Standing on the top of a long abandoned crane, rusty beams creaking out a song of defiance against the forces of gravity struggling to pull them apart, I was filled with a crushing sense of melancholy for what could have been. The sun had already set, and from my position I could just make out the outlines of the tallest buildings in the silent moonlight, the last remaining testament of a sunken city through which I was now scavenging for anything useful that may have been left behind. It was at this moment more than ever that I wanted desperately to be taken in by Submerged and its dilapidated beauty, to be swept up in the wondrous world it had conjured and the ambitions which seemed to drip out of the moss covered walls as they struggled to find a place for themselves.
It is a cruel irony then that Submerged’s ruin is its own overbearing grip on the player. Developer Uppercut Games has gone to such enormous lengths to direct the player and ensure they’re never at a loss as to where to go or what to do, that I felt alienated by my own needless presence. My attempts at exploration became less and less adventurous as I quickly discovered how limited my ability to explore actually was. Immediately I was trapped in my tiny motorboat, able to drift through the gaps of the structures still towering above the murky ocean but unable to so much as reach out and touch them and prove they were more than props in a dystopian tour.
Occasionally I’d be presented with a red vine signaling my chance to make port and clamber up the side of a building to see what was on top, but by then it was already clear that the world of Submerged was not one to be discovered but consumed. Every landmark, collectible, and handhold had been designed with the sole purpose of giving me something to do and observe. Aggressive camera angles directed me toward every significant structure I passed, forced my view toward a collectible I might have missed or a path I needed to take, all the while removing me of the ability to do anything but tell my character what direction to go as they did the rest.
Submerged traps itself under an omnipresent need to control and focus the player’s attention, and in doing so brings the entirety of its artificial existence to the surface. There was nothing more it could do to make me care about its characters or the history of the underwater city I was only glimpsing the top of; I was stuck behind the layers of antagonistic design allowing me no room to breathe as I performed Submerged’s song and dance wishing all the while that it would soon be over.
Once you strip Submerged of its fabricated openness and shell of a narrative there’s very nearly nothing left. What remains are your character’s clumsy movements as you guide them through monotonous platforming routines. It’s not the clumsiness you’d expect from a child attempting to scale a skyscraper with her bare hands, but a robotic awkwardness that creates an agonizing amount of disorder between what you do and how the game responds. I cringed every time I had to make my way up a long wall or choose between continuing the main path or grabbing a collectible, as I knew it meant a long struggle with a climbing system that all but plays itself but still needs you to tell it where to go.
I would be lying if I said that there were not times I found Submerged staggeringly beautiful and affecting. Rocketing my watercraft over waves as dolphins swam beside me or watching the sunset from the top of a building overlooking what remained of a bridge, I felt what Submerged had been trying so hard to create. Quiet, beautiful moments followed me throughout Submerged, springing up at random moments as I saw something astonishing out of the corner of my eye, but it was always during a time when I had managed to momentarily remove myself from the pressing control of a game that believed it could force me to feel and appreciate something. And then just like that they would disappear and I would be left alone again with the cold mechanical systems urging me forward.
By the end of Submerged I had stopped trying. I’d given up finding something that was being intentionally withheld from me, allowing the game to point me where to go and sooner allow me to leave. This was not a voyage but an entrapment; a siren’s call to a dead end and a meandering crawl back out. The game Submerged could have, and by all accounts wanted to be is still hidden here somewhere, but that hardly matters when it so fervently refuses to let you see it.