Sea of Solitude looks like a children’s picture book and plays like a diary entry written during an emotional crisis. It is emotional, beautiful, imperfect, and worth playing. In order to talk about why this game matters, I have to SPOIL key plot points, so if you want to avoid SPOILERS, stop reading now.
A city underwater, a city full of light
You play as Kay, a young woman who has been transformed into a monster and is lost in a flooded city full of other monsters. The game leads you through a sort of dream logic as you piece together Kay’s shattered memories of her life before.
The city alternates between bright and beautiful sunswept vistas and stormy, black and white nightmare areas that reminded me of the recently released Sinking City. But unlike that title, its alternation between storybook beauty and drab misery keeps exploration fresh. More importantly, the intense swings between joy and pain look the way mental illness feels. Sometimes everything is great and you’re hanging out on a boat, and sometimes it feels like a monster is trying to eat you.
Being a monster loving monsters
In Sea of Solitude, monsters are not antagonists. Some of them represent elements of Kay’s own psyche while others are her loved ones in disguise. Each monster’s design is stunning, and their visual design represents each character’s core issues.
One of the most interesting things about this game is how it approaches these monsters. While some of them taunt you (The first one you encounter, a representation of Kay’s own mental state, calls her a “worthless piece of shit”) others are pleading for help. These aren’t monsters to slay; they’re people you love.
The second monster you encounter is an enormous raven. He is Kay’s little brother Sunny, transformed by the trauma of bullying. Kay, wrapped up in her relationship with her boyfriend, pays little to no attention to him. The game leads you through his experiences, putting you in his shoes, navigating a school full of dark, ghostly bullies.
He transforms back into himself after you promise to always make time for him and never leave his side. This is Kay’s first quest, and it leads you to believe that if you are just a good enough person you can fix everything.
The next quest blows a hole in that proposition. The next two monsters you meet are actually Kay’s parents, and you get to see their initial romance, marriage, and total communication breakdown. This is not a problem that Kay can solve, just a mess she can watch unfold. She wants to keep her parents together, but in the end, she realizes that the best thing to do is to allow them to divorce.
SoS is smart enough to realize that not every relationship can be saved with the application of love, care, and video game magic. The game further drives this point home with the arrival of the final monster. Kay’s boyfriend, Jack, is represented by a giant wolf. Jack suffers from intense, chronic depression, and pushes Kay away. There’s nothing she can do to help him – he needs to get through this on his own. In fact, her attempts to push her way through his defenses only hurts him more.
Unlike previous monsters, who are all black with red eyes, wolf Jack is pure white. But when Kay touches him, his snowy white exterior is revealed to be a shell that falls away, revealing the black, monstrous wolf underneath.
In the end, the game is not about victory – it’s about accepting change and its necessity. Human relationships take wrong turns and fall apart. And Kay, herself a furry black monster, is also in need of a profound change.
The most interesting monster by far, is the furry fish monster. From the earliest moments in the game, it haunts your steps, always just beneath the surface, waiting for Kay to make a false move. When you do, it blasts Kay into the air, snatches her in its jaws, and devours her. It also calls Kay to swim with her, a siren song leading her to her destruction. After she loses Jack, the fish monster claims that she’ll always be with Kay.
And in a way, she will. The fish monster is Kay’s own chronic depression – it’s never defeated or destroyed, but rather transformed during the game’s climax into something that Kay can integrate into herself. In a way, she consumes her depression, instead of her depression consuming her.
In the end, SoS makes the point that the pain of life and mental illness isn’t something you defeat – it’s something you incorporate into your life, and that successful coping is a victory.
Sea of Solitude does for loneliness and depression what Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice does for trauma and schizophrenia. In the end, it feels less like a game and more like letting your best friend cry on your shoulder. It’s not a perfect game; the voice acting is weak and the dialogue is sometimes simplistic. The mechanic of gathering other people’s darkness into Kay’s rapidly expanding backpack, while ludonarratively apt, gets a bit repetitive after a while.
But the game’s flaws are almost beside the point. SoS is a deeply personal work. It’s an open mic poem, a diary entry, a rung of a ladder that leads out of darkness. It is “game as catharsis” for its creators, and perhaps players as well.