Interview: Gareth Damian Martin on games journalism and In Other Waters

“One of the things I want to do in In Other Waters is give the same kind of attention usually given to human architecture and society in games to an ecosystem.”

In Other Waters is a game about exploring an unknown and vast ocean, in order to learn more about its species and the life on the downside. Combat is replaced by a study through xenobiology, and, while it still maintains Metroid-like elements in connected pathways, everything the player sees and interacts with is displayed in a particular screen.

We control an Operator AI that is present in the suit of a xenobiologist named Ellery Vas, who is tasked with exploring the ocean of Gliese 677Cc. All we see is, literally, a screen with different panels that give us an abstract yet detailed vision of what Ellery is seeing. A radar, an inventory for samples, an oxygen meter. You’ll also get to speak with the xenobiologist, and join her in crucial decisions that will affect the story in different ways.

Into The Spine spoke with Jump Over the Age about the transition from freelance journalism to game design, how In Other Waters came to be and alien life hidden in this fictional ocean. Oh, and don’t forget to check out the Kickstarter campaign and the free demo.

After your experience as a freelance writer and running Heterotopias, how did you decide to become a game designer? When and how did the idea for In Other Waters come to life?

In Other Waters started life as an idle thought I had somewhere in turquoise waters of the Gulf of Toroneos in Northern Greece. In the time I spent swimming there over the Summer of 2017 I thought about the ocean a lot, about the life I swam among and what it means to be a human on a planet of mostly water. At the same time, 2017 was a year when the “Anthropocene”, the geological epoch of humanity, was everywhere. From games like Rain World to films like Blade Runner 2049, the idea of environmental crisis and humans as a geological force, shaping the planet irreparably, was present across culture.

It was in the meeting of these two contrasting experiences: the alien beauty of our oceans and the debilitating destruction of our planet, that In Other Waters came to be.”

“I wanted it to be a game about discovery, about science and biology, and about stepping lightly on an alien world. And once I had settled on the idea of the player as an AI assisting the exploration, everything fell into place. I knew that I had to make this game.

I had, at that point, produced a few experimental games and done a fair amount of complex work in Twine. So I set myself the goal of first building a game about my experiences in the platform, what would become my IFcomp entry Salt, with the intention of developing the ideas in it towards In Other Waters. After a lot of writing, planning and painting, I set myself a short, intensive prototyping period to build a version of the game in Unity. At last, after many iterations, that prototype became the In Other Waters Kickstarter demo.”

In that brief but significant exchange from journalism to game design, how much of your prior experience influenced the beginning of IOW’s development?

“Being a games journalist meant that when I came to design In Other Waters I had a large volume of knowledge and experience to draw on. Writing about games and designing games are very different mindsets, but the knowledge that feeds them is quite similar. Understanding the core structures of games, what makes some work and others don’t, and having a strong overview of the history, depth and breadth of games is invaluable to both pursuits.

Of course there is also a whole host of other experience that has informed In Other Waters. My background as a graphic designer, my fiction writing, my childhood love of marine biology and classic science fiction. For me it’s hard to separate the pieces out because In Other Waters connects to so many parts of who I am.

It’s also worth saying that I am not in anyway ‘leaving’ writing about games, and Heterotopias is actually going to have some big new things happening this year too. For me it’s not so much changing my path, as it is broadening it.”

Being someone that enjoys to study the architecture in video games, how does that translate to IOW, considering the player only has an abstract sense of the environment through the UI devices from what we’ve seen so far?

“That’s an interesting question. In a very literal sense there is a minimal amount of architecture in In Other Waters, especially as the game is set on an uninhabited planet. But it is very much a game about space, and exploring a landscape. One of the things I want to do in In Other Waters is give the same kind of attention usually given to human architecture and society in games to an ecosystem. So that means a lot of focus on the ‘architecture’ and construction of that ecosystem.”

What are the challenges you face when trying to create a world that feels alive by only displaying signals and dialogue in text form? In my experience with the demo, I was caught up in the atmosphere in no time, but I could not help but wonder the effort it must take.

“Thank you! That is one of the main things that attracted me to this project. Games are surprisingly good at connecting meaning, character and narrative to relatively abstract interfaces. It’s something I love about games, how even minimal graphical elements can inspire the players imagination, especially when supported by text. I love the planets in the first Mass Effect for example, and how we build an image of a world from just an orbital view and a bit of text.

But the challenge actually comes from limiting your visual language to make it very clear to the player. In this way I think graphic design really informs my work, because as a graphic designer I am used to using a limited set of elements to express a complex idea. You know you are on the right track when you start removing elements rather than adding them!”

A vast sea, unknown life forms and humans doing recognizance in the area. Where will the story take us from there?

“Well I don’t want to give too much away, but In Other Waters will take the player ever deeper into its alien ocean, where strange creatures and secrets lie in equal measure. The main mystery of the game will be Minae Nomura’s disappearance, but as with all good mysteries that narrative will connect into deeper histories about the planet Gliese 667Cc and even the future of humanity.”

Games such as Subnautica and the recent footage from Death Stranding showcase universes built around oceans. In Other Waters focuses on exploring rather than destroying this unknown world, but, as seen in the demo, that doesn’t mean there won’t be danger. How are you planning to portray those situations to the player?

“Making things clear to the player is very important when you have an abstract game like this one. Danger in this ocean will be expressed both through the readings you pick up on your sensors and reflected in the marking of creatures on the radar. While this world isn’t actively hostile like those in many games, where alien life attacks on sight, the ocean itself is a danger, and the depletion of power, oxygen as well as the threats of deep water and toxic substances will keep the player focussed.”

Could you tell me approximately how much of the actual game is already complete, aside from the prologue?

“The game is planned, but outside the systems shown in the demo and trailer, it is not yet built. That’s why I’m running a Kickstarter, with both freelance work and having a 2 year old daughter, it’s the only way I can afford to dedicate the time I need to build the full game!”

What would you tell someone who is on the fence of starting into game development?

“Start with a small, achievable challenge and build up from there. Free tools like Twine are a great way to start practising the logic and design skills needed to make games, and even to learn simple coding. Also look into tools that make it easier to get something prototyped faster, Playmaker for Unity has been invaluable for me, but Fungus and Adventure Creator are also great.”

By Diego Nicolás Argüello

Founder and EIC of Into The Spine. Probably procrastinating on Twitter right now. Talk to him about pinballs, Persona, and The Darkness. @diegoarguello66

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