I’ve never swam in the ocean. I thought I’d get that out of the way up front here, despite what that headline says. I’ve been up to my shin bones in the Gulf of Mexico a couple times, and I’ve felt the bitter cold of Lake Superior — even in July, when there is sometimes ice in its center — but I’ve never snorkled, never done scuba, and never felt the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic or the other one. To be honest, before this weekend, I wasn’t even sure if I even liked the ocean; you’ve seen Jaws, and Open Water and Overboard like I have, and you know that the ocean is dark and full of terrors.
But the opportunity came up this past weekend, for me to play Beyond Blue, a game with the extremely — depending on your perspective — stressful or beatific purpose of teaching gamers about ocean conservation via allowing them to swim around the ocean and identify schools of fish, whales, sharks, and creepy crawlies of all stripes. It’s a way of educating people about the ocean in a way that makes it a fun task to play between bouts on Call of Duty. You play as a deep sea explorer who dives to different parts of the ocean to catalog species and solve some minor mysteries, but that’s really just window dressing: this game was created with help from the BBC folks who made Blue Planet II to make this as claustrophobic, immersive, and, let’s face it, existentially terrifying as the ocean. And it definitely is: this game is incredibly rendered and downright beautiful, and thanks to that, I found out that I never feel more stressed than when tracking down some school of fish I need to classify for my job while in the ocean depths.
As you might know, the soundtrack to Beyond Blue is now available in the VMP store on exclusive vinyl. Since this is a music website, I spent my hours in the ocean this weekend swimming with that on in the background. The original theme, by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper, was the most calming track; I watched a humpback whale move around the ocean gracefully during one of the game’s quieter moments as the calming strings of the song echoed around my living room. New Zealand’s Maisey Rika’s “Tangaroa Whakamautai” was also a calming influence, particularly during one of the game’s later dives into the darkest environment I’ve experienced in a videogame: the bottom of the ocean, looking for lanternfish and making my way into an underground brine pool (say this for Beyond Blue: I didn’t know what a brine pool was until it was an objective on a videogame).
On paper, the soundtrack seems pretty nuts; it transitions from Flaming Lips (whose “All We Have is Now” nails down the concept of the game, that the oceans are disappearing and it’s time to act now) to Cass McCombs to TOKiMONSTA to spacy songwriters like Rachele Eve and to points in between. But in the way that it feels like its a rogue Spotify on shuffle, it mirrors what it’s like to plumb the (digital) ocean depths in Beyond Blue; behind every rock, there’s a whole world happening in microcosm, some crazy scrap of life eking it out in a wet world.You never know what’s next.
It took me a little more than four hours from start to finish — or roughly five trips through the soundtrack — a relatively brief time that felt much longer due to my uneasiness with Davy Jones’s Locker. I never left my sofa, but I learned that I haven’t felt a desire to swim in the ocean for a reason. But it felt nice, at least for a while, to leave the confines of my Quarantine House in a way that required me to confront something about myself I wasn’t sure of, until Beyond Blue made it clear: It’s important to respect the oceans and protect its species, even if you find the prospect of personally doing so spiritually frightening.
Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Music Director and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, co-produced VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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