If the sound of Cissy Jones' gentle narration playing over a montage of serene rural vistas seems familiar in the trailer for Call of the Sea (opens in new tab), developer Out of the Blue Games is quick to acknowledge the reason why. "We adored her acting in Firewatch (opens in new tab)," says game director and studio co-founder Tatiana Delgado in a blog post on Xbox Wire (opens in new tab). "Especially her ability to create a strong presence with only her voice, conveying emotions to make the character feel so alive and close."
Jones plays Call of the Sea's protagonist, Norah, a woman on the search for her missing husband, who went AWOL with an ill-fated expedition during the last gasps of the Age of Discovery in the 1930s. Her hunt has led her to a mysterious island in the South Pacific, it's gorgeous tropical scenery underscored by a foreboding ambience of supernatural miasma. Not only will Norah have to navigate the island's many dangers and obstacles by solving puzzles and immersing herself in its secrets, but uncover the truth about her husband's fate, and perhaps learn more about herself than she was prepared for.
"[Jones] is what we wanted for our main character Norah, because we want you as a player to care for her and share her emotions." says Delgado. "We are striving for a calmer, deeper and more intelligent love story between Norah and her husband, a relationship that we feel is too rarely portrayed in games."
Trouble in paradise
Out of the Blue Games cites titles like Subnautica (opens in new tab), Soma (opens in new tab), and Myst (opens in new tab) as inspirations for its debut title, and it shows. The game's captivating trailer, revealed during today's Inside Xbox live stream (opens in new tab), depicts a world that doesn't just want you to explore it, but solve it, speaking in a wordless language of atmosphere and iconography. It's a game that wants to take the mechanics of environmental storytelling back to its roots of the classic adventure genre, albeit with a next-gen sheen afforded by the technical might of the Xbox Series X (opens in new tab).
Another, perhaps less obvious well from which Call of the Sea draws from, however, are the works of H.P. Lovecraft. To those of you at the back who I can already hear sighing at even the mention of the author's name, I understand the scepticism. Lovecraft has been done to death this side of the console generation, focusing heavily on his penchant for cosmic horror, viscerate imagery, and – yes – Cthulu himself.
But Delgado is quick to clarify that Call of the Sea adopts a very different reading of Lovecraft to the kind of games that have come before it, not least due to the fact that Out of the Blue Games has no intention of frightening players with angry tentacles, deranged cultists, or psychosomatic jump scares. Instead, she explains, Norah's journey is an interactive example of "the way Lovecraft tells some of his stories."
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"Call of the Sea is not a horror game," says Delgado. "Far from it. We want you to solve the mystery we have created, slowly realizing that there is more to the world than meets the eye and piecing together what has taken place before you arrived on the island. We’re after the sensation that comes when the mind tries to grasp a solution that lingers, tantalizingly, almost within reach."
Like that of The Witness (opens in new tab), then, you can think of Call of the Sea's island setting a one giant Rubik's cube, each area needing to be solved with consideration to the totality of the environment as a whole, but this is far from just a logic-driven puzzle game. The presence of Jones, known for bringing a warm humanism to all her performances, is all the evidence that's needed to see how Call of the Sea wants to activate your tear ducts as effectively as it does your brain chemistry.
Part of that emotional resonance comes from Norah, of course, who looks to be spending much of the game by herself, but some will no doubt be conjured by the eye-capturing splendour of the island itself, all gorgeously rendered in Unreal Engine 4 like a pastoral water colour in motion. Made up of just 12 veteran developers working remotely across the city of Madrid, Spain, Out of the Blue is making use of colour theory and ambient lighting to bring Call of the Sea to life, all backed by an equally magical original score.
As what appears to be an Xbox console exclusive (there's no word on a PS4 or PS5 (opens in new tab) release yet), the game will also be making use of Microsoft's Smart Delivery feature to ensure that those colours and textures pop even more impressively on the Xbox Series X, at no extra cost to those who purchase the Xbox One version of the game when it lands later this year. In a next-gen showcase that eschewed big news for small wonders, Call of the Sea immediately stood out as must buy for 2020. To achieve that effect in the same year as a new console cycle is impressive, and a testament to both Microsoft's commitment to its independent partners, and the talent emanating from this newborn studio.
For more, check out the full list of upcoming Xbox Series X games (opens in new tab) here, or find out our thoughts on the Assassin's Creed Valhalla reveal below.