Under the Waves adds open-world wonder to Firewatch’s gentle narration

Open-world games and the serene storytelling of games like Firewatch combine in Under the Waves, a tale of overcoming loss in the depths of the North Sea

Under the Waves adds open-world exploration to Firewatch's narrative tools: main character Sam with a look of concern on his face, wearing a diver's helmet, and bathed in an ominous red glow

Under the Waves is what you get when you take the melancholic, back and forth narration of Firewatch, mix in some open-world exploration, and plunge it several hundred metres below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

You play as Stan, a professional diver embarking on a long stint as a deep sea engineer. Each day you pick up assignments from your boss, Tim, head out in your personal submarine to work on some rusty underwater machinery, and then return to a cosy life support pod on the sea bed to rest and contemplate on both the day and your life on the surface. Despite being totally alone, Stan is almost constantly talking: either on the phone to Tim, recording messages for his maybe-partner on the surface, or mumbling to himself.

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It’s a loop that immediately makes me think of Camp Santo’s excellent story game, Firewatch, but the underwater setting introduces a crucial difference: there’s a ton more freedom.

As you head out on your daily mission you’re in complete control of where you steer your personal sub. There are reefs and wrecks and chasms and plains to survey en route. See a shoal of fish and you can follow it through the murky, tumultuous waters of the North Sea for a while. Exploration reveals new side quests, trinkets you can bring back to your life support pod, fresh conversation topics, and materials you can use to craft new items and tools.

Even during Under the Waves’ more linear sections, where you’re navigating submerged maintenance tunnels or repairing turbines, being underwater means you can freely ignore ladders and staircases by simply pushing off and swimming to whatever part of the room you need to get to. It’s a lightbulb moment in a genre where you’re usually only able to walk or jog between objectives and it takes a lot of the tedium out of exploration.

Under the Waves adds open-world exploration to Firewatch's narrative tools: the view from the cockpit of a personal submarine that's pursuing a blue whale, there are techno-futurist control panels

Parallel Studio CEO Ronan Coiffec, who previously worked on Life is Strange and Remember Me with Don’t Nod, says the team wanted to provide more intrigue for people who experienced his previous adventure games through YouTube. “We’ve seen that a lot of players watch the game via YouTube channels,” Coiffec explains, “so we wanted to find a way to really implicate the player in the story. We decided to create a narrative-driven game, but one with open-world areas where the player can explore and really fall into the game.

“We imagine someone seeing [a playthrough] and the YouTuber they’re watching is just going from mission to mission. Maybe they’re passing by a cave entrance or a nearby wreck, and we imagine the viewer thinking ‘What about me? I’d like to explore that area.’ So I think by creating a lot more liberty we can maybe move the player towards experiencing the game for themself.”

And exploring – whether walking, swimming, or submarining – feels great. There’s just enough momentum and drift when gliding between stations that you have to factor in the currents, but otherwise swimming is precise and smooth. Outside in open waters you can feel the push and pull of the waves above, buffeting your submarine from side to side as you try to steer it towards a docking bay – that’s right, this one’s eligible for our roundup of the best submarine games when it comes out.

Under the Waves adds open-world exploration to Firewatch's narrative tools: Third-person gameplay showing a small personal submarine sterring through a marine trench

It’s a world you want to explore, too. The muted colour palette and grainy film effects also put you in mind of classic Cousteau, with briny deep sea blues punctuated by pops of primary colours courtesy of the techno-futurist ’70s setting. It’s not a particularly subtle visual reference – Stan even wears a bright red, ribbed beanie like the iconic oceanographer – but it’s perfectly executed.

My half-hour hands-on serves as a quick introduction to the tone and gameplay of Under the Waves. It’s a slow-burner, pensive and blue like the aquatic world Stan’s retreated to, but the demo closes with a hint at what’s to come. Shortly after nodding off, Stan awakes on a surreal, moonlit highway deep, deep beneath the sea. It’s an impossible scene, and just before you can truly disregard it as reality a blue whale soars past.

That first full day in Firewatch’s Wyoming wilderness, capped off with a creepy night time encounter with a stranger, set the tone for one of the most engrossing story games on PC, and Under the Waves is ticking a lot of the same boxes for me. Whatever awaits Stan in these dreamscapes or out on his daily tasks is a mystery, but this is a narrative adventure I’m keen to dive into when it releases in 2023.