Exploring the Elements: Water

“When you put your hand in a flowing stream, you touch the last that has gone before and the first of what is still to come”

Leonardo da Vinci

Water, in its purest form a simple chemical substance, prevalent upon the Earth’s surface and necessary for all known forms of life. Inspired by a recent post at  I Played The Game which looked at 5 examples of challenging levels one of which was a water based level, I came away realising for the most part I have never found these scenarios to be either daunting or off-putting. Challenging, frustrating even perhaps but never a sense that with the inclusion of water renders the level or situation fundamentally more difficult to traverse. And whilst that is entirely a subjective opinion for this week’s article I wanted to dive straight in and explore this element, navigating around the slippery and often precarious levels and environments within video games and try to postulate an alternate positive view-point to water levels whilst exploring a number of notable cases I have encountered on my travels through the multi-verse of software from its humblest beginning to the modern-day and beyond.

A Place For Work

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Platform: Nintendo Gameboy

Released: 1991

A certain mysticism and uncertainty surrounds the oceans, an environment that encompasses a larger proportion of space upon the planet than land but one also that humanity is to a large degree unaware of both its contents and geography. There is an argument this fear of the unknown perhaps create some of the apprehension on a deeper more complex level but certainly within the general gaming environment certainly within earlier releases there was a necessity to portray the ocean or underwater sections in general as a hostile and menacing location to explore. A trait that permeates and resides to this day within gaming software that so often use water and specifically the oceans as a dangerous environment to exist, the Ubisoft open world games for example that so often feature a school of sharks or alligators and crocodiles attacking your protagonist within a very short order. As such there is somewhat of an aversion to these levels or elements when it’s just far simpler to avoid and circumnavigate around these particular threats. My first personal experience of the water environment came from licensed game for its namesake movie, The Hunt for Red October. As with the movie it was based upon, water was treated entirely as an environment to operate within, upon the opening Soviet National Anthem theme and the mission briefing immediately you were within the confines of the Submarine traversing the Oceans attempting, at least from the Novel and Movies narrative, to reach the shores of the United States.

gfs_78136_2_5_midWhy I came to this title as my opening game was purely for the basis that whilst the introduction of water elements in a game is often met with a menacing musical queue or blocked path necessitating the protagonist to traverse and often encounter an unknown and unseen menace beneath the surface, here, in the world of the cold war where the threat was constant it just provided an alternative take where the threat from man and the surface was the true challenge and as long as you respected the environment you operated in, avoiding the rocks, the jagged floor, the boulders floating for some reason without any attachment requiring you to traverse the path to safety, in short as long as you respected the environment you found yourself in you would have a safe place to operate. There may have been, for example a temptation to include an angry shark or killer whale or some other natural menace that could damage your Submarine. To the best of my knowledge this wasn’t the case and quite simply the water was your office, you went there to work, to progress and move forward. With respect but confidence it wasn’t the unknown or an alien menace. There in for me lies some of the issues I would generally associate with the infernal water level, the unknown menace, the threats encompassed within a very short space, certainly within older games the constant threat of killer fish, deadly plants and vines, octopus spewing ink and attacking with abandon. Whilst prevalent in earlier Mario games for example still a constant menace today in titles such as Far Cry which does little to remove the anxiety of this element.

A Place For Play

endless_ocean_coverart

Platform: Nintendo Wii

Released: 2007

Now, I will concede from the beginning this isn’t necessarily a water level and as such perhaps an argument could be made to negate its merits or overlook the game entirely from the discussion. Allow me for the moment to address its merits and then why I would postulate as to its inclusion. Released on the Wii platform, Endless Ocean, itself a spiritual sequel to the developers Playstation based game series Everblue introduced a world beneath the oceans, a world of diving and exploration, not perhaps new or uncharted terrain at this point in 2007 but certainly one that stripped away any strict narrative or story to follow, instead introducing you to your diver character and tasking you with exploring and cataloging the many species found within the sea’s, from the small and varied fish to the larger more visually impressive creatures before a final expedition to track down a rare and mythical whale. Whilst the game was somewhat, restricted by the games motion controls, as an environment to explore and interact within it was an amazing spectacle, with varying creatures mimicking the sort of behavioural patterns we have come to expect through observation within the ocean environment. Some restrictions were placed on their behaviours, the sharks for instance wouldn’t attack the player leaving a bloody mess to traumatized youthful players, but the opportunity to swim beside and experience whales, schools of fish, rays in close proximity was a relaxing thing to see and play. In short for me it provided an opportunity to banish the cartoonish puffer fish of Mario that would attack you on sight, the killer sharks a menace to any player close by. Whilst tempering an element of the danger here as with its predecessors was a more grounded and real perspective of the underwater world and as such any incredible views were made even more so by this nature.

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Whilst Endless Ocean is specifically a diving simulation game aiming for a somewhat grounded and real presentation of the under water environment at the expense of a structured and traditional narrative, if we were to examine another stylistic approach we could begin to find some common ground. Driving for example, in the world of Grand Theft Auto a fun element, expanded on with its expansions in the online world but arguably simplistic and crude in contrast to a more dedicated and purpose-built driving simulator such as Gran Turismo. Would we necessarily want the attention to detail in terms of handling and drive mechanics to carry over to more open world games, perhaps not but when you learn about cross collaboration or specific teams brought on board to handle the driving elements within games outside their natural genre you can perhaps envision for example water based levels that reward the player for their exploration, where the reward within the level isn’t necessarily surviving a threat from an angry fish or shark but instead enjoying the wonder and spectacle of the world beneath. There is the argument perhaps a great deal of attention to the physiques and design, the memory required to faithfully replicate these environments to the same degree that would be deemed passable today could be wasted if there wasn’t a narrative reason to explore these places. As such you tend to see certain restrictions forcing the protagonist down a set path or direction and the frustration incurs at being forced beneath the surface, why I suggested this title and why I still enjoy the odd dive every now and then is just the sheer joy and tranquility experienced when swimming about. In other media, I could envision an underwater scene acting as a moment of catharsis or reflection after an intense period, why not within gaming? if Lara or Nathan for example survived a crumbling temple and wanted a moment of decompression, spending a short while beneath the waves finding yourself momentarily would rebalance some of the negativity towards water levels.

A Place for Discovery

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Platform: Nintendo 64

Released: 1998

The Legend of Zelda series has always had a certain predication for implementing and utilising the natural elements into its level designs, in short it’s as fundamental structure and integral to its design as the other gameplay mechanics featured, this specific game featuring levels based on fire and water for example in various iterations and evolutions. The Water Temple, encountered as an aged, Link was different to that encountered as a child, itself the interior of the creature residing behind Zora’s cave, the Jabu Jabu. Whilst that didn’t necessitate that great a submersion experience it was the later Water Temple that resulted in a great deal of anxiety and frustration amongst the gaming community. One I will say I didn’t share as I found the temple a relatively logical and progressive experience to follow. Without a doubt there were moments of frustration as you fought to keep your sense of location and remember the path you had taken but each step, each switch intuitively led to another location, the different water elements reacting in a logical fashion to your actions, in short it was one of the earlier games that embedded the concept of cause and effect in relation to gaming and how this could work as a functioning and innovative mechanic. Water was no longer the hinderance or foreshadowing a forlorn end, it was natural element of the environment, to be utilised to progress my journey or explored with the benefit of the protagonists reliable blue tunic that made exploration an enjoyment without the confines or restrictions of water bubbles or other such gameplay features.

Why I enjoyed the Water Temples in Ocarina of Time was precisely because the game on this occasion decided not to just expand on the original water level with its mix of enemies and threats but instead opted for a more logic based environment utilising water levels as a playable feature, a series of switches and paths that required some memory of your explored path but didn’t need to hold your hand or equally, didn’t punish you depending on your sequence. For me, personally each step was relatively intuitive, from when you enter the Temple and are required to lower the water to its lowest depth, unable to reach any further stage so forcing you to drop down and explore the first passages and chambers below. Each subsequent step had a logical path to follow, all the while using water as a playable mechanic to fully explore the confines of this place. If water can be a functional environment, a place to enjoy and relax within as a tool it can also play an important role, one to use and utilise. Ocarina worked, for me personally because it taught and enforced the basic rule of video game logic as an element water is to be respected, you lose that respect or become careless it can and will punish you quite often, terminally. But should you concentrate and persevere you can triumph despite its inherent danger.

A Place To Observe

red dead 2

Platform: Xbox One/Playstation Four

Released: 2018

From a graphical stand point the current generation of gaming, even certain select titles from the previous cycle of consoles had begun to push the presentation of water effects within games. An example, the opening sequence of the first Bioshock game and your protagonists escape from the plane onto the island you seemingly find yourself upon before your descent into the city below. Certainly in the aftermath of the crash your scope for exploration was somewhat limited but the effects were still remarkable to witness at that moment in time. With today’s hardware and its ability to faithfully replicate certain effects and weather patterns to a high degree we have begun to see greater visual presentations, certainly at least from a surface perspective. Understandably, the budgets of the bigger studios such as Ubisoft have produced some remarkable water based environments in its recent open world games, the lake and river effects in its recent Far Cry 5 release gorgeous in their presentation but somewhat shallow and restricted once you begin to dive beneath the surface and explore the water-bed. Equally, with the release of Red Dead Redemption 2 and its amazing graphical effects I was genuinely amazed at how beautiful the world they had constructed turned out to be, on consoles that were almost half a decade old now in terms of contrasting to more recent and dedicated gaming PC’s. However, the control mechanics of Rockstar games have never been its strongest aspect and exploring the shores and waters of these locations is a relatively underwhelming experience. Even the fishing mechanics and gameplay felt somewhat dull and rudimentary, I’m not great fan of angling but it still doesn’t really feel progressed much beyond the experience in Ocarina of Time, does it need to be is another question but my own, personal enjoyment when it came to water was just standing on the banks of the lake looking out onto the American frontier appreciating the marvel of the natural world. But, very much content to remain on dry land and find no solace, no tranquility within the waves.

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One view-point I had picked up on when looking into this article was the suggestion that with the improvement of water effects, at least from an aesthetic perspective, creating these stunning backdrops for example as shown above came a certain restriction in their exploration due to the limitations and I would propose natural aversion to these areas in open world games. Certainly, based on the premise of this article and recognising a natural aversion, the ‘water level’ or section tends to feature a basic construct, using water as a dangerous element to avoid or navigate around placing your character in peril either through a rising or changing level or just the hazards found within. A practise that has been formulated and cemented over multiple generations of consoles from the earliest examples in Mario to the hazards of nature found in the latest Assassins Creed and Far Cry titles, wherever you are forced to traverse water, more often than not you are faced with a challenge to your health and as such these levels and environments become by default something to fear or resent. Red Dead, for its faults and merits took small steps to present the natural world in a calmer and sedate fashion, the actions of man and society the actual peril. I found more at peace and in the spirit of relaxation in the world around me whilst traversing the American frontier than interacting with its people and denizens. And whilst the limitations of presenting these gorgeous open world games sometimes results in water, at least beneath the surface being restricted in its development, making an effort to emulate the peace and connection to nature found when staring out onto the horizon was a noble and notable effort from this studio.

I’ve attempted to approach this particular element with positivity and optimism, highlighting a number of the benefits and viewpoints whilst perhaps choosing to ignore the negativity from bad practises in the past. Certainly I would be lying if I didn’t admit having never felt frustration or resentment at a particular, forced water level moment that felt included purely for the sake of presenting a new threat or challenge. I greatly enjoyed The Last of Us for example but found the underwater segments tedious after a while that added little beyond requiring your character to traverse a new hazard for example. I’m certain there are a great many but the purpose of writing this was to consider a different perspective and viewpoint to this element. With current technology and hardware, the sensation of freedom and escapism one feels when submerged is entirely outside the realm of possibility in being able to reproduce. Games such as Endless Ocean allude to that sensation and present a world or environment where you can envision and even imagine that feeling but no game has come anywhere close to that feeling when you submerge and feel that sense of freedom and tension evaporating beneath the surface. Instead, whether intentionally or not, modern games have instead opted to focus on the grandeur of the vision and environment. The developers of Red Dead for example have created these vast, open terrains that on numerous occasion caused me to pause in my tracks and take in the beauty of the open world. In doing so it has re framed the perspective of water levels and locations, for me personally, as an area to find solace and peace. Whether other developers choose to take this mantle and progress is another question entirely.

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3 thoughts on “Exploring the Elements: Water

  1. Certainly an interesting counterpoint (and thank you for the shout out!) to the general dislike of water themed levels. Regarding your first two choices, I feel that they are designed around water to begin with, rather than taking a ‘regular’ game and having a liquid level flung in when the control scheme may not be suited to it. Frustrations like the Labyrinth Zone in Sonic are due to the game being predicated I’m going fast before taking it all away and forcing you to work with floaty controls that feel alien after the high speed and sharp movements from before.

    I think part of the irritation with the Water Temple isn’t the water aspect alone. I just don’t like those ‘press the switch and something somewhere opens’ puzzles, although I may have projected my hydro-hatred into it!

    1. It was somewhat of a conceit I’ll accept. Had considered both labyrinth zone and also the frog suit levels from Mario 3. Oddly I did somewhat enjoy the Sonic mechanism of the air bubble, just added slight strategy mechanic away from the chaos of speed but granted was a jarring mechanic.

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