Imagine taking a boring marine biology class and it was an awesome rock concert about dolphins. That’s the edutainment promise and that’s more or less what E-Line Media seems to be aiming for with Beyond Blue – but with a cool video game instead of the rock concert. There’s some serious credit borrowed from the BBC, with an ‘inspired by’ name check for the superstar documentary series Blue planet II. However, Beyond Blue falls short of the caliber of this program. The great power of a game to show and teach has been largely overlooked in this collection of good but disjointed multimedia assets.
The latest from E-Line Media is a peaceful, third-person ocean exploration game about how to conduct scientific research into marine life. More than just a game, the set also includes 16 educational short films of about two minutes each, briefly describing related scientific topics. In keeping with this academic stance, there is no threat or danger to the gameplay, encouraging ruminative observation of the environment and the creatures within.
In the near future, you control a researcher called Mirai as she tracks down and documents ocean creatures, specifically a family of sperm whales. She undertakes this research with a team of off-screen scientists who broadcast it live, commenting and relaying viewers’ questions. It’s not so chatty as to spoil the stillness of the deep, but gives context to the on-screen action, which could otherwise quickly tire out. Between research missions, Mirai hangs out in a submarine where you can listen to a very strange collection of music and watch science videos, while episodes of her personal and professional life unfold over the phone in sound dialogue interludes from visual novel style.
The controls are mostly intuitive, with standard two-stick movement, plus additional buttons for moving up or down without pointing the camera up or down. Researching means activating a scanner with “L”, pointing a reticle at a creature, then holding “R” to scan. The requirement to be within range of creatures and follow them with the camera as they move around makes that feeling different every time, avoiding the feeling of a stale clickathon. Each dive involves interacting with a buoy to search for targets, then swimming to the targets marked on your HUD to scan the subjects of your search.
There is complete freedom to explore the small dive sites you are placed in – the “near future” being the excuse of technology that allows Mirai to swim indefinitely with extremely minimal equipment in the water of any size. ‘any depth. Getting Mirai to interact with objects on the submarine is a horrible chore, but brief and infrequent. Fortunately, she is almost always in the water.
Beyond Blue is clearly educational. Along with the factual documentary videos collected from the menu as you progress, the missions include oral explanations of underwater life and are mostly about observing and simply understanding what is presented. The concept offers several channels for showing, telling and teaching: exploration, dialogue sections and videos. The story out of the ocean is designed to draw parallels between the lives of humans and other creatures and to show the similarity of family ties and social structures. Conversations with your sister about your loved ones overlap with tracking and documenting a sperm whale family. Meanwhile, the progressively unlocked videos lend gravity to the game’s environments by anchoring them in reality.
There is a lot of content coming together here to try to achieve a goal. However, it does not really gel. Videos are found in a menu tab and are revealed with minimal fanfare. Considering their length, they could be played at the start and end of missions without being distracting. This would allow better use of them, but it would also probably underline the fact that they do not relate very clearly to the content of the missions. Likewise, the dialogue sections don’t go very far in terms of dramatic impetus, and the connections to marine life are mundane and sickening. It doesn’t help that between dubbing and editing the interactions feel flat, like hearing sound files in sequence rather than human interaction.
The ultimate encapsulation of this overall inconsistency is the music player on the submarine. Having emerged from the wonderfully recreated sounds of the ocean, the enormous iPod in the cabin appears to be pushed way too hard, and has a small but incredibly diverse playlist that can’t maintain any sort of cohesive vibe – and certainly not appropriate. There seems to be an attitude of just putting these songs together – and these videos and these voice clips and these levels of play – just because E-Line Media could. It’s multimedia for multimedia, like a CD-ROM on a beige PC in a regional science museum in the 90s. It looks strangely like a game in Microsoft Encarta.
In the middle of it all, there is a third person exploration game. Unfortunately, it’s not a big one. While it controls itself smoothly and is generally enjoyable to play, it lacks a few basic opportunities to do more. Level design has its moments – swimming towards the first encounter with the whales and upon a sudden drop off the ocean floor is almost like leaving the Grand Plateau in Breath of the Wild. However, other potentially majestic moments, awestruck by the vastness of the ocean, are canceled out by pop-ins, revealing that the Void of the Blue Void is actually full of large boulders that have yet to be rendered.
Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity is to move to the greater depths of the ocean. This experience is hardly noticeably different from any other dive – it’s just darker. If Mirai were to wear a slightly thicker suit and control herself a little more slowly, we might be made to feel the oppression of the extreme conditions. This is the kind of thing video games do particularly well. That feeling combined with a well-timed video of the nature of the very deep ocean would have been powerful. Instead, Mirai freaks out as happily as ever and another video pops up in a buried menu tab in case you feel like watching it later.
Beyond Blue has noble intentions, with an urgent and vital message about our impact on Earth. However, he does not do himself justice. While there is some decent content here – videos, music, sound design, gameplay, storytelling – these parts don’t support or enhance each other. The gameplay is calming but a note, the video documentaries don’t frame the missions nor are they well connected to the narrative. While there are moments of majesty in exploring the ocean, the limited draw distance and pop-in frequently interrupts the awe. Education is hard to achieve, and Beyond Blue looks less like an awesome rock concert about dolphins and more like your science teacher trying to rap.