Lara Croft explores a ruin at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean in Tomb Raider Underworld.

Why Don’t We Have More Games Set Under the Sea?

Why is it so hard to find games set beneath the waves?

I just got back from a trip to the beach and it got me thinking. Space is supposed to be the final frontier, right?  Much like in real life, we’ve managed to map out a lot more of space than we have the ocean. Video games, though, aren’t held to the same constraints as the real world, so it’s just as viable as starship simulators, right?

It’s important for me to note that I’m terrified of the ocean. The very beginning of BioShock, where you watch as pieces of the plane you rode in on sink into the dark abyss of the ocean, freaked me out quite a bit. The deepest I went in the water this trip was my waist.

A whale swims through the city of Rapture in Bioshock.
Could you imagine a Saints Row game where you’re a mermaid riding this whale and destroying things? Forget being inside buildings, the ocean is way more fun on the outside!

So, I get that there are some concerns with players about games under the sea. The ocean makes it hard to move, to see, to breathe. It can get pretty claustrophobic in the dark. These are all valid concerns, I suppose, but when so many players play so many games that fit those criteria on dry land, I have to wonder what the problem is.

The ocean is a natural setting for horror games. It gets pretty dark, you have little control, and it’s full of so many adorable little critters. Upcoming indie title Narcosis takes full advantage of this. You’re in a diving suit at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and there’s all kinds of fun fauna waiting to try and be your very best friend.

It’s also a shoe-in for games for exploratory types (like me) who love seeing and cataloging tons of new and unfamiliar things. Endless Ocean and its sequel Endless Ocean: Blue World allow you to dive in a huge open water world and just do your own thing. No real conflict, just exploring and lookin’ at sea life.

I mentioned Bioshock earlier and I think I can count it as an underwater game if only because several factors of the game, especially involving breaches where water floods in. I’m reminded of Dead Space where most of the game takes place inside a ship where your few encounters with actual space personally are in damaged areas of the Ishimura. So in that sense I can’t really not call it underwater if spaceships and space stations still count as space games. Right?

This is the problem. There are so few games that take place in Davy Jones’ Locker that we have to try and negotiate and haggle with ourselves. But why aren’t there? I mean, we’ve established that the ocean is big and unexplored, which is nice. It can be scary, and folks like being scared. And it’s relatively uncharted territory, since most games favor terrestrial gameplay.

Like their much more popular space cousins, underwater games can rely on all axes of movement. A fish or sub or whatever you please can go in any direction. There are a few submarine warfare games, but there’s little that offers a personal underwater experience.

Fish swim around a coral reef near Fiji.
There is so much life and variety there. Why can’t we visit?

I’m a pretty big fan of sandbox-games. You can easily establish a setting and then let players play in it. And where has more sand than the sea? Playing as a mermaid (or fish, or diver or whoever but yes please mermaids), but actually have some fantasy, sci-fi, et cetera worldbuilding going on. Endless Ocean is a realistic (minus the legendary sea critters) and mostly peaceful game, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s not really enough, for me.

Any game we already have, there could be an underwater counterpart. Crime, fantasy, horror, everything works, and being under the sea can add so much. Gorgeous scenery, unexplored territory, new variety in gameplay. It’d be a win for everyone, wouldn’t it?

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  • Yes please! I freakin’ love the ocean. But there’s a lot of negativity about “underwater levels” left over from gaming’s past that I think makes people not want to bother. I never got to play Endless Ocean, but it looks like a wonderful start. Now imagine it’s a Bethesda-style RPG with various aquatic races and a really great story. Yesssssssss.

    • Savannah Winter

      I was tempted to mention that I’d love to see an underwater Morrowind mod, sense it already had levitation support and whatnot. Various types of mermaids probably. Sharks, squids, jellies, and so forth.

  • I am not sure what games need to do to work underwater.

    I do, however, know that Banjo-Tooie on the Jolly Roger’s Lagoon pulled it off extremely well. Underwater platformers tent to be a nightmare due to the restricted movements and breathing issues. Rare, though, made a nearly full underwater level work on a 3-D platformer!

    • Savannah Winter

      I’d say they would benefit from removing the timed air gimmicks until they can largely be done right. Mermaids or other sea people would be great for that. All the humanoid stuff without the air junk.

      • I would be very interested to see a water-focused platformer.

        I could see it working quite well if they do away with the timed air.

  • There is a stigma in MMOs that water combat is boring…when it can actually be very entertaining if done right.

    In most games, water is more of a debilitating effect for movement, like move through the water and it slows you. You know?

    GW2 water combat was interesting. But I can’t think of a game that had good water combat.

    • Savannah Winter

      It’s a shame because it’d open up so much more variety in MMO play. Heck, an underwater MMO could even break up the samey gameplay all MMOs are ending up with.

      Yeah. Water can be used for so much more.

      I feel like the “The Little Mermaid” levels of Kingdom Hearts did a decent job, at least within the combat system the games had.