Soul Searching offers a humble experience on the human condition. I feel it’s fair to say there are few games I’ve come across that moved me as much as this one did. The game is so quiet on the surface, it’s easy to overlook the underlying emotional content during the first hours of playing. While not the loudest, biggest, or bombastic of the survival genre to date, Soul Searching certainly has more to offer than its sparse production would have you believe.
You’re a nameless block, either male or female, that’s spent a lifetime growing up on a distant island. In the past, your ancestors would set out on a raft to go ‘soul searching’, a journey shrouded in mystery, sadness, and in some cases even death. Soul searchers from your island are rare – only one is known to still exist.
Against the better judgement of your island neighbors, you decide to set out on this journey alone to make your parents proud. During your quest, you’ll come across other islands and their inhabitants, perhaps make a few friends along the way, and learn the important lesson of what it takes to be a true Soul Searcher.
While seemingly calm on the surface, there’s more to the game than can be seen at first glance. Starting out, my first assumption was just visiting the islands and uncovering the rest of the map. There’s small tasks to complete while out in open water like picking up gold to purchase items for the raft or collecting these small glowing orbs. While out at sea you’ll utilize resources to survive and escape dangers when they arise.
Dangers scattered between the islands vary and can happen at any time. My first encounter involved a large hawk swooping down and snatching me up, only to drop me off in the middle of the ocean. At first I panicked, clicking all over the screen, but there was little I could do…until I learned to swim back to my raft before my character drowned. Even the weather worked against me as heatwaves created an awful thirst, forcing me to consume my precious water supply. Huge thunderstorms would roll in and shoot lightening down, making me either flee or to wait out the storm.
The raft you start out with can’t be ‘upgraded’ per say, but you can replace it by purchasing bigger and better ones along the way. These bigger and better rafts can be purchased with gold coins that can be collected by diving into the water or selling food like fish and fruit to a vendor. The size of the raft determines the kinds of items you can have on board, like binoculars, fishing pole, wind sock, and other small additions that make traveling easier.
Utilizing resources is a big part of Soul Searching, especially food. I preferred diving for coins instead of selling off my food. Possessing a fishing pool makes it a bit easier to replenish a dwindling food supply and, thankfully, it rained often enough water wasn’t an issue. However, fishing takes time and a bit of skill before you’re reeling in several catches, but even then it depends on whether a school of fish swim near your raft or not.
Soul Searching is one of a handful of pixel-centric games I’ve played recently where, despite the use of blocky sprites, the world still feels ‘alive’ and beautiful. While similarly styled games can sport bright colors or atmosphere, here these elements are available in spades. Colors are rich and vibrant, even feeling alive in some regards when moving about the environment.
There are little pockets of light that can be retrieved while out over open water and at first I didn’t know what they were. When I collected one it would flit around me and hang out, usually trailing behind my raft when moving or flickering about like a large firefly. During the day colors don’t stand out, but at night they would between soft shades of purple and yellow while casting a friendly glow all the while. This gave dark nights an eerie sense of company which left me feeling hopeful and even cheered me up when things felt too quiet.
There’s a theme of loneliness hanging over Soul Searching, something not even its happy colors and welcoming atmosphere can’t keep beneath the surface. Visiting islands and speaking with locals would teach me about their everyday lives and obstacles they were facing.
Each of the islands has its own ongoing theme of despair and only a handful of these stories had anything I’d consider ‘hopeful’ or ‘happy’ going on. One character told me his wife had become pregnant, yet there was no future for them; he’d doomed both her and the child, blaming himself for their predicament. There are countless stories of loss and desperation scattered like this throughout.
Several times I came across other rafts with perished ‘soul searchers’ on them, only to learn how they died. The bodies were pixelated and with no face to speak of, but just seeing the prone body of a fellow searcher left an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Characters seem to become resigned with their lot in life and saw no way of getting out of their current predicaments. Others would long for something ‘more’, but didn’t have the means to strike out on their own so they could go soul searching too. The world would turn a dismal grey and white with no music to speak of, but I still felt a sense of ‘hope’ shining through the darkness.
The sound design is phenomenal as well; I often left the game running just to listen to the ambient noises. Waves lapping up against the sand, the cries of gulls flying overhead, even working with the soundtrack work in harmony. Music and ambient sounds were meditative, fit the environment, and even during quiet moments on my raft felt relaxing, to the point where I searched for the soundtrack online to continue listening as I worked.
Soul Searching left me with an odd longing for a quiet, contemplative existence over open water. There’s an underlying message of hope and longing scattered throughout the experience, but also a heavy sense of despair cast over like a pixelated blanket. From its quieter moments to unsettling circumstances, Soul Searching certainly offers one of the more profound experiences I’ve had in a while, regardless of its presentation. I could easily spend days in this quiet little world, just fishing while listening to its beautiful soundtrack.