Interactive Book Review: The Sea Eternal, by Lynnea Glasser

Genre : Interactive fiction, adventure

Une fois n'est pas coutume, this review is a little different than what I usually do. This time, it's for an interactive story. I suppose a lot of us know the genre. Back in the 20th century, interactive stories were those books, sometimes called "choose your own adventure", where the reader would progress in a non linear fashion according to choice tied to a greater storyline. We would be offered choices, and sometimes have different endings as a consequence of those choices. Videogames, obviously, have tried to follow the same path, with a varying degree of success *cough* Mass Effect *cough*. But the interactive book genre never died, and with technology helping, has actually found new medias to live long and prosper.

But today we'll just talk about The Sea Eternal, written by Lynnea Glasser, and published by Choice of Games. Choice of Games is a publisher of interactive stories both on computer (in browser) and mobile platforms. I really enjoy particularly that their stories let you choose your gender and your sexuality as you wish. Some even offer the possibility to be aromantic, or even non binary. The Sea Eternal gives you the possibility to be any gender, or, you know, all of them and none.

In Sea Eternal, you're a merfolk, a member of a race of almost immortal people who live under the ocean and can also walk on land (though that is forbidden!). Your immortality is not entirely yours however, it was gifted to your kind by the whales, in exchange for your protection. And when the Orb that provides it is stolen, thus endangering your longevity, you start thinking a little more about your life, immortality, and the meaning of it all. Is immortality worth it? Will you fight for it, and if so, what would you sacrifice for it? As secrets unravel and the balance of your very society is threatened, your actions will tip the scales a certain way.

The Sea Eternal offers a long (280 000 words) and complex story on life and death, and on fighting to protect one and push the other away. It is mainly character driven, pitting various complex people with different needs and ideas. I found myself respecting them and working with them, instead of using them as props or quick counsel like games often do. They felt alive and equal to my character, not subordinate. Your own character isn't a blank slate either, and through interactions you'll learn of your past, and realize that you kiiiind of were a bit of a bigot.

The story is complex and well thought out, and while I always have some disbelief issues with the particular merfolk genre, I enjoyed how it didn't try too hard to create a world— and while the merfolk society remains simply drawn, it is tight enough to remain an enjoyable read, and its anchoring in many of our world's issues makes it very relatable.

If you've been reading my reviews, you know I enjoy romance a fair bit. One of the dissatisfying element I find in pretty much every RPG that provides romance, is the sort of Pokemon approach they have to character relationships, where you're the active party who... Well, catches the love interest. The embodiment of that would be Dragon Age Origins, where romancing equals to giving near useless stuff to characters until they like you. The author's previous piece, Creatures Such as We, had moved me with the day it dealt with romance, and Sea Eternal does the same.

In The Sea Eternal, your romance is already over. Long ago, you saved a human and brought them under the sea, where your powers allow them to live among the merfolk in the water. Unfortunately, your romance ended not long after. Struggle for acceptance, bigotry, power dynamics between a superhuman and a human, all these subjects are touched. As I mentioned earlier, in the past you were a bit insensitive, but this story is about change, and it is about going forward. Maybe you can change enough to gather the trust of your ex again, or maybe you can move on. But people have their needs and desires, and this is not a game where romance is dealt with by off-handedly choosing an inconsequential "flirt" option. Here, the person you develop into will change how people deal with you.

As often with interactive stories, I always feel like I'm missing half of the book. The sheer possibilities allowed by the genre, combined with my inability to play characters that aren't self inserts, always makes me wonder how different the story can be for other types of players. It's like not being able to play a jerk in games that allow you to. Therefore The Sea Eternal is a quick read whose plot seems to unfold too quickly, but that is a limitation of the genre, not this story in particular. Since The Sea Eternal does deal with moral questions, some that in my opinion felt too quickly glossed over, choosing a different path means making different moral choices.

Finally, the book has great representation. Racial, gender... I won't spoil, but I was very pleasantly surprised a couple of times. It's a sad fact that seeing people like me in fiction is still a surprise in 2016, but at least it's one I always enjoy.

To sum up, The Sea Eternal is a solid piece of interactive fiction and a very enjoyable, thought provoking read. It isn't a book, so you will not find the length and complexity of a plot that linear, more traditional books have. The first few chapters are available for free, and they can be found on the publisher's website, on Steam or on iOS/Android.

Rachel Vigo is a would-be critical geographer from Paris (the one in France, not the one in Texas). She is an avid devourer of books and plays video-games far too much.