that this is a space Kay’s been before, a world she’s both familiar and unfamiliar with. Messages from a past self are tucked away in bottles, one of two collectibles in what Jo-Mei Games has called the “wide linear” world. (Wide linear is a reference to the linear storyline that allows for a semi-open-world feeling. The story will continue linearly, but players are free to explore parts of the city and find collectibles like bottled messages and seagulls.) Later in the game, a monster that represents, perhaps, Kay’s fear — a human form in a hermit crab shell — tells us that this is the furthest she’s ever traveled in Sea of Solitude. It’s a suggestion that she’s been playing these memories on repeat, some too painful to have yet been dug up.

To set expectations: This isn’t a game of winners or losers, either. Sea of Solitude is a game about achieving equilibrium.

Kay’s first words are a reference to this: “I’m still trying to piece it together, but I can’t.” The thing about Sea of Solitude is that she actually can. Though the game often defers to the dark parts of Kay’s mind, there is no failure. Obstacles aren’t necessarily mechanically challenging, but they do expertly represent each scenario’s emotional toll. For instance, when she’s reliving her brother being bullied, Kay has to dodge possessed children who are shoving her around and whispering devastating insults. When her parents are fighting, she’s juggling tasks like dodging monsters, collecting light, and navigating maze-like environments — each a nod to the ongoing struggle she’s working through.

Each time she’s devoured whole or knocked to the ground, she comes back with a message: No, I can’t give up.

The interesting part of Sea of Solitude is that while there is a neat little bow tied off at the ending — again, nothing is very vague — the game doesn’t end perfectly. Not all of Kay’s problems could be solved. She just learns how to approach challenges in her life, when to linger on something and when to leave it be. She learns to tread water, and when she gets tired, she can always hop on her boat.

Sea of Solitude is now available on PS4, Xbox One, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed using “final” pre-release code provided by Electronic Arts. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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