[Author’s Note: I was generously given a key to the game by the developers.]
Three years in the making, Even the Ocean is the artistic successor of Anodyne, and the result of talented developers Joni Kittaka and Sean Han-Tani-Chen-Hogan. The protagonist, Aliph, is a young power plant technician who is subjected to a mysterious event that places her on the frontlines of an energy and environmental crisis. It probably takes about ten to fifteen hours to complete both gameplay and narrative, but this estimate could vary wildly due to the multitude of features.
Checking the options against the moody backdrop of the opening menu offered settings to turn off flashing or shaking scenes, change controller mapping, player immortality, and more. In addition, there are narrative and gameplay style choices. Whether people prefer to just hear the story, want to speedrun, or give the default way a try, there’s a preference for all kinds of players. Personalization of playstyle is paramount.
Even the Ocean’s primary gameplay mechanic is a double-edged sword. To complete the levels, a balance of light and dark energies must be maintained and manipulated to access areas, up and down, left and right. Energy is radiated from mists, plants, and ghosts — to name but a few sources — and these energies permeate everything in the world. Everything has its place on the continuum, and the balance is Aliph’s life bar. Exceed too much light or dark energy, and she will die.
Undoubtedly, it’s a challenging platformer, and perfecting a particularly foxing puzzle is very satisfying. The levels are varied and constructed with an admirable attention to detail, and save points are sprinkled sufficiently. Some instances of leaping and sliding and timing are a little ornery, but there is an option to turn on helper blocks if you’re stuck. The fusion of platforming with the romantic and atmospheric soundtrack makes for an introspective playthrough.
In the introduction, the Storyteller emphasizes that the stability of the two energies present in the world is essential to the setting. Equality is the ideal, but through the detailed world the developers conjured up, the player discovers an urban environment where this ideal is not actualized.
The Apex District of Whiteforge City — home to the privileged and wealthy — is tall and imposing with its silver spires brushing the clouds, an excess of vertical energy. In contrast, taking the train to Murex Park reveals buildings that are plain and rustic, and little gardens and small kitchens colored with warm earthen tones.
The characters inhabiting these two spaces and everywhere in-between are very diverse in personality, all acting as points on the spectrum of social identity. With each return home and reflective scribbling in their journal, Aliph finds the world evolving in response to the crisis the population faces.
It is with the use of this symbolism that Even the Ocean finds its strength. Outlandish environments, spectral creatures, and futuristic architecture filtered through nostalgic 2D pixels provides the surface for a recognizable political and societal structure. Authentic, sometimes comical, sometimes emotional dialogue between characters is cute without being shallow. And despite proffering a very essentialist lens to view the world, it shows the limitations of such an approach.
Even the Ocean is a game created with perceptible and all-encompassing care; care for the final product and care for the player. Options are woven into its mechanics and its storyline. Even if it seems like there’s a rocky road ahead of us, there will always be someone to help, and there will always be a place for respite. The journey is uniquely your own.
That’s a pretty powerful message to convey — implicitly or not — and I would argue that this game is one of the ‘mirrors’ Charlotte discusses in her article on post-U.S. election pop culture. Even the Ocean writes a love letter to those everyday heroes in our world as we know it now, and urges us to continue on with hope in our hearts and empowering conviction.
It’s an excellent sentiment to take into 2017.