Sea of Solitude is the tale of Kay, a girl who fights the monster that is depression in a city drowning with despair.
You begin Sea of Solitude in a boat, surrounded by buildings submerged in water. As you navigate your boat through the city, you come across a flying girl in a yellow raincoat. She introduces you to your Flare power which helps indicate where you need to go in the game — but when a monster comes to challenge you, she flies off to distract it and becomes captured. Looking to find and rescue her along with discovering your purpose in this strange world, you sail on into the distance.
As you discover more about this monster, you begin to understand a bit more about yourself in the process. Your boat is the only thing that distributes light in the world as long as the monster is around, but you quickly realize how it shines as a beacon of hope and a means of moving through the sunken city. Your flare also helps, but serves more as a means to showcase direction and not eliminate the darkness itself.
The monster has red eyes that pierce through the rain and darkness and swims around the water as a huge fish, but it will gladly get into your face to scream at you about your insignificance and worthlessness from time to time. In order to qualm its torment, you must rescue glowing figures encapsulated in evil tendrils and release light to attack the monster. Sometimes, you find yourself connecting with these beings of light to redirect a beam of yellow brilliance towards the monster. These moments find a particular amount of intensity due to Kay literally screaming in pain as you will yourself to complete these tasks.
Purging the darkness from the evil that surrounds those figures also has you absorbing it into yourself, adding that weight to your own burden — but it’s the only way to advance. As the fish-like creature continues to swim around you as you scale the half-submerged buildings, it paces, waiting for any mistake on your footing so it can gladly swallow you whole.
A mere dip in the water when trying to swim from platform to platform will have the monster racing at you, requiring you to focus on where it’s swimming from and judging the timing to ensure you have enough to make it across. The force of this monster’s hatred can even be felt as it bashes into buildings with tremendous speed, shaking you — and your controller — as you barely escape its gaping maw. At moments, you’ll even be reminded of Jaws, without the iconic bass line. These tense moments linger even after you’ve made it to safety, bringing a constant sense of dread replaced with small triumphs, over and over again.
Later on, you will come across another creature, which has the form of a gigantic, black crow. Still donning the same red, darkness-piercing eyes, it tends to watch you instead of lingering about the waters below. This area, which represents a school, showcases the darkness contained within the hearts of bullies. Shadowy figures the same height as Kay will push her around, keeping her from passing. Leading these figures out to an open space and running around them allow Kay to get past them, but an abundance of open floorboards lead to the water below, and grasping arms reaching from below its depths serve as an additional challenge to avoid. This part of the story is an exaggerated scene about Kay’s little brother Sunny, but the words and emotions running through the ever-present dialogue between Sunny and his assailants feel frighteningly real. It’s heart-wrenching to hear the names and hate spewed at him throughout this part of the game, but maybe it’s a reality some people have never experienced or even have, and it makes the emotional weight of this game even heavier for it.
There are those dark moments pitting you in a constant battle of speed and wits against these larger-than-life monsters and their minions, but there are also moments where after rescuing a glowing figure, the sea will part and peel away, allowing you to walk freely within the walls of water on all sides, suspended there as if by magic. These gorgeous surreal moments are where the style and execution of the brilliantly designed art of the game really shines. The duality of despair and happiness are showcased well throughout the perilous journey, properly showcasing the emotional rollercoaster ride of life with depression.
Kay herself may be tied down with the emotions and the physical baggage that comes with them, but progress through the game means she begins to understand herself and a bit more about the monsters that stalk her. Sea of Solitude takes a heavy subject and brings it to life in a sometimes horrifying but ultimately relatable way. The use of music and visuals to showcase the difference between good moments and bad appropriately capture them in a way that is otherwise hard to describe in words.
I feel that Sea of Solitude is a hard recommendation due to the subject matter, but it delivers a solid message and a beautiful allegory of what living with depression is truly like. As someone that deals with this on a daily basis, it’s great to see an artistic representation in video game form of such a tough subject with real consequences. I feel Jo-Mei Games did an excellent job in creating this ethereal story and the journey through the game, while tough at times, is a worthy experience to live through, as it showcases a bright beacon on understanding mental health. To me, that’s a great way to use the art form and I commend them for having the boldness to create such an iconic game and treat its subject matter with utmost respect.