This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.
In other waters, which was nominated for both Excellence in Narrative and Excellence in Visual Design for IGF 2021, casts the player as AI who supports a xenobiologist and helps her to research, sample and catalog the extraterrestrial beings of the oceans of another planet .
Gareth Damian Martin, the game’s creator, spoke to Gamasutra about what interested them in the player acting as helpful AI rather than the main character, the research that went into creating a compelling world, and how the connection between that Character and the AI captures the theme of the game’s symbiosis.
I’m Gareth Damian Martin and the (mostly) solo developer behind it In other waters. That said, I wrote, designed and developed the game with the sound and music left to Amos Roddy and additional programming and porting by Chris Payne and Zion Siton.
In other waters is actually my first full-fledged game! While I’ve done some yarn experiments and game jam games previously, my background is mainly in two areas: literature, which I got a PhD in, and graphic and video design. I’ve also been writing about games for over a decade, and you can find my writing in many online publications and also in my own zine, which focuses on game rooms and architecture. Heterotopias.
In other waters came to me during a long summer in Greece where I swam in the Aegean Sea every day; the moods of the sea and its creatures caught my imagination. I picked the idea of playing as AI in a biologist’s wetsuit because I wanted to study how to make text games richer and more varied, and the idea blossomed. As someone with a longstanding passion for sci-fi interface design and marine biology, In other waters was the meeting point of my own obsessions and interests.
In other waters was built in Unity, and thanks to a visual scripting tool called PlayMaker, I was able to create the game without writing a single line of code myself (although some of the code was written by my helpful tool programmers, Chris and Zion!). Accessible tools are an important part of my history with In other watersAs someone with no traditional background in game development, the ability to invent workflows that worked for me was the difference between being able to develop a game and, well, not!
A big part of what I love about games is exposing a place’s past. Metroid Prime was one of my first loves, and In other waters is inspired by the game world, which seemed to offer more and more the more you looked at it (and scanned it). But I also wanted to make a game about humanity’s relationship with the world around us, with nature and with life itself, so a central part of the game had to be a process of uncovering hidden or hidden stories.
Narrative, Ellery’s journey into the planet’s dark history is meant to recall the discovery process we experience when we read about the natural history of our own planet, where amazement often turns into horror as we discover our own influence on the world around us. Having a young daughter and experiencing her first hand, where the excitement of reading about whales, for example, is inseparable from the discovery of the violent history of commercial whaling, motivated my design of this narrative structure. My goal was to do it In other waters a game that, through the desperation of discovering the history of climate change and human environmental degradation, puts the player in a position of hope, in which new ways are possible to live in symbiosis with our environment and to understand their life scientifically.
There is a lot of research behind the world of In other waters. IIn order to develop a game in which the player could study their surroundings, I had to create a world worth studying, a world in which ecology made a certain sense, but also in which miracles and puzzles were always present. In general, I started with the different biomes in the game and used them as a framework to help me create the creatures. What adjustments are required for a toxic environment? For deep water? How can creatures survive in brine pools? How can they communicate or interact with each other?
The game features a full scientific taxonomy which I consulted with experienced biologists during development to provide an accessible system that accurately reflects the classification systems used in biological science. It was critically important to me that the game represented biological science with some degree of accuracy and that the alien creatures of the planet made sense as living things, and therefore this taxonomy is filled with ideas that expanded from the cutting-edge biology of our present day have been moment as recent studies on communication networks of fungi in ancient forests or recent advances in understanding the intelligence of cephalopods. In this way, the game acts as an introduction to biological concepts that, if they wish, players can learn more about through their own research and apply it to creatures in our own incredible oceans.
As a solo developer and someone with graphic design experience, I knew I wanted to harness the power of limited color and symbolic languages to evoke the biomes of this alien world. Carefully selected two-tone palettes are used throughout the game to capture the atmosphere of each region of the ocean, while a consistent and focused set of symbols and shapes make the otherwise abstract world clear to the player.
The interface design, inspired by Japanese industrial design and anime interfaces of the 1980s and 90s, breaks the current trend towards complex arrangements of holographic lines and instead relies on tactile interaction, asymmetrical layouts and clean block colors. This carefully thought-out minimalism was born from careful iteration and research throughout development with the aim of creating an intuitive, yet playfully mysterious user interface and evoking exotic images through simple tools.
In other waters is essentially a narrative game. However, unlike most narrative games, you never see the world you’re exploring, the character you’re talking to, or even your own character. This is because by casting the player as AI locked into the systems of a wetsuit, In other waters reverses the script to the typical video game setup and instead explores the potential of text, abstract images, signals and systems to conjure up an entire ocean and the stories it contains.
For me, the power of the game lies in how it affects the player’s imagination and so the visual style of the game had to support that. It’s a delicate balance to conjure up a world instead of simply describing it, and so I’ve gone through many iterations of color palettes, symbols, shapes, and animations trying to make the world seem alive and alien. I knew I was on the right track when people at shows and conventions dreamily removed the headphones from a long gaming session, as if they had just emerged from the depths of the ocean. That was what I wanted to capture, this feeling of immersing myself in a world that lives in your own head as well as on the screen.
For me the focus was very much on creating an experience that corresponds to the idea of ”studying life”. I’ve watched hours of live-streaming deep sea exploration from projects like Okeanos Explorer, trying to create a gaming experience that captures the purposeful rhythm of observing and sampling those dives. Because of this, Ellery will record observations, live naming and classifying creatures, and commenting on players’ actions to give a sense of the science that is “underway”. The scanning and travel system also encourages players to think about each step forward and watch the world go by, which we so rarely do in games when we rush headlong at a new destination.
I also designed it In other waters so that the player can decide for himself which species he wants to study. You can pause the main narrative at any time to learn more about a creature of your choice. This allows the player a more expressive role than in a linear narrative structure, but I made sure that any discoveries the player can optionally make ultimately lead back to the central theme of the game, that of symbiosis.
For me, this is an important part of the game’s narrative. While the core story explores a very particular type of symbiosis between the player and Ellery, the various studies reveal other forms of symbiosis and different ideas about how different creatures relate to their surroundings. The game’s taxonomy is not just an encyclopedia of lore or world building, but a narrative in and of itself about symbiosis, adaptation, and the multiple ways that life forms bonds of collaboration and coexistence, just as Ellery and the player do.
This was the starting point for In other waters – tell a story in which the player helps a character, lives with him and eventually develops a relationship with him. Symbiosis was a core issue and I wanted to explore that at every level of the game. An interesting part of this that I set out at the start of development is that Ellery should be the author of almost all of the text the player reads in the game. Each text had to express Ellery’s character as an enthusiastic, dedicated scientist with a painful personal story, as everything from the taxonomy entries describing creatures to the diary she keeps in the game’s hub base was written by her. This presented a unique challenge, but also a unique set of possibilities.
The result is a game that uses a series of carefully selected techniques to create a strong bond between the player and Ellery. A simple yes / no response system is specifically designed to be able to feel restrictive at first and encourages the player to fight against it and perhaps speak out their thoughts out loud while playing. This initial tension is used to awaken the desire for a human connection, which is then built up piece by piece as the game progresses. Ellery’s diaries, which appear at a carefully controlled pace throughout the game, give the player a powerful insight into Ellery’s past and her relationship with Minae Nomura.
This relationship is an important part of the game and paints a nuanced picture of a queer relationship that goes beyond stereotypes. As a queer developer, this narrative was very important to me, but it also plays an important role in creating an intimate connection between the player and Ellery through the trust Ellery places in it.