Water is one of the most abundant resources on the planet, it covers over 70% of the Earth’s surface, swimming is frequently one of the most watched Olympic sports and yet water is possibly the biggest threat to video game characters everywhere. For various reasons, water has been a go-to for game designers, whether trying to restrict players in an open world environment or just trying to create a deviously hard level to overcome. Sometimes it just seems like they forgot to program swimming and went for instant death out of laziness. Let’s look at some of the examples of death by water in video games.
Grand Theft Auto III
GTAIII set the gold standard for open world video games and quickly became hailed as both groundbreaking and as one of the best video games ever made. But it was also one of the first games to use water as a way to restrict where players could go. Liberty City was basically a large peninsula, a large mountain to one side of the map and water everywhere else. By blocking off key bridges, the game was able to restrict players to 1/3 of the map at the beginning of the game. But the consequences of trying to escape this island were far more dire than one would imagine. Any attempt to jump in a body of water was met with instant, often silent, death. A frequent pastime for me was to gather up as many police cars as possible and jump into the nearest river, usually taking about 5 or 6 cop cars into the murky depths with me.
Sonic: The Hedgehog 2
Oh this level. This one damn level. Odds are you have played or seen this level at some time in your life, if you don’t know what I’m talking about yet just listen to this:
Try setting that as your alarm clock. You’ll never hit snooze again.
These days I don’t have a lot of trouble on Industrial Plant Zone, but when I was a kid it was the bane of my existence. Any time I got caught in water I would desperately flail to get my head out and before I knew it the water had reached an impossible height. Getting to the surface in time was one of the most difficult things I could remember and that fucking music didn’t help at all.
Quite a bit of this game revolved around unlocking segments of the map, but they used huge barrier walls to do it. I never understood then why so much water was used as some frustrating secondary. It shouldn’t be any surprise that DMA, creators of Body Harvest, would later become Rockstar North and use what they learned from this game to make GTAIII, even the idea of water being death. At least this game has some swimming, but it only lasts for about 4 seconds before the player drowns. I have never understood this. Why did they go through all the trouble in animating the guy swimming? You can literally watch the life bar drain at breakneck speeds once you so much as touch the water. Being the hopeful young man that I was at the time, I remember trying over and over again to cross certain channels that I thought must be crossed by swimming. Hopelessly confused, I remember consulting the game’s manual, which stated that the armor on the character was unfortunately too heavy to swim with. Again, WTF? Why even let me go in the water to begin with? Fortunately when DMA switched to making the next GTA, they decided it was better to just kill you off instantly than give you false hope that your character could go on.
On the docks there lies one of your targets. He’s surrounded by boats. Of course all of this is surrounded by your true enemy: the water below. This stage of the original Assassin’s Creed game will have you leaping from beam to beam, with very small margins for error. I think I played this part about 20 times, threw my controller down at least twice and eventually beat it by chasing the target down the dock and into the city, where there was no water. What a ridiculous letdown that was. By the time I finally killed him, I thought “fuck it, I just want to move on.” Jumping across those beams was so inaccurate and random and despite that Altair had no clue how to swim, he would leap into the muddy waters anyway at the touch of a button. I never understood why water was so toxic in a game that had so many other ways of keeping you in the city (like a giant transparent glowing wall). Its no wonder why many of ACII’s screenshots featured Ezio diving into rivers, it was because Ubisoft knew it was stupid to restrict swimming to a highly trained and deadly assassin in the first place.
So there was one game that I actually liked getting killed in the water and it was Banjo-Kazooie. Nothing was more terrifying in the game, not even the spooky mansion or Grendel’s butt than Snacker the Shark, who lurked the waters of Treasure Trove Cove. The entire level was a large tropical island surrounded by water, but one of Banjo and Kazooie’s primary abilities was the breast-stroke, so how could we reasonably keep the kiddies from swimming out too far? Why with a giant fucking shark who eats you if you’ve been in the water for more than a few seconds. Yea, that will make kids want to go to the beach for sure.
There was a couple of truly serious threats because of Snacker: one was getting out to that really tiny island out in the ocean and the other was flying. This was the level that introduced flying and they could not have thought of a scarier place to do it. Make a bad turn or run up against some ledge and you plunged right down into the blue seas, with no hope of reaching the shore. The next 5 mintues consisted of desperately mashing the A-button to keep double-jumping out of the water and away from Snacker’s sharp teeth. It always had my heart racing.
Conclusion: Water is death, embrace the wet
Between bear-eating sharks, drowning and just straight-up instadeath, one thing is clear: game designers do not like water. They hate it and they won’t go anywhere near it. At least that’s the best thing I can infer from years of playing games where water is basically treated like lava. How many games have you played where you can actually swim fast? How many have you played where you can fight well in the water? How many open world games actually let you swim? For whatever reason that designers have I’m sure that it doesn’t involve anything reasonable, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it involved a few sessions of therapy.