Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Endless Ocean (Wii)

I've recently had a look at Endless Ocean on the Wii, and it's proved to be an interesting change. First off, it manages to put you into some sort of trance like state by making you feel like you could actually be underwater (whilst somehow managing to keep dry). The graphics are obviously key to this experience (and perhaps playing it on a 32inch TV) but I think the music is quite important too. Tycho from Penny Arcade puts it well when he writes: "The rhythm of the scuba gear itself is sufficiently hypnotic, but they offer up musical selections in parallel: there is a warbling sea witch in this game whose voice can drown men. When we dive, I believe we dive in search of her." As you progress in the game, you can unlock further similar tracks but you can also play music of your own from an SD card you can plug into the Wii. It is probably best to find something more chilled out to swim around too though as the game is so relaxed it might be a bit disconcerting to have Arctic Monkeys or something in the background.

It's also different because I'm not sure what the goal is. You seem to get to dive and swim around and poke fish, a lot. I've also managed to become a freelance photographer, get hold of an underwater pen, and make a dolphin my diving partner, who I have (very originally) called Ecco. This might sound busy, but it's not really. It's all the less stressful because there is no competition, no an enemy to fight, no point system as such or and there's not even a time limit. Of course there is a story line - I've been hired as some sort of researcher/diving guide to work on a boat with this lady called Catherine who can't swim and seems to have some sort of issue with her father (I caught her making apologies to him while staring out to sea), but it doesn't seem very important. At the end of the day I can choose whether to take people on tours or not and I seem to be able to decide where I want to go, with a few hints from Catherine about where might be interesting. There are also hints of legends about caves and the like but at the end of the day I can just sit on the deck and watch the sea.

Admittedly all this relaxing gets a little boring so it is quite nice to go on dives. You can catalog all the sea creatures you find by following them aroun and you seem to be able to find stuff out quicker if you feed, poke or stroke them. That's one of the ways you seem to progress in the game, by discovering new species. The other indicators are: adding more information to existing species, exploring new areas on the map, and feedback concerning you guided dives. For my last diving tour I got an A, I think because I actually managed to find the fish the client wanted to see. But it's still all very relaxed. There is the occasional moment of frustration though when waving the Wiimote doesn't quite get your avatar to do what you were expecting it to do. Plus, I'm not sure whether I've forgotten the controls for looking more closely at something and picking up objects, or if there are just some things I have to wait to be unlocked before I can do so.

You'd think I might have learnt a bit more about different kinds of life underwater but I'm not sure I have. I don't really read the information I gather, and very little of it seems to stick. That said, I never knew there was such a thing as a False Killer Whale but apparently there is. In fact, the information you get is rather like skimming through an article in wikipedia and then forgetting all about it. I'm not sure about this poking and stroking fish thing either. I mean, is that really the best strategy to use when faced with a species you've never encountered before? Especially when it looks like something that might want to bite or poison you. It seems impossible to die in this game as you don't even seem to be able to run out of oxygen. Not that I want to die, but it seems odd there is no element of risk at all. Maybe it's just a result of playing other games, but I can't help expecting something bad to happen at some point.

I find it interesting that I care about things like the feedback I got from a dive, and how many creatures I've found, but that I don't really care about what I've actually found out about them. I also don't care about Catherine's relationship with her father (for all I know she blames him for never teaching her to swim). I do think the game engages me emotionally, but only when I'm actually diving. So when I'm swimming underwater, the music is playing and there are pretty fish and coral to look, it feels good. It's a nice change from trying to kill all the baddies and trying to improve your performance all the time. Though you can get a bit of a shock bumping into a particularly ugly fish, or something large like a manatee. I don't think that feeling of being immersed under water is the same as experiencing of flow though, mainly because the game seems to lack any real sense of challenge. So, I doubt I'm going to be playing much more of it as I'm just not sure what I'm getting out of it, and trying to discover every single species doesn't seem enough to keep me playing on the off chance that something else will happen.