Ellie Gibson - Eurogamer's only qualified scuba-diving instructor - tells a good joke about divers. "How do you know when you're sat next to a diving instructor? He'll tell you."
Scuba diving is a glamorous, macho world. It's populated by chiselled men, drunk on adrenaline and testosterone and, well, drink, who dive all day then spend all night prowling beach-front bars like the sharks they claim to have swum with. You can only imagine what videogames, known for their glamorisation of macho things, are going to make of this milieu. It's going to be all harpoon guns, speedboats, topless mermaids, mutant dinosaur sharks who shoot laser beams out of their eyes and bad hip-hop. Right?
Wrong. Endless Ocean is not that kind of videogame. In Endless Ocean, you hang out on a yacht with really nice decking. You collect information about species of fish by petting them. You have a really strained, unrequited romance with a neurotic marine biologist who never takes her lifejacket off. You keep pets. You listen to elevator music that sounds suspiciously like Enya. You do a little light archeology. Occasionally, you check your emails.
A sequel of sorts to Arika's Everblue series - which appeared on the PS2, published by Capcom - Endless Ocean is the game equivalent of an Attenborough-narrated natural history documentary, only a bit more genteel. The primary goal in it is to explore the natural beauty of the coral reefs of a fictional South Pacific sea, and identify rare species of sea life. That makes it an example of a pretty rare species itself - a videogame designed to be soothing and relaxing, to inspire a sense of oneness with nature, rather than a desire shoot nature in the face.
Seeing a good fit for its brain-trained, Nintendog-loving crossover audience, Nintendo commissioned a new entry in Arika's cult micro-genre for the Wii, and Endless Ocean makes the transition very well. Arika has sensibly eschewed the nunchuck, making this a game you can play entirely one-handed, all the better to sip camomile tea while you play. Diving controls are a simple matter of pointing where you want to go and pressing a button to swim there; a quick flick executes an about turn. You can then press buttons and shake the remote to examine and interact with fish and other sea life, take photographs, write messages on the screen (a nice touch for the online two-player mode) and grab treasure from the sea bed. Sorry, not treasure - items of cultural value and anthropological interest.
The more time you spend interacting with fish - petting, prodding and feeding them - the more information you gather your index. Different species appear in different locations, during different seasons and times of day. Collecting their names and basic information is compulsive in a box-ticking, Pokédex-filling sort of way, but collating the extra information is completely devoid of interest, incentive or reward. It's so mind-bogglingly pointless, it can provoke existential crisis. After sitting for minutes at a time, gently shaking the Wii remote to and fro over a digital rendition of a Red Gurnard or Bigeye Trevally, you do have to ask what you are doing with your life. As a hobby, brass-rubbing makes more sense.
It's a good thing the fish, seals, penguins, dolphins, jellyfish, sharks, seahorses, whales and coelacanth of Endless Ocean are so exquisitely rendered. All the sea life is as believable and beautiful in its appearance as it is ridiculous in its diversity. (You might just manage to suspend disbelief until a polar bear magically appears on the deck of your yacht. In the South Pacific. In July.) Encountering new species is a moment of genuine wonder and excitement. Sadly, the corals, caves, crevasses and sunken ruins of the ocean floor aren't so varied and pretty. As dreamy as the game looks - all suffused, dappled blue light - the pull to explore every nook and cranny of its underwater world isn't quite as strong as it could be.
So it's up to the game designers to offer you some gentle encouragement. They do, but 'gentle' is the operative word here - it's as if the team at Arika have been chilled out a little too thoroughly by staring at screens full of fish and listening to the slow, rhythmic bubble of breathing apparatus since 2001. Endless Ocean provides you with enough to do to keep you going, but only just. Requests come in to find and photograph certain species, and take clients on guided dives. These basically amount to the same thing, but the greater flexbility of the guide scenario and the feedback from the client - cheesy and unpredictable as it is - make this one of the most compelling parts of the game (and probably the closest to being a real-life professional diver).
You'll also befriend dolphins and other underwater mammals, who can be trained to do stunts in a simple mini-game, and will accompany you on dives, occasionally attracting your attention to things of interest. Again, concrete feedback and goals are somewhat lacking in the interaction with these 'partners', but the basic idea is cute, and the emotional connection with the beasts surprisingly strong. The game also deserves credit for including online play - diving and showing off your pets' skills with a friend - and the option listen to your own MP3s from an SD card, in place of the game's eccessively syrupy soundtrack.
But perhaps the oddest, most surprising, most lovable thing about Endless Ocean is its story. Beginning innocuously enough, the game soon takes on a mildly mad, fantastical air that ought to clash with its real-world naturalism - but in fact, spices it up pleasantly. There's some nonsense about ancient civilisations, and you get mysterious and realtively polite threats by email. Catherine, the marine biologist who can't swim, turns out to be an endearing basket case who says things like "if you were as well versed in biological oceanography as me, you'd have a pretty good idea what the penguins are saying too!" and witters on about her dead father and her purpose in life. There's even a very heavy reference to Moby Dick. It's charmingly batty, in an understated way. Although sometimes it's not clear what you have to do to advance the story - and sometimes, you really do just have to wait until poor, mixed-up Catherine is ready to share - there's just enough of a hook there to draw you on to the next section of pleasant, pretty, bubbly boredom.
Endless Ocean is simple to the point of being quite dull, and certainly no masterpiece. But sometimes all a game needs to do is offer you something different, and it's an honest relief to play something that doesn't shout in your ear, set any time limits, or feature a single explosion; a game whose raison d'être is just beauty and peace. Playing this game is almost like taking a holiday from gaming. If you can live with that paradox - and if you can find it reasonably cheap - it's worth dipping a toe in these calm, blue waters.
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