After writing my piece on how well Far Cry 3 used water in its open sandbox world, I realized, upon further rumination and the revealing of The Sims 3: Island Paradise, that there are other games that get it right as well, but for different reasons. Not all games go the Bethesda route and make the wonderful aquatic world into a boring, bleak expanse of brown with a few insulting plants thrown in here and there to make it look like they give a damn. Some developers out there take water and run…errr…swim with it.
Bioshock – As an allegory for the inevitability of utopian collapse
Would you kindly name for me one utopian society that didn’t end in pain, tears,or a golf club to the head for everyone involved for? Okay, yeah, that joke is kind of washed up (I’m on fire here!), but I AM going somewhere with this, stay with me. Bioshock’s tale of a society of intellectuals cut loose from any moral boundaries that eventually cannibalizes itself and its underwater home is one for the centuries and water plays a big part. No idea can exist in a vacuum, safe from the prying (and necessary) eyes of scrutiny. With water pouring in through the cracks in Rapture, slowly forming after years of neglect, it makes for a perfect metaphor that no one can operate outside the boundaries of ethics without everything eventually caving in on them.
Far Cry 3 – As a reminder that water is home to lots of man-eating beasts
Playing through many open-world games means that, if you see something under water or just want to go for a dip chances are, you can go grab it without any worry. Not so in Far Cry 3, where every swim could be your last. I found this out the hard way when, while I was sneaking up on a pirate stronghold, a shark unexpectedly latched onto my arm. Every time I go into the water in the game now it is a tactical, life-or-death decision. If I see a an artifact I want to snatch or a plant I want to harvest, you better believe I am checking my map to ensure this area isn’t occupied by sharks or crocodiles. If it is, you had also better believe that I will be using a whole lotta bullets making sure no beasties are going to come and poke holes in my water wings (don’t make fun).
Super Mario 64: Jolly Roger Bay – As a relaxing, ethereal playground
Water doesn’t always have to be something serious like a literary device or a potential grave. Sometimes, it can just make for a cool place to hang out at/play around in. Enter Super Mario 64’s Jolly Roger Bay level. Instead of making the whole experience a pain in the butt with constant enemy attacks, Nintendo made for us an enemy-free zone where we could just swim around and enjoy ourselves in this alien 3D world, so new to us back in 1996. What made it even more relaxing was the beautiful soundtrack playing in the background and the somehow great control,s for such a new concept.
Rayman Origins: Swimming With the Stars – As a dark, mysterious entity
In direct contradiction to bedazzled sprites singing in the background, this level is actually a very creepy representation of what the darkest reaches of the ocean might be like. If you could somehow hold your breath forever and not succumb to the crushing pressure of the surrounding water. As you wind your way through this labyrinthine tangle of creepy creatures, freakish foliage and dark depths, you can’t help but feel a sense that something is about to grab hold of you from just outside the periphery that the light of the deep-sea lightning bugs offer. It only grows tenser as you come into contact with a lamp fish that doesn’t wait up. Should you fall outside of its light you will most certainly be reloading your last checkpoint. Thankfully, the silky smooth controls make maneuvering your way through the dark a joy and not a pain.
Metroid Prime: Crashed Frigate Orpheon – As an antigravity chamber
I don’t want you to think that the water here allows you to jump to massive heights. It doesn’t. What it does do is offer up an interesting representation of what it might be like to hop into the water dressed in a ton of body armor. And it does it in much more detail than Halo does on The Silent Cartographer. Once you get the Space Jump boots, things really open up. You can hop from the top of the flooded ventilation shaft and casually float to the bottom, letting the beautiful electronic score wash over you as you blast a couple of the shaft’s aquatic predators to smithereens. Ahh…bliss.
Ecco the Dolphin – As a representation of an underwater community
After seeing Finding Nemo, I just assumed that underwater life was just like life up here on dry land. Manta rays serve as school busses, sharks hold meetings on how to become vegans and turtles surf the Australian Current. The ensuing disillusionment I experienced when I found out the truth was not at all receptive to psycho-analyzation and a lot of medication. Nothing worked, until I picked up Ecco the Dolphin for the first time. I became the dolphin; flipping over rocks and diving to unimaginable depth. The icing on the cake was getting to speak to other creatures of the deep using Ecco’s song. I finally got to experience and see in action what years of therapy told me I couldn’t.
Wave Race 64 – As an ever-changing motocross track
Sure, dirt bikes are pretty cool, but the tracks never change. Lap two is much like lap one and that’s lame. For those looking for a dynamic racing environment, Wave Race 64 takes the cake as the best place to find that. Though some courses feature pretty placid water conditions, others waters are much more vicious. Take the Marine Fortress, for example. Taking place in the midst of a storm, the waves knock you viciously as you attempt to navigate them with just enough agility and finesse to take first. It seems strange that more games don’t take advantage of just how much variety water racing can offer.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker – As a vast expanse begging to be explored
There haven’t been a whole lot of games to fully explore the high adventure of the world’s oceans from the deck of a ship. We didn’t always have the world mapped out as we do now. Why can’t we go back to a time where every horizon could be hiding the next great discovery? With The Wind Waker, Nintendo accomplished that feeling. From the second the wind caught my sails, I felt like I was setting out on a very grand adventure. Dotting the ocean are small islands playing host to treasures or wandering tradesman. With the cel-shaded visuals popping out of the screen at me, my inner child was awoken from his slumber, brought on by years of gritty, realistic shooters.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent – As a cue to crap your pants
The scariest movies are ones that use suggestion rather than a barrage of grotesque imagery to frighten you. Thinking about what might be lurking in the shadows is much more frightening than actually seeing what is lying in wait. Remove the unknown and you remove the tension. Kaernk, an invisible creature that stalks you through flooded corridors of the castle, is made known via visual cues, most notably ripples and splashes in the water. The water acts only as an indicator that something is coming to kill you, right now. By representing this creature only through the effects it has on the environment, the game allows water to become something of harbinger of terror.
Donkey Kong Country – Making water work in 2D
In the earlier days of video games, water levels were usually the worst part of any game; a thing to be dreaded instead of anticipated. When Donkey Kong Country came out, however, it showed that these types of levels can be used to put more control in the player’s hands, not take it away. They reveled in their simplicity, serving as nothing more than tunnels that just happened to have bubbles floating through them. They were not put in the game to create an extra layer of extreme challenge, but to simply explore another part of Donkey Kong’s world and this is what made Coral Capers, Clam City, Croctopus Chase and Poison Pond a joy to play.
So, what did we miss? I know you were all coming here with the expectation that I would include your favorite water level or whatnot on the list. If it’s here, great! If it’s not, too bad – but you can still yell at me for it in the comments below!