There Is No Great Underwater Video Game, but There Will Be

The aquatic portions of blockbuster games tend to suck, but a few indie projects are proving that gaming can learn to swim.

This past week, I started to explore more in the world of Fallout 4, taking my power armor and trusty laser rifle to delve deeper into downtown Boston. Upon doing so, I came across a little boy named Donny, who helpfully told me about a sea monster in the bay ahead. Excited, I headed out to find a submarine, but as I submerged myself in my power armor and walked between sunken ships, I found only disappointment.

There simply isn’t much to find in the underwater areas of Fallout 4 — just a few scraps and some power armor. Even the dedicated players who took the time to map the entire underwater section didn’t find much. A fallow area is unusual for Fallout, but this emptiness is actually pretty par for course in terms of gaming. Underwater game play is bad; it has always been thus.

But why?

Nicholas Bashore

Underwater levels and areas are by no means unheard of — BioShock and SOMA engage in some nicely realized amphibious-ness — but they remain few and brief and far between. The reason for this appears to be threefold:

1) Many games have failed totally at underwater gameplay, which makes developers nervous. 2) Rejiggering character movement in underwater space without simply slowing everything down is difficult. 3) Things that look awesome on land or in the air, don’t look awesome underwater.

Take a look at the Water Temple from Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This is a perfect example of developers trying and totally failing to do something interesting with water.

Mocked as one of the worst and most difficult levels of all time, the Water Temple did a horrible job of mimicking what it felt like to be underwater. Not only did it slow every action to a crawl, but it made every area dark and indistinguishable from another — which led to plenty of frustration when you were trying to navigate through the temple. You also couldn’t swim because iron boots made more sense or something.

Link was hardly alone in experiencing this frustration.

Much like Zelda, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate worked to bring underwater fighting into the game with a poorly designed control scheme. Not only did you have to time your swings perfectly to get a hit, but you had to swim in a variety of different directions with delayed actions and slower movement speed. The first Lagiacrus fight felt to many like a good time to abandon MH3U. I, for one, put it down and never returned.

Gamers fear content that apes previous failures, so it makes sense that today’s developers would avoid replicating the sins of their forebears. Still, some have been brave enough to take on the aquatic challenge and met with some success.

Subnautica and Depth, both of which thrived on Steam’s early access program, revolve entirely around underwater gameplay and have devoted fanbases. There’s a reason why they work. The gameplay doesn’t feel like an afterthought.

Take Subnautica for example, where players work to survive after crash-landing into a planet covered by ocean. The controls perform well and they respond in a way similar to how you might feel underwater — you have a delay and slower reaction time, but not to a point that feels like it’s hindering the game from being enjoyable.

And that’s were the key to underwater levels lies; accurate but enjoyable controls that don’t feel overburdening.

It’s about time that we as gamers give these type of levels in video games another chance, or even try out entirely underwater-based video games all-together. Not only are developers working to improve on the shortcomings from previous video games, but they are working to create fantastic worlds that we haven’t had the pleasure of exploring yet.

In the coming years the video game industry is going to have to turn to new ideas; and while multiplayer worlds may seem like the ‘next big thing’, there’s no reason we couldn’t embrace the underwater world and explore a part of our planet we have barely seen in video games — who knows, we might even learn a thing or two about diving ourselves.

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