We live in a world that assumes faster is always better. This is perhaps no where more true than in the world of video games. We champion speed-runs, Starcraft professionals who execute more decisions in a minute than many of us make in a day, and new hardware that is faster than its competitors. But while we’re so focused on speed, we rarely slow down enough to consider the repercussions that such an obsession has for how we live in the world. In the face of this flurried culture, The Sea Will Claim Everything‘s opening screen displays a unique and quiet admonition: “Relax. Slow Down. Take your time.” This game, created by indie developers Jonas and Verena Kyratzes, offers players the rare opportunity to explore the implications that ideas have on lives, both real and imagined.
[pullquote align="right"]“I realized that this game, better than any news report, had connected me in a special way to events happening on the other side of the world. ”[/pullquote]You begin in the home of The Mysterious-Druid, on the Isle of the Moon, who asks you to help him discover why he has been threatened with foreclosure, despite his home having been in the family for generations. Through the game’s interface, a mechanical and magical “window” to the world of the Fortunate Isles, you begin to unravel the many mysteries and troubles that have beset the game’s characters. At first, the game’s small window might seem constricting, but Verena Kyratzes’s simple, storybook images create a tangible depth as you look out over an ocean, across a field, or into a dark forest. These images combine with Jonas’s stinging and witty text to lend the game its distinctive atmosphere. Reading such text plays an integral role, such that one of the game’s true joys is clicking on various items and reading their whimsical descriptions. To emphasize the significance of reading, the Fortunate Isles are full of bookshelves, and the book titles themselves suggest a certain meta-narrative with titles ranging from The Great Chain of Industry by Andrew Ryan to Heretics by G. K. Chesterton.
This sense of whimsy permeates much of the game experience, from the hand-drawn pictures to the unique cast of characters, including a dwarf who left Middle-Earth after “the tourists and the filmmakers” showed up. All of these details offer a special delight to players who take the time to enjoy them, but The Sea Will Claim Everything’s bright colors and humorous self-awareness belie its more serious undertones. At its heart, this game presents a piercing satirical commentary on contemporary topics like the European debt crisis and how political rhetoric can be used to diminish the human spirit.
The clues to the satire are relatively easy to spot. Each island is led by a mayor (or a General, in the case of the Isle of the Stars), and these leaders are all depicted as skulls resting precariously on chairs behind official-looking desks. These leaders have saddled their citizens with harsh austerity measures on dubious claims of a financial crisis. Not surprisingly, I found myself quickly sympathizing with the residents of the Fortunate Isles, whose lives have been variously impacted by the severe actions of their respective leaders. And then I realized that this game, better than any news report, interview, or analysis, had connected me in a special way to events happening on the other side of the world. Through the Fortunate Isles I began to understand the frustration that residents of austerity-ridden nations in the Eurozone have been experiencing for many months and years.
I once had a professor of Victorian literature and critical theory who had a reputation of being difficult to please. It was only years later, after reminiscing with a friend, that I realized my former professor was most interested in playing with the complicated ideas he espoused. As graduate students, we all thought that we had to take everything seriously, but he derived a great joy from trying out ideas like a toddler tries out toys. At some point, our ideas must intersect with our lives as lived, but play can offer a brief reprieve during which ideas can stretch their wings before being weighed down by our biases and preconceptions. Jonas and Verena Kyratzes clearly envisioned the interaction of play and ideas in this game; my favorite example of this playful interaction came from the description of a roll of toilet paper that read, “Toilet paper based on the works of Slavoj Zizek.”
It’s where the ideas of The Sea Will Claim Everything conclude that offers players the greatest intellectual conundrum–one which can only be solved through contemplating the experience after the game’s conclusion. What does the game have to say about our relationships with our political leaders, and what is our ethical responsibility in the light of those leaders’ actions, both good and bad? What kinds of responses are moral, ethical, or practical? These are questions that the game asks of its players. I was torn between an emotional sympathy with everything I experienced and an intellectual hesitation, a sense that I shouldn’t accept the game’s representation at face value. In the end, The Sea Will Claim Everything exists in the midst of that tension, asking us to consider the possibility that time spent wrestling with difficult questions is an important part of the human experience, while reminding us that life doesn’t give extra-credit to those who reach their conclusions the fastest.