Have you ever wished that a nature documentary like Planet Earth or Blue Planet was interactive? Thanks to Beyond Blue, now you can experience a documentary-like interactive world.
The science-driven ocean adventure game draws inspiration from the BBC series Blue Planet II. It’s out now on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Apple Arcade. I had a chance to play through the entire game and wanted to share my thoughts on the experience.
Exploring the deep
Beyond Blue is a game that takes place in the world’s oceans. You experience three different depth levels: the sunlight zone, the twilight zone, and the midnight zone. As the name suggests, the sunlight zone is the part of the ocean where sunlight is abundant. It’s the top layer nearest to the surface.
In the game, you can’t actually surface at all. Your time is spent entirely underwater, including periods between dives where you are in a submarine. The early levels take place in the sunlight zone where you are acquainted with the controls and near-surface marine life. Aside from fish, you encounter sharks, dolphins, whales, various schools of fish, and coral.
The twilight zone is deeper. At over 500 feet deep and reaching a maximum depth of over 3,000 feet, this zone receives minimal sunlight. However, life is still abundant here with plenty of fish, jellies, and other living organisms. In fact, it’s believed that the number of fish within the twilight zone outnumber the fish in the rest of the ocean.
Lastly, there’s the midnight zone. At a depth of over 3,300 feet and with no sunlight, one might expect minimal life. That’s not the case, though. Sperm whales, squid, jellies, microorganisms, and other life manage to survive at this depth. And thanks to bioluminescence, the midnight zone is not always in total darkness.
An interactive documentary
You play as Mirai, a young woman who is part of a crew of scientists studying a family of sperm whales. One of the whales just gave birth to a calf. And while all seemed to be going well, you discover a mysterious signal early on.
The signal may be disrupting life for the whales, who are sensitive to sound both for communication and for hunting. For instance, they use echolocation for navigation and to locate food. In a mini-documentary within the game, human noise pollution in the sea is compared to a rock concert next to your apartment. It would drive you nuts if it was going on all of the time.
The game lets you swim around the various environments, collecting samples here and there or scanning different organisms. This is not an action-oriented game by any means. In fact, I would call it more of a learning tool than a traditional game.
And as a learning tool, I think it has a great deal of potential, especially for younger audiences. The game-like nature of the experience might be more entertaining for adolescents than watching a nature documentary. And after you scan organisms during your dive, you can go back to your submarine and look at 3D models of the animals.
The biodiversity is lacking
On the plus side, the environments look fairly realistic. On the downside, it’s not teeming with life quite as much as I would expect. It’s also disappointing that there are only 45 different species for you to scan. This seems like a real missed opportunity to highlight the abundance of life in our oceans.
In particular, coral barely receives any attention. Maybe they couldn’t get it to fit into the game’s narrative, but they could have at least included more coral in the environments. Considering the fragile state and uncertain future of coral reefs, it seems like a major oversight to me.
Also, the animals do not appear to react to your presence at all or even with each other. I understand that the developers probably wanted this to be a non-violent experience, but if I bumped up against sharks and orcas who showed no interest whatsoever.
To be sure sharks get a bad, undeserved reputation thanks to films like Jaws. And I wouldn’t want the developers to perpetuate negative, inaccurate portrayals of sharks as man-eaters. But the game almost goes too far in suggesting that all of these animals are passive.
These animals deserve our respect when we are in their territory. When we don’t give it to them – when we harass them or worse – it may have unintended consequences. That should be part of the learning experience.
Documentaries within an interactive documentary
One of the neat features of Beyond Blue is not gameplay at all. It’s a series of sixteen mini-documentaries called Ocean Insights. These feature interviews with some of science’s leading ocean experts and stunning, original footage.
Each of the documentaries tells a small story. The video above, for instance, talks about how jellyfish are capable of aging in reverse. Again, these are powerful learning tools for young and old minds alike.
The mini-documentaries are unlocked from playing the game and can be watched in the submarine between missions. They range from over a minute to a couple minutes long. There is probably about thirty minutes of video in total.
It might be a bit harsh to call the gameplay shallow, but it is definitely basic. Each of the game’s dives – which take place in different environments – are quite similar. You swim around, scan animals, check buoys, collect occasional samples, rinse and repeat. I enjoyed it, but some people will find it boring.
In some ways, though, Beyond Blue is providing a form of public service. This game is educational, hoping to draw awareness to the sensitivity of the world’s oceans and the importance of a healthy ocean for all life on this planet.
And it does a good job of that. I learned things that I did not know prior to playing, and I have an even greater appreciation for marine life.
Game Freaks 365 received a free review copy.