Thursday, January 24, 2013

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In Upcoming Open-World Indie Game Under the Ocean, Post-Shipwreck Survival is Surprisingly Relaxing

Under the Ocean Alpha
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

Lately I've been playing around with the Under the Ocean, an open-world survival and exploration game for Mac and Windows which is currently in alpha. You play as a pretty bizarre-looking dude who's been shipwrecked on a deserted island and, in ideal circumstances, your goal is to find food, water, and build yourself a shelter. The game is still in its infancy so it's still very rough around the edges, but what it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in atmosphere.

Under the Ocean Alpha Wreck

I know that for a lot of our readers the building system will hold the most appeal, but for me it's all about Random Island generation. Some islands will be full of resources while others will be completely empty, some go on forever and some are dead ends -- and last night when I fired Under the Ocean up to start writing this review, I may have found the best island ever:

Under the Ocean Alpha Start

I've played more than a dozen different random islands at this point, yet this start was entirely new to me. I'm used to starting out in the middle of the water, making an uncertain choice to swim either right or left and pray for shore (and no sharks along the way.) Once I had a raft, but that's about as lucky as I've ever gotten. This time, the game started me some time after Blue Suspender-Pants Man's actual landing on the island, the games ultra-mellow piano soundtrack fading in. There's no smoldering wreckage off in the distance or deep waters to cross; just an island, a half-built house, a saw, and an unloaded rifle. Oh, and a sprained skull. That's not a condition I've ever heard of before, but either way it needed to be taken care of.

Above you can see the journal, where the game keeps track of significant events on the island. I love in-game journals, though in this case I wish I could add to it myself to note the locations of resources like vegetable plants or fishing spots. Of course, as this is an alpha, the journal is not immune to bugs. Here's what it looked like a few in-game days later, for example:

Under the Ocean Alpha Notes

It's hardly game-breaking, and I still have really high hopes for this feature. Things are going to break in an alpha, subtly like this, or spectacularly, like when the chicken guts that I separated from my dinner and threw into the trash can began falling from the sky in an endlessly looping rain of offal. Those experience may annoy some people, but for others it makes finally playing the finished product a much more significant experience.

Under the Ocean Alpha YarrowAnyway, my next step was to scope out my surroundings. This island was incredibly abundant. I quickly found a few more tools, as well as some primitive bridges built by someone who had lived on the island before me. I didn't dwell on the ominous implications of that for very long, stripping the materials for use in building my own shabby little hut. I came across a few chickens which I attacked with my axe, as well as some yarrow (a very useful flowering plant) which I used to bandage my sprained skull. The best discovery was a pickaxe, which let me break apart clusters of small rocks which I could then use to craft stone blocks for the walls of my house.

Under the Ocean Alpha recipes

Better still, these clusters of rocks were also full of more amazing loot: ammo for my rifle, ripe tomatoes, and some pointy bones... Which were probably not human, right? Anyway, I was then able to combine the sharp pieces of bone with a long piece of driftwood to make a spear.

Why make a spear when I have a rifle already? So I can catch fish, of course.

Under the Ocean Alpha Spear

With my new spear equipped I managed to snag a depressed-looking fish in a shallow pond. Fish are excellent resources on your island because when you take them apart (see above) they yield two pieces of meat, compared to chickens which yield only one piece (along with a pile of inedible guts.)

Under the Ocean Alpha Hut

Healed and full of raw chicken and fish (which are both super healthy to eat I'm sure) I headed back to finish my house. It may not look like much, but this spartan little shack provides shelter (obviously), fresh water via the bucket on the roof which collects rainfall, and warmth via the fireplace and chimney... Or it would, if I could find a piece of flint to use to light the dry leaves and driftwood.

This is easily one of the best runs I've had in Under the Ocean to date. I'm well fed, I have a proper home, I have more tools than I could ever need, and I haven't yet been killed by a shark or stepped on a crab and died from the inevitable infection of the wound! But it's not over yet. I've seen each end of the island, and haven't found a single piece of flint to light my relaxing parlor fireplace. So what's next?

Under the Ocean Alpha Hungry

A raft, of course. As I've learned many times, the world doesn't necessarily start and end with one island, and I'm eager to see what else this map has in store.

... Hopefully it'll be some damned flint.

Games that focus on survival aren't usually very relaxing experiences, but Under the Ocean's steady pace, creative tools, dreamy visuals, and mellow soundtrack make it a surprisingly good way to unwind, perfect to play casually when you have a few moments to yourself... Or if you simply want to lose yourself in something for an evening. If you want to see more, check out Under the Ocean's website for lots of videos and info about development. If you want to play around with the alpha as well you can pre-purchase the game for both platforms at two super-reasonable price points and support the development of this rad and relaxing indie game.

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Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.

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