This week on Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee finally talks about why he loves boats and the sea, like in video games like Return of the Obra Dinn, Subnautica, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
Extra Punctuation Transcript
It’s become a bit of a running joke over in Zero Punctuation that I seem to automatically like any game that incorporates boats or the ocean. Spiritfarer. Return of the Obra Dinn. Subnautica. My favourite Zelda is Wind Waker. My favourite Assassin’s Creed is Black Flag. There’s a bit in Silent Hill 2 where you have to row a boat. I even made my own game about a boat when I made Something’s In The Sea for Dev Diary.
I was unconscious of this particular bias of mine until it was pointed out, but now it has been, yeah, I guess I do have a mysterious affinity for boating and the sea, in spite of or possibly because of the fact that I grew up in the one part of England that’s about the furthest away from the sea you can get. It’s certainly true that I like riding on boats. I went on a cruise by myself once because just being surrounded by infinite ocean for days felt like something I’d really enjoy, not so much the contracting hideous infectious diseases or going to a cheap buffet restaurant for every meal of every day. And when I lived in Brisbane I always took whatever chance I could get to commute via the Citycat ferry, and was unduly excited when I saw one of those in an episode of Bluey the other day.
Also, C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series of naval adventure novels is one of my favourite casual reads, but I always put that down to liking Horatio Hornblower the character, not so much the dense nautical jargon or the weirdly consistent racism against the Spanish. But Hornblower’s great, he’s this super smart naval captain who’s secretly riddled with anxiety and impostor syndrome. And I really relate to that. Because I’m a high school dropout with no formal qualifications currently trying to convince you he’s worth listening to for the next four or five minutes.
But yes, as a theme, the ocean resonates with me. I obviously don’t like every game with a boat in it, I mean, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla had a boat and I thought that game sucked shit, but it certainly pushes an otherwise good game to another level for me. I probably wouldn’t harp on Obra Dinn so much if it’d been set in an office building. Probably wouldn’t like the books so much if Hornblower was, I dunno, the commander of a really big tank. And since we had a lot of fun that one time I talked about animes what I like, let’s try to get to the bottom of this other thing that I like.
I suppose, if I were to try to articulate why I find the sea interesting, I would stand on a beach and point and say “Fucking look at it.” It’s gorgeous in a way only really intimidatingly huge things can be. It’s amazing how it can be vast enough to fill the entire view from horizon to horizon, and yet simultaneously, for practical purposes, very very claustrophobic. Because once you’re actually in it, the distance you can travel without artificial assistance before you start dying of about five different things, is actually really small.
It’s the inherent hostility that makes it fascinating, I suppose. It was always one of my favourite arguments as an edgy teenage atheist. If God created the Earth especially for his special chosen people, why does, like, three quarters of its surface immediately kill you if you try to stand on it? And don’t get me started on sunburn.
For these reasons, the ocean is probably the best possible setting for horror, and I do love my horror. Also, I’ve long held that video games are the best possible medium for horror because the interactive nature gives the audience uncertainty of survival and an automatic stake, so a video game about the sea, like Subnautica, barely has to put the effort in to be an extremely effective horror game. Space probably comes a close second for best horror setting for me, they’re both good at creating an automatic sense of isolation, but the thing about space is that it’s full of certainties. If you go outside, you die. Can’t really build intrigue off of that. If you fall into the sea, you might die but then again you might wash up on a desert island and discover a pirate treasure with which to enact revenge upon those who wronged you.
There’s a direct comparison, here: Breathedge is almost admittedly Subnautica but in space, and it just doesn’t have the same effect. Sure, there can be vast horrifying things in space as well, but you can see them perfectly clearly because there’s nothing between you and them. The ocean is a source of constant enthralling mystery because you can’t see what’s going on below the surface. If you try to go below the surface your natural buoyancy is constantly trying to push you out of it again. Plus, as discussed above, you start dying of things.
But it’s not just the sea by itself I love as a theme, but ships and boating too, the act of traversing water. Because, from the perspective of a game designer always on the lookout for new and exciting core gameplay loops, it’s a whole new dimension of traversal. There are lots of different ways you can move around on land – walking, cars, bicycles, tricycles, getting dragged on your back by a gorilla holding onto your foot – but they all revolve around the key central element that solid land has to be below you and sky has to be above that. On water it’s a completely different set of rules. You know when sandbox games have vehicles there’ll always be cars and bikes, probably helicopters and planes and maybe speedboats as well? The one thing they never seem to have is submarines. And that always feels like such a missed opportunity. I certainly thought that the first time I dove underwater in Just Cause 3 and thought “Fuck, I wish I had more excuses to hang around down here.”
The other part of it is that vehicle-based water traversal usually requires some kind of complicated machinery, whether it be a temperamental hovercraft or a 19th century sailing ship with about five hundred different names for a length of rope, and that speaks to one of my primal instincts, a very masculine one I think, that enjoys the sensation of being in control of a big machine. Bringing back all those boyhood fantasies of wanting to be a train driver. I quite liked what Sea of Thieves does with the ships having multiple separate components that need to be brought into line for optimal sailing. I quite liked the game FAR: Lone Sails for its central task of managing the different parts of an engine, and I jumped at the chance to play its sequel, Changing Tides, when I saw it was about a submarine. Pity it bored the tits off me.
So I think that gets to the bottom of why I get along so well with the nautical theme. It’s the sublime mystery and beauty of the sea combined with a designer’s appreciation for the skill and engineering mastery that goes into the business of travelling by water. I love to contemplate the efficiency of space when I see the below decks layout of a 19th century frigate’s gundeck and imagine being there when it was packed to capacity with burly sailors. It’s… one of things I contemplate, anyway.