OK, look. I know depression and anxiety are some super personal issues. It's not anyone's place to tease or abuse people who suffer from it. Telling your story and how you broke out of the cycle should be celebrated. Drowning is just that, a story of a young boy going through school with an abusive figure that drives him to desperate actions. I just wish this story had a better telling.
In Drowning, you'll move forward on a path and read text pop-ups that tell the story of the nameless main character. I know the joke "walking simulator" tends to get thrown around a lot, but Drowning may be the first time I actually felt it was appropriate. For the thirty minute run time, you'll just be holding a key or pushing forward on an analog stick until it's over. There are no puzzles and nothing for you to actually explore, despite how open the game may look. In some levels, you don't even need to turn. There are a couple of collectibles, usually hidden in long grass on the linear path, but their only purpose is for achievements and they have no relevance to the story at hand.
As you walk at an absurdly slow speed, text appears in front of you. There's no voice acting of any kind, just text. For most of the game, the text comes from the main character as they narrate their life journey and the root of their depression. Suddenly, halfway into the final level of Drowning, this suddenly changes to two characters having a conversation. It's jarring and makes it difficult to follow. It doesn't help that there's sometimes white text on a nearly white background. As you'd imagine, that's a particularly awful choice that makes things difficult to read. It also doesn't help that early levels see you walking through peaceful forests with calming piano music while the main character describes the abuse and stress they're dealing with. At least later levels feature dark forests and foggy bridges that feel more appropriate.
I can only dance around the content of that text for so long. The most obvious problem is that there's really very little to the story. Worse, what is here doesn't exactly inspire much confidence. The kid drives his friends away, gets depressed, and ultimately considers suicide. There are four endings, three of which are all different variations of "but then I decided to get better". Which is... not how depression works at all. The other one instead tries to imply that the main character is a good person for killing themselves because then they're helping other people put their lives back on track. This may arguably be worse.
What exactly is Drowning shooting for here? I kept asking myself that question as I slogged my way towards another ending. The first two-thirds of the story is boring, but at least I felt a connection to the main character. I understand convincing yourself that everyone hates you and cutting yourself off from all contact. I get refusing to leave your room to play video games all day, and not even enjoying it much. However, getting better is a process, one that Drowning seems to think is a single decision. I'm not sure if this was the intent of the developers, but that's certainly how it came off. Bluntly, it's borderline insulting.
There are games that handle these topics so much better, and they're fun to play on top of it. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, Night in the Woods, and This Strange Realm of Mine all come to mind as games that give depression, anxiety, mental issues, and related topics the respect they deserve. If nothing else, unlike Drowning, none of them will have a weird ending that vaguely suggests that suicide is the better option. So they have that going for them.
TechRaptor reviewed Drowning on PlayStation 4 with a copy purchased by the reviewer. The game is also available on PC, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch
Drowning's story starts boring, if relatable, and ends on a note that left me baffled. I don't know what the intent was, but this isn't going anywhere good.
- Story Feels Relatable for a Bit
- Super Slow Walking Speed
- Very Linear
- Endings are Terrible