All humans carry an inherent fear of the ocean, to some degree. If not outright fear, at least a trepidation for its lower depths; what might be lurking beneath the surface. It relates to the fear of the unknown. The furthest depths of the ocean are largely a mystery, and traversing them is incredibly difficult, near-impossible. Humans have tried, to sometimes deadly consequences. In the narrative game Under the Waves, developed by Parallel Studio and published by Quantic Dream, the full breadth of that fear is explored, via its connection to grief, and mourning.
“Despite the fact that we’re oxygen-breathing creatures that would easily be crushed by terrible pressure in a world of complete darkness, I could say that the abyss is also a real-life incarnation of our subconscious,” Sebastien Renard, writer of Under the Waves told GamesHub.
“We know it’s there, but we don’t want to look inside for fear of finding something we don’t want to see. I think we’ve all already felt that vertigo of the depth when swimming far from the shore.”
In Under the Waves, you are Stan, a professional diver who retreats to his work underwater in an effort to deal with the pain of loss and hopelessness in the real world. The ocean becomes a blanket for Stan – but his retreat also breeds a growing dread, as the ocean around him is transformed, made stranger by grief-induced visions.
Horror in the ocean depths
For Parallel Studio, this isolated retreat from the real world was a way to explore the human mind and how it processes emotions – with the underwater setting of the game serving as a symbol for the pressures of living, and dealing with the consequences of your actions. Stan may retreat – but the ocean is no escape.
“It’s a game about isolation, about looking into your own mind when everything gets pitch black,” Renard, said. “Above all, it’s about the quietness and silent generosity of nature, where our hero faces his own past, finding refuge in illusions the players will witness beside him.”
“Why would some people choose to isolate themselves below for weeks, such as deep sea divers operating on underwater work sites?” Renard asked, in the process of writing the game. “We wanted to take inspiration from them to tell the intimate story of Stan, and take profit of it to address the matter of pollution, in a metaphor of a man facing painful memories, torn between the surface and the depth.”
As Stan parses his own trauma and regret, Parallel Studio carves layers into his journey. As Stan grieves, this reflects real-life issues: of climate change, coral bleaching, pollution, and the destruction of the natural ecosystem.
The horrors we cause
In this process, the sad beauty of the ocean is revealed, with the underlying narrative touching on what Renard calls a “heartbreaking history” of the ocean depths. Human grief defines the narrative of Under the Waves – not only for personal circumstances, but for the ocean itself.
As Parallel Studio makes clear, the ocean may be unknowable, but it’s not impervious. Humans have a very real impact on natural environments, and the consequences of their actions are explored deeply in Under the Waves, in parallel to Stan’s tale of woe.
To explore themes of environmental disaster from that human perspective, the Parallel team studied material around oil rigs, deep sea mining, and professional diving, as well as the history of wrecks that litter the ocean depths and how they impact sea life. How oil spills have reshaped the oceans, and why these natural ecosystems must survive for a sustainable future.
Concept artists Paul Chadeisson and Pierre Lazawerich helped to shape this vision, with films like James Cameron’s Abyss, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, and vintage documentaries from Jacques Cousteau also inspiring the claustrophobic, dread-filled exploration of the adventure.
Under the Waves presents its protagonist with horrific visions but equally, it presents a world of sheer, unique beauty, as it explores the ever-changing and ever-impacted nature of the ocean.
It’s not an obtuse metaphor: we are the ocean. The tides may change with the moon, but it’s the impact of human activity that most changes the natural world. Our activities and creations that may pollute it. And the work of deep sea divers and ecological foundations that may save it.
Under the Waves is described as a “love letter” to the ocean, as the game explores its multi-facets from so many unique angles – our inherent fear of it, our love for its beauty, and how it changes beneath our hands. With the tale told through the eyes of human grief, it presents a tale with relatable stakes, humanising the ocean in a way that strengthens our bond with it.
As Parallel reveals on its website, profits from the game support the Surfrider Foundation Europe, a non-profit working to protect the oceans – so it also has a tangible impact on the real world. In exploring the ocean depths, Parallel Studio and Quantic Dream hope to leave an important mark on players – and on the unique, fragile ocean ecosystem that exists as a reflection of human life.
Under the Waves is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.