June 11, 2020
Beyond Blue is a collaboration between E-Line Media, BBC Studios, the team behind Blue Planet II and OceanX. It is an overtly educational game, with clips of the real life research under way in our oceans available to watch, and an in game catalogue that you add to by scanning the wildlife. It’s also a fictional story adventure, a love letter to the ocean following a team of research scientists as they study and follow a family of sperm whales.
Beyond Blue describes the ocean as the beating blue heart of our planet, and it is clear that this game has come from a place of deep love and respect for the subject matter. You play as Mirai, one third of a research team studying the life in the Western Pacific ocean, and in particular the recent birth of a baby sperm whale. There are some background narrative flourishes to flesh out the characters and add some human drama; orphaned sisters, a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, unauthorised mining, pollution and human interference, but for the most part these are under-developed, and not where Beyond Blue’s value lies.
You’ll split your time across eight different dives, some in the same areas, but at different times of day, and others in never before seen areas (unless you watched Blue Planet of course). Places like the incredible brine pools where you can track and witness the way sperm whales and giant squid attack, or deep into the twilight zone of the ocean where fish use bioluminescence in their flesh to create dazzling light shows, you’ll even get to see orcas, dolphins and other creatures working together to create a huge swirling bait ball. This is where the the strength of Beyond Blue lies, it is just a shame that the technical aspects do not do the subject matter enough justice.
I am hesitant to be too critical here because I did get some things from playing through the three or four hours it takes to complete. But it is hard to ignore that the technical limitations take away much of what the game is trying to achieve. Your dive team is part of a future realistic element of the OceanX project with a space age suit that Mirai wears allowing her to dive to the crushing depths of the deep ocean. It’s a cool touch, and swimming around as Mirai is pleasant mediative experience. It is just that the places you visit feel so utterly devoid of life. Maybe that is the point, I don’t know, but it doesn’t feel like that was the intention.
During these dives you will have some loose way points to particular things of interest, mainly to your family of sperm whales to observe their behaviour, but much of your time will be spent dutifully swimming around scanning the marine life to fill a codex back at your sub that operates as your base. Scanning is straight-forward, the more times you scan a species the more information will be added to your library. Back on the sub you can view 3D models of the creatures you have scanned including their behaviours in different situations as well limited information about where in the ocean you can find these creatures and some more text associated with the narrative. But none of it feels all that detailed, and not once did I feel a sense of awe in the same way I did when watching the Blue Planet television programme.
The sub itself does not perform well. The frame rate is constantly shuddering, and there’s a persistent patch of the frame in the lower left that doesn’t render properly. Moving around the sub because of these performance issues is nauseating, fortunately you don’t really spend any time here at all. Each dive is punctuated by a return to the sub to deliver some more flavour to the human stories of Mirai and her fractious relationship with her sister or to hear Irina and Andre bicker over the missions priorities, but other than looking through your gathered intelligence about the life you have witnessed or listening to one of the many lovely songs on your iPad there is little reason to linger.
The best parts of Beyond Blue are the video snippets that have interviews and narration from the real life individuals carrying out this vital work. You’ll hear from the oceanographer who has made great personal sacrifice in the pursuit of her work, as well as marine biologists describing the importance of trying to maintain a balance between utilising the discoveries made in the ocean to advance human existence with the need to preserve the findings so that humans have a future at all.
I am a huge fan of the Blue Planet programme. It is an astonishing piece of work condensing the findings of the scientists into a documentary that is extraordinarily beautiful and informative. I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for the scientists and explorers working tirelessly at the frontiers of human knowledge to understand such an important part of our planet, and I understand that Beyond Blue is an attempt to extend that and make it an interactive experience. As a gaming experience, Beyond Blue is on the thin side, and as an inspiring or moving piece of work about the beauty of our oceans I think a game like Abzu manages it far more elegantly. However, as an educational experience I think that it is perfectly fine, I am unsure if the message of human exploitation of our oceans was really pressed hard enough to be honest, but it certainly got me thinking about how our culture of constant consumption is killing us, and that is definitely a message worth sharing.
Swimming around the oceans is relaxing
The documentary snippets are really interesting
Frame rate shudders in the confined sub space
Feels a bit lifeless at times
Beyond Blue is an overtly educational game that has a message worth sharing. The experience is pleasant enough, but other games manage to convey the majesty and beauty of the ocean more elegantly.