Transcript — A Love Letter to Video Game Oceans

This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/QwloiRmPHis

I don’t know where my love of water came from. My mum, who is definitely watching this video, will definitely say that it’s because I’m a Pisces, and even though I do not believe in astrology, there’s something about this particular thing that fits. When I was a kid I felt such an affinity with the sea that I used to sing songs to it as I splashed around in the waves. And no, I don’t remember the lyrics.

When we used to go vacationing at the beach, I’d find the highest place on the rocks that I could safely jump into the water from and just climb and dive and climb and dive infinitely. The whole process never stopped being amazing and wonderful to me — climbing to the top, gathering my courage, flying through the air, and being swallowed up safely by the sea. Every plunge was a tiny journey of bravery, trust, and release.

Another thing I did a lot as a child was play video games. And like many children of the 90s, Banjo-Kazooie was a staple of my childhood. Every alcove and ledge and bouncy melody in that game will remain lodged deep inside my brain until I die. One of the best levels in that game is Treasure Trove Cove, a wonderland of seaside imagery — a giant sandcastle, a treasure hunt, and, of course, “this giant enemy crab”. But my favourite thing to do in that level was to spring into the air and fly as high as I could, up to where the jaunty steel drums and glockenspiels fade away, leaving only the squawking of the gulls and the swishing of the wind through the palm trees. And from here, from this impossibly high vantage point (or what felt like it at the time), I’d plunge straight down into the water below. I’d do it even though that goddamn shark always showed up two seconds later. Goofy animations and sound effects aside, this plummet, this dive bomb to end all dive bombs, always felt so exhilarating to me. The fact that you could take this crash dive that would otherwise kill you instantly and instead have the ocean catch you up safely, at least until the goddamn shark showed up.

Just quietly, I don’t think the ocean in this level gets enough credit for the way it makes the cove feel infinitely vast. Unlike the poorly textured walls that enclose the other levels, in Treasure Trove Cove you can look out at that big blue and feel for a second like the invisible walls you know are there don’t exist, like you might be able to sail forever through that endless expanse of sea and sky. I know, it’s weird that I’m talking about Banjo-Kazooie, of all things, as a profound moment in my gaming life, but darn it, it is.

Playing Banjo-Kazooie, I was invariably drawn to these dizzying dives, in the same way I was drawn to those rockside plunges at the beach, the water below always calling me to take another beautiful leap of faith. And I always would, and there was always a small part of me that was incredulous that I landed safely. Until the damn shark showed up. I hate that fricking shark. Banjo-Kazooie never did let me just enjoy the water. There was always something — a shark, or poisonous sludge or painfully freezing ice water — that meant I couldn’t stay in there too long without getting hurt. Banjo-Kazooie never lets you just enjoy being in the water. The sequel, though, that’s a different story.

When I was a kid, I loved the ocean but I was never happy just splashing around on the surface. I liked diving deep, as far straight down as I could go. I’d spend swimming lessons sliding around the bottom of the pool like an eel, and while I couldn’t freestyle to save my life, I could swim the entire length of the pool underwater. Honestly, the only reason I didn’t win any medals for swimming at school is because they never had a category for ‘length swam underwater without having to go up for air’, coz I would have won that. In any case, going far was never as interesting for me as going deep.

And the year 2000 delivered. That year, Majora’s Mask let me put a weird dead fish guy’s face on my face so I could turn into a fish-man and cut shapes through the water like a dolphin and smash into things with my face like an idiot. And I can’t describe how huge this was for a little half-fish Pisces child who belonged to the sea. It was the first time I’d played a 3D game that made swimming through the ocean not only possible but joyful, graceful, incredible to control, delicious to look at. I’d spend ages, sitting on my bed, just tilting the joystick left and right and gliding through the waters of the Great Bay.

Then, seven months later, the sequel to Banjo-Kazooie released. I still adore every single level of Banjo-Kazooie, but the reason I love Banjo-Tooie, with all my heart, is because of just one level. The level that lets you breathe underwater.

The above-ground portion of Jolly Roger’s Lagoon is an absolute gem from moment one. It’s a sleepy little beachside town with cute old timey shops and a drunk pirate and… hey, there’s Treasure Trove Cove. Did I mention the currency is doubloons? This tiny village just erupts charm and I will absolutely move in here as soon as humans perfect the technology that allows us to assimilate ourselves into Nintendo 64 cartridges. I fell in love with Jolly Roger’s Lagoon far before I realised the trick this level was playing on me, the trick being that this isn’t the level at all. Because, at one point, you cast a spell that oxygenates the water and then you dive in, and you dive, and you dive, and oh shit — this is the level.

Suddenly, this underwater well, which was previously impossible to explore without running out of air, becomes a portal to another world. I’m sure this wasn’t intentional, but this hole reminds me so much of the pictures I’ve seen of Jacob’s Well, a spring located in Hays County, Texas, with a hole that drops straight down for about 50 feet, before turning into a series of underwater chambers connected by extremely narrow passages. This vertical hole in the water is so enticing to explorers that at least nine people have dived into it and never come back up. This is because of the dangerous nature of cave diving — you’re navigating narrow, pitch-black passages, with the constant risk that part of the cave will collapse, or that you’ll kick up some of the fine silt on the cave floor and lose your vision, or that you’ll take a wrong turn and never find your way out. But just look at this hole! This well looks so deliberately built to welcome you into its depths that it looks just like another hole that was deliberately built to welcome you into its depths.

As a kid who spent all her time at the pool diving straight down I can absolutely understand this downward pull, the irresistible curiosity that would beckon you to traverse that tunnel to adventure — or death. And while I will never, ever take up cave diving, as a kid I could dive into this hole, and I could visit that other world, I could traverse the caves and discover sunken ships and list cities and…aliens?… and go on all the adventures that I’ll never be able to have in real life without the very real risk of drowning in the dark. And while I know this was probably just a result of the game’s technical and practical limitations, it’s not lost on me that the world underneath Jolly Roger’s Lagoon could be described pretty accurately as a series of underwater chambers connected by extremely narrow passages.

The moment you first dive into what I’m calling Jolly Roger’s Well is the moment this game becomes something really special. One of the first things you notice after the first chamber opens up is that the music changes — the jolly pipes melt away into a new melody, breezy strings and bubbly percussion combining to create a tantalising call to exploration and discovery, somehow both soothing and exciting.

Here’s something you’ve got to admit, even if you hate water levels : the music in watery environments is some of the most hauntingly beautiful video game music that exists, on any console. Donkey Kong Country had a lot of bangers, but for me, nothing tops the smooth mellow synth of Aquatic Ambience. I’ll always look forward to returning to the watery halls of Zora’s Domain, and you know why. This song is two and a half minutes of pure Zen, delivered straight into the earholes. Not to mention this area is home to probably the sickest high dive this generation of games produced.

It’s not just the music in water levels that captivates me, but the way the music changes when you go underwater. Anyone who’s played a 3D Mario game will know what I’m talking about. But why this convention? The straightforward answer is that, obviously, this is how your hearing changes when you go underwater — your ears fill up with water and everything sounds more quiet and echoey. But I think this convention acknowledges something deeper about the way our perception of the world changes when we dive under the surface. In an instant, the noise of the world above disappears. Everything moves more slowly down there, including yourself, because this is an ancient and mysterious place, where time itself feels like it slows down and the world above starts to feel impossibly far away, like an echo of a memory. The watery world becomes a calm little shelter from the stresses and demands of life above the surface, for as long as you can hold your breath.

The sound design of these games seems to understand that soothing effect, that combination of wonder and calm that overtakes me when I go to the beach and submerge myself. It’s the reason I turn the music off when I play Subnautica, a game that in every other regard I would describe as perfect. Because this is not how it feels to be underwater. This is how it feels to be underwater. Don’t get me wrong, Subnautica’s soundtrack, which I would describe as “ambient psychedelic synth with horror undertones”, embodies the deep existential terror of that game supremely well, but that’s never reflected my associations, my experiences, with the ocean.

For me, the sea has always meant refuge, comfort, something that will safely catch you from an otherwise back-breaking fall if you just trust it to. Going to the beach and diving underwater feels like coming home. And Subnautica nails that sense of refuge. Its sequel, Below Zero, had the unenviable task of perfecting an already-perfect game, and it did it, largely by introducing a new mechanic: weather. In addition to Subnautica’s survival gauges of health, hunger, thirst and oxygen, Below Zero adds temperature. Whereas the skies of the original game were always fair and sunny, now the planet is intermittently pummeled by blizzards that will send you scurrying from the freezing winds and pelting hail. But that’s OK, because all you need to do is this. Out of all the excellent moments this game delivers, few beat the sublime pleasure of diving under the water during a hailstorm and watching the turmoil above from the sanctuary of the world below.

There’s another thing Subnautica does that captures what makes the undersea world so magical: the colour. When I went to Vanuatu about four years ago, I spent a day snorkelling off the rocks. I reached the edge of the rock shelf and dived into the water, and I’ll never forget the blue that hit my eyes. It was bright and deep at the same time, the most vibrant blue I’d ever seen. As you glide through the waters of Planet 4546B, the water never stays the same colour for long, changing from an inviting sky blue, to an emerald green, to a dazzling cerulean blue, to an unnatural purplish-blue at the outer edge, where the leviathans dwell, and Below Zero adds even more to this roster — a lovely turquoise blue, an icy glacier blue, and the bright firey orange of the setting sun as glimpsed from below the waves.

More than any particular colour, Subnautica captures the sheer mind-boggling majesty I encountered that day when I was snorkelling. The feeling of being absolutely spellbound, surrounded by a kind of colour that feels alive, that encircles you and engulfs you and leaks into your eyes and imprints itself in your brain.

Subnautica is the best underwater game, of course it is. It has everything I love about the ocean — the sense of exploration and adventure, the beauty and wonder of entering an ancient and mystical world, the mesmerising colours, the feeling of refuge from the danger and chaos above (although it has its own share of danger and chaos below). But there’s another reason Subnautica is so very special to me. It feels like the fulfillment of the promise made by all those games I was so enchanted by more than twenty years ago now. The freedom Jolly Roger’s Lagoon gave me to go anywhere, to dive as deep down as I could stand to go, to explore caves and discover strange brightly-coloured creatures and gigantic fearsome sea monsters and…aliens. And before that: the glimpse Majora’s Mask gave me into what it would feel like to really become one with the water, to roll and glide and freewheel through the ocean as though I really were half-fish. And even before that, there were the sparkling waters of Treasure Trove Cove, beckoning me to fling myself recklessly into them, even if I couldn’t stay for long.

There’s an island you eventually discover on Planet 4546B, with all kinds of exotic plant life and the wreckage of some survivors who came before you. After I’d picked through the remains and it started to get late in the day, I made my way back and looked out to where my pod was waiting for me. I knew the safest thing was to climb down carefully to the water’s edge, and I even started to, but it didn’t feel right. So I went back to the edge, gathered my courage, and jumped.

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Kat (Pixel a Day)

I make video essays on Youtube (Pixel a Day) where I critically analyse games and how they make me feel. I also write blog posts and articles.