I adore the ocean, so whenever a game like E-Line Media’s Beyond Blue pops up, I’m right there. The video-game is an ideal medium for ocean exploration, capable of creating the illusion of a vast expanse of blue and its uncharted depths and evoking feelings of utter isolation, which can be felt as either peaceful or terrifying, depending on your inclinations.
For me, it’s often both. So, before I get into Beyond Blue itself, I’m going to dig a little into why video-games helped nurture those twin feelings of love and fear.
Like a stone / Into the water / Sinking to the bottom / I let the air out / I disappear further and further and further down / But my breath will rise to the top / Rejoin at the surface
From about the age of 5, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always respond, “marine biologist”. I didn’t much know what a marine biologist did, mind; I had no real aptitude for the sciences. All I knew is that it meant exploring the ocean, and to me the ocean was a world as extraordinary and mysterious as any found in the fantasy and science-fiction novels I was gorging myself on at the time.
I was enticed by the ocean and afraid of it in equal measure, fixated on that mesmerising blue-green sheen – sometimes serene, other times turbulent – that served as a veil separating the world below from our own. I loved the water. I loved to swim. I loved being in that fantastical world, so teeming with exotic beauty, strange life, and dangers both visible and hidden.
I still do; that childhood reverence has never left me. If anything, it’s only expanded – in tandem with my understanding of the ocean as an essential element of our life here on Earth. And just like all those fantasy books of mine and the myriad threats their worlds faced, our ocean was under siege from threats of its own.
Only those threats? Each and every one was a consequence of human activity.
I love the ocean, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent we as a species either don’t love it enough or aren’t able to positively apply that love to its ecological well-being. That’s a big deal.
Treasures of the Deep, released for PlayStation in 1997 by Black Ops Entertainment, was my first taste of experiencing the ocean in a video-game. The demo came packaged in one of those old PlayStation magazines – PSM, or, um, PlayStation Magazine, and I lapped it up. The game punished players for killing harmless wildlife, inducing a welcome level of respect for the ethereal environment you had the privilege of inhabiting. There was a baddie, too, whose actions were wholly detrimental to the ocean. Simon Black, I think his name was. Totally a baddie.
The ocean game, then, was a system – or simulation – that could test our relationship to it, and the ways we might interact with its inhabitants, be that for good or ill.
Conversely, I was also playing Tomb Raider II at the time, which in one rather inventive level dropped Lara 40 fathoms below the ocean surface, pitch black in every direction. With no oxygen supply and only the faintest of hints as to where to go, it induced sheer dread and panic. Oh, and there were great white sharks gliding through the depths. Wildlife was never kind to Lara, but can you blame them? She lays waste to every ecosystem she finds herself in.
Anyway, the crimes of Ms Croft aside, both titles spoke to my twin feelings of fascination and fear when it came to the ocean. As the medium has moved forward we’ve seen some exemplary additions to the sub-genre, from the incredible Subnautica to the effervescent, damn near poetic ABZÛ.
E-Line Media’s entry – yep, Beyond Blue, in case you’ve forgotten why we’re here, for which I would not blame you – takes a different approach to the above titles, to varying levels of success.
Its development is associated with BBC Studios’ Blue Planet series and exploratory ocean initiative Ocean X, alongside a host of pioneering oceanographers and marine biologists who make an appearance in a series of unlockable mini-documentaries. Their inclusion elevates Beyond Blue into something of an educational simulation, the necessity of which couldn’t be more pressing as we hurtle heedlessly towards climate catastrophe.
Bleak? Yep, and Beyond Blue knows it. It wants you to know it, too.
You play as Mirai, a young woman who unlike me followed through on her dream to become a marine biologist and has, it must be said, become something of an expert. Beyond Blue is a little way into the future and you’re investigating a pod of sperm whales – Mirai’s particular fascination – in a region in the Pacific. In your ears are your two colleagues, André and Irina, both specialists in their respective fields with their own scientific objectives they seek to accomplish during Mirai’s dives.
The presence of these characters and their in-level banter was one of my favourite aspect of the game. Scientist-types are a regular staple in the medium, but these characters are the real deal – proper, bona fide scientists! Their authentic dialogue makes it feel as if you’re truly part of an expeditionary force driven by the benevolent passions of its members. You’re able to successfully follow the thread of the story being told, what’s at stake and why these dives – of which there are eight in total – matter by inculcating you into Mirai’s field of expertise.
So, what about the game bit, then? Hmm. Well. It’s here Beyond Blue’s at its weakest, although that feels unfair given the game’s openly simple (but never simplistic) intentions. It’s just that there’s actually very little to it in terms of engagement.
With each dive you’ll make your way to a buoy, identify the location of the sperm whales, swim towards them – a sublime piece of animation – through a series of diverse biomes, and then scan the whales once you’ve found them. Sure, there’s plenty other aquatic lifeforms inhabiting the reefs and dark depths of the ocean floor, and swimming alongside them is pure joy, but your interactions with them are just the same: click, scan, move on.
One wonders if there’s a little more depth (sorry) the developers could have infused into each of the levels given the complexities of each characters’ expertise. The mini-documentaries you unlock showcase a staggering variety of technological apparatus for studying the ocean, and I found myself wanting to see more of that in the game itself; as it is, it’s mostly alluded to in text from your colleagues. Similarly, I felt the documentation of the aquatic life you discover was far too thin, revealing little beyond their genus. Earlier this year I skipped through nearly every lore-laden log in DOOM ETERNAL, but I’d have joyfully lapped up bios on the delightful creatures I encountered during Beyond Blue’s dives.
I also feel like the game struggles to intertwine the two narratives it has in play. The central focus is the pod of sperm whales Mirai is tracking, which elicited all kinds of complex emotions in me – a reverence, melancholia, perhaps even a touch of love – and then there’s the interpersonal drama of Mirai’s colleagues and her sister, Ren. The friction between the two siblings is mostly fluff, adding little of value or interest.
Ren’s a struggling university student who’s having a tough time caring for their dementia-afflicted grandmother – a problem compounded by Mirai being so far away, or rather leagues below. The game tries to draw a connection between the ocean’s potential for improving our well-being and the trials of Mirai and Ren’s grandmother, but it doesn’t add to up to anything substantial or meaningful, and feels like an afterthought. A consequence, I think, of the game’s brevity and diluted focus beyond the technicalities of each mission.
If Ren was on the line during the inter-level sub breaks, I was invariably at risk of tuning out. It’s low-level, uninspired drama, and the writer in me wanted more. And that’s a shame: the voice cast is impeccable.
But as I said, it’s the story of Mirai and her sperm whales that propels the game forward. It kept me entranced, and eager to swim, swim, swim to their next location, as these enormous majestic creatures, who’re modelled and rendered with such grace, communicated with one another with all the ASMR you’d ever need to relax.
Beyond Blue is not like Treasures of the Deep. There is no Simon Black. But there is the unmistakable presence of nefarious deep-sea miners, whose illegal activities become more apparent as the game progresses.
Beyond Blue is also not like Tomb Raider II (OH REALLY, ROSS? OH REALLY?). There are sharks – lots of ‘em – but they’ve no interest in taking a bite out of you. Lara was lost, trapped and afraid in the ocean depths, but Mirai is at home – a place she wants to be, as often as she can. It’s always the next dive.
The game won’t last you very long, and it probably won’t involve and immerse you in its world – our world – as much it might have done, but I’d recommend it all the same.
I think, to round off, I’ll go with an anecdote. In one of the later missions, I was swimming through the twilight zone – beyond the reach of sunlight – investigating vents on behalf of Irina. We’d known something was wrong in the region for awhile, and we were trying to piece it together.
As I approached my goal, I swam into a spacious cavern, where, inches above me, glided a sleeper shark. I didn’t have to panic – he was perfectly comfortable with my presence. So I relaxed and we swam together; me towards the object of my study, he simply around the suburbs of his home.
Soon enough we emerged from that tunnel, and before me lay debris from the deep-sea mining we’d suspected had been taking place.
And as my new friend drifted on, disappearing into the perpetual dark it called home, I felt a pang of sadness and guilt, but he was gone before I could utter a meaningless, unintelligible apology. The problem was me and where I was from – that above world – but he wouldn’t know that. He just knew something was amiss.
I love the ocean. It’s why I’m able to be so shamelessly sentimental about it. But time is running out. Beyond Blue is far from the most sophisticated of ocean sims, but it’s worth the dive, if only for the reminder that there’s a great deal of beauty we can yet save, both for the extraordinary diversity of life beneath those waves, and for ourselves as well.
The Verdict – On Target
Platforms Available – PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (soon)
Platform Reviewed – PC
Review based on Steam media account copy. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.