People often describe dealing with mental health issues as fighting demons — in Sea of Solitude, that phrase becomes literal. The game, from German studio Jo-Mei Games and EA’s Originals publishing label, is a brief but haunting adventure where you travel through the mind of a young woman named Kay. It’s a place that shifts between a beautiful seascape and a dark, nightmarish world, as Kay attempts to come to terms with a series of traumas from throughout her life. The world itself is shaped by her life experiences, and the game’s real challenge comes from watching how things unfold.
Sea of Solitude starts out with Kay in near-complete darkness in what appears to be a sunken city. “I haven’t seen the sun in... I don’t remember,” she says. Almost immediately you spot a light over the horizon, and when you reach it, it completely brightens the world. This doesn’t just let you see what’s around you — it actually changes the level itself, raising or lowering water to open up new areas to explore.
Much of the game revolves around finding glowing orbs to uncover Kay’s memories. For the most part, Sea of Solitude plays out like a fairly standard third-person adventure game. Kay can run and jump, and she also has a small wooden boat for navigating the sprawling ocean around her. Gameplay is a mix of platforming, stealth, and environmental puzzle-solving. Early on, you’ll be trying to navigate the landscape while avoiding a horrifying fish monster, while later you’ll need to sneak through a skyscraper filled with ghostly children and powerful air vents. Kay also has the ability to launch a flare into the sky, showing her where to go. It functions a lot like raising your sword to create a beam of light in Shadow of the Colossus.
It’s not especially challenging, but it’s all very streamlined and well designed. I never really felt lost or confused while playing Sea of Solitude — except when I was supposed to. What makes the game work so well is the way it uses that familiar framework to tell its story. You’ll hear flashbacks to moments in Kay’s life — her parents fighting, maybe, or her little brother struggling for some attention — as you explore, as well as her own internal monologue.
But the really striking feature is how her life experiences become the actual world around you. It’s not always subtle, but seeing various traumas and other issues manifest themselves in real, tangible ways is very impactful. There’s a scene where Kay feels particularly alone, and you’re left to literally fumble around in the dark in search of what to do next. At another point Kay remembers her parents fighting, and you watch as two towering monsters battle each other over a ruined landscape. Even Kay herself is rendered in a monstrous form, showing how she truly feels about herself. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the monster designs in particular are brilliant, and do an amazing job of creating a visual identity for various traumas.
Sea of Solitude isn’t the first game to explore mental health issues; 2017’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one notable example. But those games are often rough around the edges. Sea of Solitude may tell a story that’s painfully personal, but it’s also incredibly approachable. The fantasy setting makes it easy to get into, as does the streamlined gameplay. Actually experiencing the story, though, is painfully difficult; it might even hit a little too close to home for some. Sea of Solitude is beautiful and dark and tragic — and if you happen to see yourself in it, those feelings only multiply.
Sea of Solitude is available now on the PS4, Xbox One, and PC.