Friday, April 22, 2016

Research (The Sea Eternal)

Note: This post deals with my game The Sea Eternal. As such, it will contain spoilers.

This game required pulling a lot of different elements together seamlessly to create a realistic fantasy ocean setting, and ended up requiring a lot of research into oceanography, marine biology, and mythological creatures. I ended up dividing my research up into sections.

My first area of research focused on the very human aspect of enjoying the ocean, specifically SCUBA diving. A lot of people actually do swim around the ocean, and there's a special feel and knowledge to diving that I wanted to make sure I captured since I've been snorkeling a long time ago, but never diving. So I watched diving videos, looked up popular diving spots, and even went through an encyclopedia of diving lingo. A lot came out of that with regards to the creatures, the colors, the snow, the visibility, and the ocean wreck.

Of course, many parts of the ocean are too deep for regular diving. I also turned to videos from submarines and came away with a sense of a very different, much darker ocean. From these came settings of empty dark expanses, flat featureless sands, sparse and scattered wildlife.

Turning to oceanography, I noticed that the ocean bottom is actually really flat and featureless; it doesn't have giant caves, so I started wondering what else might make for a good place to house a city of eternal merfolk. I gravitated towards the idea putting the city on either a geologic ridge or a trench. I settled on a ridge, because I liked the idea of a suspended or floating city, and I thought it would make more sense to have it over a feature that was slowly spreading out instead of sucking in. Trenches are deeper and more dramatic, but ridges do have little valleys down the middle, so I emphasized that as best I could. Using a ridge also afforded the setting the extra perks of nearby sulphur vents and volcanoes.

I turned to vulcanology to look up how to get solid materials from them and came up with the idea for crystal-shapers, those workers who are constantly expanding the merfolk city to make room for the slow trickle of new arrivals. I had this idea that as the years went on, the squid would evolve to get better and better at fighting back against the whales, while the merfolk would just constantly stay the same, so the system needed fresh recruits all the time and so the city was always expanding. In reality, an under water crystal city is a bad idea because one tidal wave would just wipe everything out, but I thought it would be fun.

Then I did a lot of research on the marine biology of whales, squid, and fish (for the merfolk tails). I knew that I wanted to make whale shepherds out of the merfolk, with giant squid cast as the villain. This was probably my favorite part to study; I've always enjoyed the ocean, and probably would have become a marine biologist if I didn't get massively motion sick any time I got on a boat.

To give my marine research study more focus, I bought the book Monsters of the Sea by Richard Ellis, which very neatly described historical myths behind mermaids, krakens (giant squid), and leviathans (whales). The only chapter that wasn't immediately relevant was the one on globsters, but I actually found that mythical creature fascinating: huge blobs of tissue as tough as tires that would just wash up on the shore, and for a long time science couldn't figure out what they were or used to be. (They turned out to be masses of whale cartilage. Yuck.) I honored that chapter by allowed players to name the squid companion "Globster."

Monsters of the Sea was a great start inspiration. For example, I read about how giant squid seem to wash up on shores in clustered events (probably tied to tidal events), which gave me the idea for some squid scheming. Reading about how some squid to use light to communicate gave me the idea for a connected hivemind of giant squid.

Reading about leviathans (whales) didn't get me much in the mood to cast the whales as the enemies, since most of the facts were about how humans exploited the poor creatures. I did take from that the whales' well-earned dislike of humanity.

The book was a great start for ideas, but I had to turn to the internet for the answers to a lot of my smaller, random questions. For instance, giant squid eyes are big, but just how big? Where are their brains? What's the difference between a squid tentacle and an arm? How do they move?

I was especially fascinated watching them move. Here's some cool videos.

I really wanted to capture the creepiness of their eyes: vaguely human-shaped, but large as dinner plates and never blinking. This video also suggested to me an interesting fact: the squids don't wrap their whole tentacles around their prey, just the portions closest to their bodies, with the rest of the tentacles hanging free. I imagine this is so that it's easy to disengage from their food if they need to, and also possibly so they can move their tentacles to help balance themselves.

(Sorry, no embedded video for this one.)

Almost every part of giant squid biology was creepy. From the weird teeth on their suckers to their “mouths” consisting of beak, radula, buccal mass, I wasn't surprised at all to I discover that giant squids were also cannibals.

Sperm whales were fascinating creatures to study. Their eyes are weak and mostly useless. They have to breathe air, but their food lives in the deepest part of the ocean. They actually spend so much time in the deep that barnacles don't attach to them like they do to other whales because the barnacles would die from being too deep. Also, sperm whales actually dive and surface so much that they get the bends and their bones have fractures from it all as they get older.

It feels like every part of them is kind of poorly compensating around the fact that they need to breathe air, but have to spend almost all their time as deep as they can go. It feels like... maybe one day they won't be able to compensate around that any more. I latched onto that aspect of the whales, creating a race of immensely powerful creatures who were bitter that they couldn't change themselves, knew that their own adaptations were starting to be stretched their limits, and instead used their powers to press others into service.

Even though that service took on a more sinister taint, I still greatly respect and admire the real-life whales as majestic and intelligent creatures. The idea of historic whaling disappoints me, and the continued atrocity of modern whaling makes me physically sick. Some of my darkest research was about modern-day whaling techniques. It was too heartbreaking, and I had to stop almost as soon as I started. Even though whales are cast as the villains in the game, I wanted to be respectful to their real plight in the real world. I included passages about whaling, and I included the scenes of whale death in the flashback as a way of paying respect to those feelings of disappointment, of despair, that comes with watching whales die unnecessarily.

Of course, not everything about the whales are difficult or dark. Some of it's just sort of weird. Sperm whales secrete a waxy substance, ambergris, that's used to coat the hard beaks of the giant squid. It used to be used in perfumes until it was outlawed, since the easiest way to harvest ambergris was fairly inhumane. I figured that whale stomach wax would be a perfect substance to make the Eternity Orb out of. (Or at least, to form the protective cover of the Eternity Orb.) From that came the bizarre ritual of the whale ceremony involving eating and then vomiting the Eternity Orb, and I enjoyed not fully explaining the backstory behind that tradition.

One of the last pieces of research I tackled were mermaids themselves, and for that I mostly turned to popular media. The first movie I ever saw in theaters was The Little Mermaid, and I vaguely remembered also seeing Thirteenth Year and Splash when I was younger, so I drew on those, especially for Splash's rule about humans being able to breathe as long as they're near humans. I actually at some point found out that there was a movie called Splash Too* and I enjoyed watching that flop of a terrible movie. I heard about the Australian TV series H2O: Just Add Water from the podcast Read it and Weep, so I watched a couple episodes. One of the Read it and Weep hosts, Alex Falcone, actually does some standup around mermaids, so I also turned to him for advice.

My local theater was also showing a censored, R-rated version of the adult film Gums. It was terrible all around: poor budget, weird scenes, terrible characters (a literal Nazi was the hero of the film), and nothing at all resembling jokes, but it did have its own unique spin on mermaid lore: mermaids without tails, either above or below water. I can't say I really got anything out of seeing Gums, but sometimes research is just about immersion, and not necessarily inspiration.

I also looked up pictures of people who dress up like mermaids and how they swim. The fact that there's a whole mermaid subculture is really fascinating; most of them performers, but some just doing it for fun. Here's some cool pages I bookmarked: 

I also turned to research about mermaid myths in different cultures. I didn't use or incorporate those legends though, because as a white person, I didn't want to claim those stories as my own and use them outside of their proper cultural context. I wanted to be respectful. I did tweak some of the names for things into names that the player can choose from.

On the more of the biological side, I turned to several cryptozoological-ish discussions about what the biology of real mermaids might be like. They had clearly thought out a lot of details, with things like how their vision would work, what their blood would be like (blue), and if they would have a good sense of smell. A large consensus was that mermaids wouldn't be able to live in the cold, pressure-heavy deep, but most of those issues felt like the kinds of biological problems that would get waved away by an immortal, magical race.

The cryptozoological discussions were more about conservative interpretations of what might be biologically possible given current understandings of biology, instead of what would be useful to a semi-mythical race of merpeople. I had to look up and think to include phosphorescence and lateral lines myself, since it felt like those answered very specific difficulties of how to live deep under water.

To be fair though, I had bookmarked and then never actually watched the Discovery Channel "documentary" Mermaids: The Body Found, which may have touched on some of the things I was looking for. The truth is though, that even if that documentary might have given me some good directions and ideas, I just couldn't bring myself to sit down and watch a documentary about mythical creatures presented as factual. The idea made me too uncomfortable.

All of this information coalesced into information that not only informed the setting, but the story as well. I love the detail that research brings to the setting, the characters, the backstories, the motivations. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to getting a good, solid story, and how much fun it is. I almost wish I could just spend the whole time doing research, but then where would the game come from?

*Yeah. Not "Splash Two" or "2" but "Too". Which makes no sense because it's about the same characters.

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