Beyond Home and Further Down

Mateusz Skutnik might not be a name that is familiar to many, however, it is one which’s shadow towers over the early days of online flash games. Sole creator of the Submachine series, his games were quick to carve a niche in a time when the algorithm had yet to dominate our taste, and people looking for new adventures and clever puzzles were ever so grateful. After the original installment released for free in 2005 as a simple locked room style puzzle game, the series was quick to grow a cult and a steady supply of expansive but equally free sequels followed, proving the dedication and skill of Mat remained singular in an ever-expanding market.

While the acceleration of trends and fads seemed ever to increase in the age of digital content, the consistent release of Submachine games throughout the ensuing decade was always a pleasant surprise until the series concluded in 2015. Now a relic from a time which seemed never to settle, it seems like the world is already so very different from what it was back then.

That is at least my perspective on Mr. Skutnik, however, recently one new release was to drastically change this vista. Suddenly a new game by the maestro appeared on Steam: “Slice of Sea”, a completely new and independent story and with a price tag that matched any regular indie game, two completely unprecedented features. Immediately I became curious, and the intriguing screenshots and positive reviews bestowed on the Steam page did little to curtail my interest, so naturally I had to explore this newfound creation and learn of the lone Seaweed’s journey to return home, and what an adventure it turned out to be.

In a world where the setting and scene invoke the epic and futurist style of Mobius, meanwhile, its inhabitants remain quirky curmudgeons far more native to the pen of Tove Jansson, you are but a humble alga on mechanical legs. There is no incongruity in this strange plane of existence, where we as spectators are just as alien as the seaweed is on the mountaintop. It is a surreal tale where we find the esoteric wearing the cloak of the mundane.

The architecture of old European towns and ancient Himalayan temples meet and mix across spans of wide open planes and industrial cities. Antiquated contraptions litter the background while futurist technology blocks your path. Trains, steamers, cranes and motors lie rusted and immobile, waiting for you to salvage what remains functioning while haunting sounds and dismal airs fill the landscape. Glass chimes and untuned pianos accompany despondent drones while a throbbing rhythm sets the pace for a gloomy journey. A kaleidoscopic context to recognize, merged with impossible geometry and peculiar beings.

There is never giving any explanation for these circumstances, and as wonderful as one might consider the worldbuilding to be, the game seems to eschew any form of exposition. This can at times seem rather oblique; why can’t you interact with any of the persons you meet? Are we ignored or just hidden? Well, that’s not truly important, we remain in the background throughout and have to use our own imagination to interpret the foreground. Slice of Sea is one of the few games which takes great care not just to build up its world as an aesthetic conglomeration, but also aims to depict the society which appears within. Scary and foreign in many ways, yet as recognizable as a dream.

Now let us return to the Seaweed, our protagonist. A lone plant that finds itself far from home and we have to help it back, that’s it. Its design and simplicity is reminiscent of such classics as Machinarium, while the puzzles of turning machines on-n-off with codes and tricks remain familiar to all fans of Submachine. You are taught early on that the mouse pointer moves independently from the creature itself, and so it is the player themself who is the one to fix all and any problem, while the creature simply moves along on its merry way.

There seems to be an emphasis on openness in the gameplay, which might seem at odds with the standard of point-n-click games. Normally, the layout of an area is designed to be very close, so the tools to the solution are never far away from the problem you need to fix, but in Slice of Sea, some clues can be hidden all over the map and crisscross between new and old areas.

This can at times contribute to a feeling of being “truly lost”, especially when you are near the end and missing two bits to a code, and you don’t know if it is right behind you or at the other end of the world. However, when it works and you’re just rolling along it makes a lot of the puzzles flow in a very organic manner. It adds a certain sense of smoothness and continuity to the areas, giving the breath of the pacing an unusual sense of width.

While that is one ambivalent feature, there are still a few things I do think actually mar this otherwise solid experience. These are not negatives that deride the game but are still substantial enough to point out.

When at first you are nearing the end of the initial area, the clandestine “tutorial” level, I feel suddenly the frames become much too crowded with artifacts and relics, which serve no purpose for progress and distract rather than compliment the game. A good point-n-click game needs to strike the right balance between having a neutrally composed frame, while also making it obvious what the puzzle is and what elements are at the player’s disposal to solve it.

Slice of Sea breaks this balance very early on and completely conflates the key items for progress and the otherwise useless décor, and I fail to see what lesson it should have demonstrated going forward. It is not as much a red herring as a whole blue whale of unnecessary complications and I can only imagine the headache it must cause new players.

Another thing that bothered me was the ending. Now, I would first stress I do not intend to spoil nor do I want to squabble with the author’s intention for the story. It is overall still the world which is the focus of our exploration, and the narrative is really just an appendage. However, I still felt the final scenes broke hard with the misty and ethereal tone the game had worked so hard to establish, and instead concluded with a cutscene which seemed more in line with the old Rayman games.

This is just a minor niggle and likely very subjective, but I thought it could have been wrapped up in a manner more consistent with the general atmosphere of all that preceded it.

Slice of Sea is still a wonderful culmination of so many years of artistic integrity and pioneering work by a man who by herculean efforts made himself a part of gaming history, a wonderfully personal and thoroughly distinct artistic vision. Each frame containing the most carefully composed art and the most fluid animation. Altogether a most astounding gem to discover.

[source: Dasein Con Amore]