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Underwater levels in platformers, token diving sections in open-world games—they're usually not great. Swimming controls usually fill us with dread because they don't get the same care or finesse as everything that surrounds them. If we're going to get wet, it's better when games dedicate themselves entirely to representing the experience of being underwater. That's what these games do.
They're not first-person shooters set at the bottom of the sea or games about fish who are also secret agents. The best underwater games draw inspiration from the life cycles of marine creatures, from what it's like to move through water, from all the dangers and wonders of the ocean. And fish tanks.
The bit in Spore where you're a single-celled creature working up the food chain was essentially an interactive screensaver, but still one of its best parts. Flow is basically that on its own. You're a microscopic wormy creature gobbling up plankton-like blobs: eat a blue one and travel to an ocean plane one shade lighter, eat a red one and travel to a deeper blue. Creatures one level over are always visible and as you shift, the outline of a ray three times your size might suddenly stop being a blur and become an orange threat ready to eat you.
Then Flow stops being a peaceful interactive screensaver, abruptly becoming a game about the circle of life.
Drop a pellet and one of your guppies either eats it and grows, or doesn't and turns belly-up. At the basic level Insaniquarium is just about owning fish: decorative wet idiots who can't be trusted not to starve. Then you get a snail who helps you collect the coins your fish drop, and a swordfish who helps you fight off alien invaders who teleport inside your tank and will eat your fish unless you laser that alien to death. Insaniquarium takes the inane pleasantness of owning a fish tank and video gamifies the hell out of it.
As far as submarine simulators go, Silent Hunter 3, especially with mods, is as in-depth as they get. This is the game where people go for the full U-boat fantasy, so missions take literal days and they have to alter their sleeping patterns around it. If you yearn to fiddle with dials that let you adjust speeds down to the individual knot, then Silent Hunter 3 is for you.
Grab some graphics mods to spruce up the 2005-era looks and dive into the simmiest sub sim that's ever simmed.
If Silent Hunter III is for pretending you're in Das Boot, Sub Commander is The Hunt For Red October. But where the Silent Hunter series are all studio projects, Sub Commander is the creation of one indie designer and closer to FTL. Your nuclear sub will catch fire at some point, spring leaks, suddenly become radioactive. As much as any patrol or encounter, your mission is to keep the sub running, equipping crew and assigning them to emergency repairs and hoping they don't asphyxiate because you'll need them for the next inevitable emergency. May they all see Montana, one day.
In Song of the Deep the ocean is a kids' book where hermit crabs have shops in their shells, a baby leviathan wants to be friends, and you pilot a homemade yellow submarine. It's not just for children, though. It's also a 2D metroidvania in the vein of —undersea passages are blocked by water currents, or boulders, or a chubby pufferfish, and there are upgrades to defeat each obstacle. This is the sea from fairytales, everything better down where it's wetter, best played by parent and child together to enjoy the pretty backdrops and help each other past the harder puzzles and bosses.
Subnautica is about taming the ocean—an alien ocean admittedly—and learning how it can help you. You need synthetic rubber to make a pair of fins, so you find the vines whose seed clusters you need to craft rubber; you need more water so you grab a bladderfish as it swims past. Later Subnautica goes beyond basic stuff and you start constructing habitats, a network of breathing tubes, your own computers. You tame the sea and make a home that's also a farm and an aquarium, an octopus's garden of your own.
There will be at least one moment in Abzu where your heart floats right out your chest and into your mouth. Maybe it'll be when you race alongside orcas, or a whale passes so close it eclipses everything. Abzu is about diving, and half of diving is looking at the life aquatic and going “woah”. The other half is movement, and Abzu does that well too. Your sleek diver never needs to breathe, you're free to tumble, turn, and follow interesting fish or race along with a current. Each undersea area is scattered with secrets, a simple puzzle to open the next area, and a hint of story delivered without words. Most importantly each environment, whether coral reef or deep trench, has an abundance of living things to swim with while the orchestral soundtrack does its thing and pushes your heart straight up.
In the opening minutes of The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human, you pilot a small submarine through the oceans beneath a frozen post-human world, and eviscerate a giant sea worm by swimming into its maw and out the ass. From there, Aquatic Adventure stacks up one quiet set piece after another on a tour through a thriving underwater ecosystem grown over the ruins of civilization. And as the last person alive, your only goal is simply to live, which isn’t always easy with massive, mutated sea creatures on your tail. As you explore, you’ll uncover the story of what led to the cataclysmic weather events that killed everyone but you, and find ship upgrades to become more efficient at murdering innocent marine life on your quest to outlive them, you monster. Accompanied by a catchy, somber soundtrack, The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is a tragic twist on the action exploration formula, placing empowerment and progress behind reckless fish murder and ecological destruction.