Children aren’t morons, but we often treat them as such. If I asked you to imagine a typical kids’ film or TV show, I’m willing to bet you’d think of something sanitized, bland, and populated with talking merchandise tie-in opportunities. Worse still is self-described “kids’ stuff that adults can enjoy,” which is often the same dull pap littered with mild off-color groaners for mom and dad. It is possible to make true “kids’ stuff that adults can enjoy,” but it’s done by treating children like what they are: young people, not idiots. Kids can understand and handle the sadness lurking in the background of My Neighbor Totoro or the anxiety that runs through Toy Story. Those are great kids’ films in part because of those emotional complexities, not despite them. Kids have a higher threshold for emotion and ideas than they’re given credit for, and the best children’s entertainment respects that.
Submerged, from Australia’s Uppercut Games, is a kids’ game in disguise. It doesn’t explicitly bill itself as a game for children, and smartly so—after all, how much entertainment did you dismiss as “kids’ stuff” when you were a kid?—but there are several telltale signs that it’s aiming at a younger crowd. It stars relatable young characters, it’s devoid of potentially traumatizing violence, and its difficulty is so low that it’s actually impossible to lose. To its credit, it aspires to be as stimulating as the best children’s media, and it mostly makes good on those aspirations. Its biggest frustration, though, is its failure to fully trust its audience. Submerged is torn between respecting and patronizing the players it feels designed for.
Told obliquely through a combination of environmental details and cave painting-style flashbacks, Submerged’s story concerns Miku and her wounded little brother Taku. The two of them have run away from home to a city that’s been swallowed by the sea, its old towers jutting out of the water like the ribs of an enormous carcass. Over a period of 10 days Miku has to explore the waterlogged metropolis by boat, searching for antique emergency supply crates and scaling the ivy-covered ruins to retrieve their precious contents. As she ventures out into the world, Miku will become increasingly corrupted by it, growing visibly sicker with each passing day. She will also attract the attention of its mutated residents, who skulk around in larger and larger groups as time goes by.
Submerged is what you might call “children’s horror,” a paradoxical-sounding genre codified by Alice In Wonderland that describes films like Coraline and TV shows like Gravity Falls. Children’s horror gently pushes against kids’ still-developing boundaries, helping them to discover where those boundaries are. It offers an illusion of danger and fear but always remains a fundamentally safe space. The mutants that stalk Miku, for example, are more eerie than truly grotesque, and they never actually attack her. They gradually increase in number, evoking a false any-minute-now anticipation but never crossing the line into genuine threat. They create a fear that exists only in the player’s mind, and do it subtly enough that the illusion persists throughout the entire game.
All of the game’s threats are similarly artificial, but they’re not all as convincing. That Taku’s life is hanging in the balance is another one of Submerged’s white lies. He will patiently cling to life in total safety for as long as it takes you to return to him. In the earliest parts of the game, the suggested desperation of his condition lends Miku’s search for supplies an appropriate tension, but Submerged struggles to maintain this illusion. Even less convincing is the supposed danger of scaling the city’s buildings. Miku will never fall from the structures, no matter how precarious her grip seems. Once you’ve found an appropriate building to scale, the act of climbing it is just busywork.
Creating a safe space for kids to experience some mild scares and heady ideas is an interesting goal, but if the illusion of danger can’t be maintained, that safe space becomes a boring one. The slowly growing gang of mutants creates a threat that feels credible, but the other perils never change or grow, or even pretend to. The moment you realize that the challenges get no more demanding over time is the exact moment you begin to feel talked-down to, like the game doesn’t trust you to solve anything more grueling than the most rudimentary climbing puzzle. That feeling of condescension sours the mood and leaves the remainder of the game less like exploring a sunken ruin to save your brother’s life and more like jumping through hoops to get a few pats on the head.
For its first hour or so, Submerged offers a perfect intellectual and emotional challenge. Boating through the city wreckage, desperately scanning buildings with your telescope in the usually vain hope of finding supplies, the setting sun lighting up the water’s surface with fiery oranges and oily purples—it feels beautiful and frightening in a way that children are rarely trusted with. It quietly asks some heavy questions about family, society, and the future, and it respects the intelligence of the children it’s asking. After a while, though, a lot of that trust and respect disappears. Submerged doesn’t want to see you fail, but it doesn’t trust you to succeed without its help, either. It bears repeating: Children aren’t morons. Submerged knows this, but it still treats its players like they’re just kids.
Developer: Uppercut Games
Publisher: Uppercut Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4