Review: "Under the Waves" is a heart-wrenching tale of love and grief
How often do we describe suffering as “drowning in grief?” It crashes over us, pulls us down, and comes in waves. Water and grief have been entangled by literary authors for centuries and blend perfectly in Under the Waves, a modern exploration into the engulfing feelings of sorrow.
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Set in an alternative, futuristic 1970s, Stan (voice of Ben Lambert) is a professional diver working for big oil conglomerate UniTech while grappling with his own monumental tragedy. How he copes with his pain determines his path and, ultimately, which of two endings are unlocked.
You explore the ocean depths using a personal submersible named Moon or free diving with Stan's equipment. There are certain objectives to complete each day (given the nature of Stan's employment) while also granting plenty of free time to explore the beautiful, watery world.
As Stan collects various plastic waste, metal, algae, coal and other resources, he crafts blueprints for daily necessities, like repair kits or oxygen tubes. These resources must be carefully allocated when leaving the home base, as running out of oxygen or damaging Moon beyond repair results in Stan's damp demise.
More of Stan’s backstory is uncovered in phone calls back to his wife, Emma, or daily chats with his supervisor and old friend, Tim. These are achingly intimate glimpses into his pain, but beautifully scripted to make you feel invested in finding out more.
Stan's grief for his personal suffering is echoed in the ocean, simultaneously filled with so much natural beauty and also great man-made devastation. It's difficult to swim far without coming across dumped trash and wrecks from different points in history. Some of these scenes will trigger traumatic flashbacks or nightmares, the damage to the ecosystem reflected in the damage to his emotional well-being.
But what hits you as a viewer especially hard is the effects of underwater mining. Drills leak oil into coral reefs while massive shipping containers fall off ships and left abandoned on the seafloor, blue sharks swimming nearby. It is a devastating and sobering sight for all the real-world harm it represents.
Under the Waves partners with Surfrider Foundation Europe, a nonprofit dedicated to ocean conservation, and a portion of game profits are donated to their mission. You also spy posters for Surfrider Foundation throughout Stan’s life module, which is a cute additional detail that keeps the organization fresh in your mind, if you want to check them out after the credits roll.
But it’s not all trauma and tragedy. While not busy completing the daily tasks, you speed off in Moon to photograph the wildlife and have some truly beautiful scenes to explore, from vast canyons to hidden grottos. Just don’t hit the wall too often in the underwater caves because the bottom of the seafloor is last place you want to end up stranded with a disabled submersible.
The hauntingly beautiful music serves as a constant companion on Stan’s assignments deep beneath the waters. Paired with compelling storytelling, this game is a love letter to both the ocean and to those who struggle with grief that no amount of time seems to heal. It is a beautiful journey and one well worth the dive.