Yes, that’s a very provocative title, but I’m willing to hold to it; Seabed, the 2016 visual novel developed by Paleontology is, without any hesitation, my pick for game of the decade. Leave debate over whether or not visual novels even count as games at the door; if you’d like for me to frame it as the best digital art instead, then go right ahead, as my opinion would hold just as clearly in that case.
I’ve already written a review of Seabed—two of them, in fact—and if you’re interested in a spoiler-free explanation of why this game is worthwhile, then read those. However, those reviews are truly incapable of demonstrating why it might deserve a game of the decade title, and indeed, I’ll have to go into relative depth about the plot to justify that. As a result, I only recommend this post if you’ve already read Seabed(you blessed few), or, more likely if you’re willing to read spoilers. If you’re a member of the latter group, then I hope that this might convince you to give it a chance, even knowing some of what occurs.
The principal mystery of Seabed is that of Sachiko and Takako. Why are they separated? Why don’t they remember anything about what happened? Given that Takako is acknowledged as dead by other characters, and eventually Sachi herself, how is it that we see her contemporary life? What’s up with the similarities between the situations the two women experience? And perhaps most importantly, who in the world is Narasaki?
Some of these questions are only partially resolved, but by and large, the game concludes in revealing that the Takako we know exists within Sachi’s head, where the latter woman created a world in which her late beloved could live happily. It’s for this reason that the sanatorium Takako spends her time in is so similar to the hotel Sachi visits. Narasaki, meanwhile, while initially posed as a psychologist, ultimately acts as a bridge between Sachi and the world inside her mind, allowing for one fleeting moment of contact between the two of them, supposedly the last before Sachi’s eventual death.
While the story is supernatural in certain elements—it’s difficult to explain Narasaki’s appearance through anything other than supernatural means, as she’s perceived by others and thus can’t be a pure creation of Sachi’s like inner-Takako is—this is merely an amplification of what’s already present. At its core, this is a game about grief, yes, but it also bears a heterodox perspective on the human mind, one which opens its arms to the range of possibilities and is disinterested in medical formulas, whether they be psychoanalytic or psychiatric in nature.
These themes, present from Narasaki’s first meeting with Sachi, come to a head in the game’s climactic scene, where she and Takako talk to one another over the phone. It’s perhaps 10 pages long, short by any standard, yet the absolute ease with which the two of them speak again, reminiscing about the past even as they recognize the fleeting nature of the call, is impossible not to cry at. It’s a level of intimacy that’s difficult to establish in any work; many try, and those that succeed on even a basic level always curry favor with me, but if you told me that Sachi and Takako’s conversations were based on those of a real couple, I wouldn’t be surprised. Of course, that only makes the pain of their separation all the harder to bear.
I first played Seabed for my review of it, at a time where I had still never experienced a relationship. In the time since, that’s obviously changed, and with it, I’ve gained a new perspective on all works that deal in romance, this game included. I certainly cried at the time, yet when I read it now as someone who’s engaged, it rings entirely differently. I don’t simply mean that it forces me to imagine what might happen if my fiancé were to die. I do that often enough on my own prompting, and any work triggers that response, no matter how mediocre. No, Seabed isn’t merely a story of grief with a nice aesthetic.
What truly marks the game as not just fantastic but important is the extent to which it truly internalizes the idea that those you care about continue to live on within you. Sachi’s grief and longing for Takako literally fuel her to recreate her beloved. While she encounters hallucinations of the girl in her waking life, the version of her that she talks to on the phone, whose perspective we witness throughout the game, is entirely different. She’s fundamentally real, and autonomous, so real that their eventual reunion upon death is promised, despite the lack of anything resembling an afterlife outside of Sachi’s mind.
While this is allegorical, implying that a healthy manner in dealing with loss is not shutting it down, or pretending that it didn’t happen, but instead living on in the hope that you can make your late loved ones happy, it’s also literal. Aside from the details surrounding Narasaki, events like this occur in real life. Sachi deals with her grief by literally recreating her girlfriend inside her head. Technically speaking, that’s what most psychological professionals would call an unhealthy move. Yet, the game makes no judgments on this front, and if anything, rejects that diagnosis.
The hallucinations Sachi sees of Takako hurt her, actively impeding her ability to interact with the world she inhabits, but the setting she creates for Takako is preserved to the end, and absolutely never interfered with. In fact, Narasaki’s role is nothing like an ordinary mental health professional, whether of a psychoanalytic camp or a more American-style psychiatric one. If anything, she’s closest to a Deleuzo-Guattarian schizoanalyst, but I wouldn’t even say that fits. Her job is to ensure that the world within Sachi operates smoothly in tandem with her outside life, but she makes no attempt to “cure” her or hold back any psychic energies. For Sachi, this is a healthy way of dealing with grief, and boxing her into some trite conception that “creating personalities based on your dead loved ones is a bad idea” is worth less than nothing. Human psychology is not so formulaic, and healthy behavior very much lies in the eye of the beholder. Narasaki denies the medical role of enforcing normalcy. Indeed, once Sachi and Takako reach happiness, that’s enough, and Narasaki disappears, having done her job.
This, ultimately, is what makes Seabed so important. It presents a relatively anti-psychiatric perspective, which in itself is a rare and valuable find. A work that accepts what many might see as “mental illness” as just one way we can process the world is extraordinary. Yet, like the queerness, it’s not the presentation of this alone that makes it such a powerful work; I’m hardly one to praise art merely due to its representation or lack thereof. Rather, it’s how it all comes together.
Queerness and mental illness are both forms of otherness, as is grief, a state-of-exception for human life in general. Seabed embraces these alterities, and rather than naturalizing them, it simply presents them. The vast, vast majority of the game is nothing more than Sachi and Takako’s daily lives, with only a relatively small number of punctuating, “strange” events. These women occupy positions outside the social norm, both in their relation to one another and their mental states, and the game makes no attempt to pretend they’re “normal”. However, they are just as living happy lives as anyone else would be. We’re beset by attempts to make queers and the neurodivergent seem “just like normal people,” but finding a work where all of our very real differences are presented as deserving of genuine uneventfulness is virtually unheard of, and essential for a true aesthetic of alterity.
Gameplay, including choices, would not just be a distraction in Seabed, but a hindrance. Like a traditional novel, the game is concerned with interiority and mundanity, not with the periods of participatory excitement aroused by even the most basic of route systems. It’s oft-described as hypnotic, and that hypnotism comes from being sucked into an othered perspective, without the difficulty that usually presents. To a greater degree than any other game I played this decade, it both examines otherness and presents a way forward in regards to it. It’s idiosyncratic, yes, written more like a literary novel than the average game. Yet in a year where I’ve once again been reading literary novels, I can truly say it stands strong among them, as well as the games it competes with for this category. I doubt it’ll be your game of the decade. But I hope you can see why it’s mine.