The 2001 film A.I: Artificial Intelligence, is a fascinating, if flawed film. What the film does have in spades is memorable set pieces. In one such example, the robot boy David and his robot friend Gigolo Joe (Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law respectively) fly across a flooded Manhattan, the abandoned skyscrapers jutting out of the sea. It was an iconic image; a look at a future of uncontrolled sea-level rise and as testament to mankind’s hubris. Submerged is similarly set in a drowned city, seemingly hundreds of years after global warming destroyed civilization as we know it. It builds upon this iconic image, and allows you to fully circumnavigate a flooded city. Submerged is lacking depth, being light on story and gameplay, but it is gorgeously pretty, and simply sailing around the city is a peaceful joy unlike any other.
In Submerged you as play Miku, a teenage girl who lives in a post-civilization water world. You come to the city without a name with your brother Taku, who is badly injured, looking for food and shelter. Taking refuge in the ruins of the central clock tower, you venture forth to find emergency supplies with which to tend to Taku’s wounds and allow him to regain strength. All of Submerged’s story is communicated via pictograms which you discover around the world, or are unlocked after returning some new supplies to Taku. It’s extremely minimalistic, and whilst I would have preferred a fully-fleshed out world where the backstory was explained in detail, I appreciate the artistic license taken to imagine a world where written communication has been lost in time. As Miku, you explore the sunken city, using your outboard motorboat to get around, before scaling buildings to find emergency rations usually situated on the rooftops.
Using your boat to sail around the city is easily the best part of the game. Navigating around the collapsing buildings and skyscrapers, swinging your boat around ruined landmarks and watching as dolphins play in your wake or whales leap out of the water on the horizon is simply mesmerizing. The city isn’t gigantic, but it is decently large and has recognizable areas, such as the old central business district, with the tallest modern skyscrapers, or the industrial areas with factories and broadcast antennas. There are also a number of recognizable landmarks which are scattered around the city, which serve as useful beacons for navigation. Your boat isn’t a speedboat, but it does have a boost ability that can be extended by collecting the hulks of old boats floating in the city.
The other major gameplay element is climbing buildings. Miku is pretty proficient at climbing, and does so in a similar style to Assassin’s Creed. However, whilst Assassin’s Creed allows you to climb up a building via whatever path you fancy, Submerged only allows Miku to climb using specific, pre-constructed paths. You’ll get used to recognizing which ledges she can grip and which she can’t, and which surfaces she can interact with. Furthermore, the game is very specific about which buildings are climbable; any building where red flowers are growing near the base can be climbed, but anything else cannot. Scaling a building is as simple as using the arrow keys to press in the direction you want to move, and Miku will ascend if possible. Likewise, descending is just a matter of finding the correct path and pressing down, or using a convenient drainpipe.
It is also worth noting that failure is not an option; Miku cannot fall or be harmed in any way, no matter how hard you try. Indeed, there are no enemies or any real threats at all, making Submerged one of only a few peaceful post-apocalyptic games alongside Eidolon. The lack of a proper freeform movement system when climbing buildings is rather disappointing, and makes your exploration of the city feel far more restrictive than it should. If you miss a collectable on a building, it means a lot of tedious re-climbing areas you’ve already visited. I wanted to be able to explore more of the city and see it from the perspective of buildings I couldn’t climb, but alas it was not to be.
One thing that can be said is that the game looks simply gorgeous. The city has a beautiful sense of decay, with trees and bushes growing straight out of the roofs of the flooded buildings, their leaves blowing in the wind. Many buildings are art deco-inspired, almost invoking the spirit of BioShock’s Rapture in some ways. The seawater laps peacefully against the faded advertisements painted on walls, as manta rays and whales swim down the old thoroughfares. It would have been great if there was even more wildlife in the world, because the game has this fascinating dichotomy of being a vibrant, living world that often feels completely devoid of life. There is also a lovely mournful soundtrack which plays whilst sailing and climbing, which complements the atmosphere excellently.
Submerged tries something different, and it deserves plaudits for that. While the game feels lacking in terms of creating a deep intriguing story, it succeeds in terms of world-building with the best character being the abandoned city itself. While the building-climbing feels one note and tedious, sailing your boat around the city is never dull. Submerged is memorable for what it is, but I wish it had offered more. I’d like to see a sequel that gave more depth to the world and let me explore free from developer-imposed constraints. Still, Submerged remains a unique post-apocalyptic game in a crowded field, and that alone will help it to stand out from the crowd.