Flotsam: Politics or Psychology?

As I write this, I’m playing Flotsam, an early access game about sailing round the ocean after the apocalypse. Climate change has come to a head, the world is flooded, and all you can do is sail around and scavenge bits of plastic to knot together on your little tug. It’s very obviously about pollution and climate crisis – the game’s icon is a seagull with a plastic six-pack ring around its neck – and yet it has functionally nothing to say about those themes. The world is drowned, but there’s no particular sense of loss or grieving. Nobody’s really bothered by what’s happened. They’re all pretty beachy types, relaxed – or maybe resigned – in the face of a life adrift.

The game mechanics tend to reflect this beachy mood. It’s still in early access, so it’s hard to tell if this is an intentional feature or simply the limited scope of the game to date, but once you have a certain level of infrastructure up and going, there’s not a lot left to do except mooch around. The art direction feels a little like the original Borderlands – lots of cel shading, lots of that faded yellow and beaten-up metal sheets aesthetic. Lots of unhurried boondock banjo on the soundtrack too. As with Borderlands, there’s a very specific sense of both complete disaster and unruffled familiarity. The worst has happened, and here we are. It’s not a resilience thing – there’s no sense of survival through gritted teeth (as in Frostpunk), no imagery of adaptation or of the phoenix reborn – global warming is simply not experienced as disaster, as traumatic event. It is simply a different configuration to the lifestyle that came before. Is that weird? Should the apocalypse be more of a point of concern – especially in a week where we’ve seen flooding and significant loss of life in – what, Germany, China, Hungary, India, and the UK? In theory, there are some sharp words to say to this laid-back, blissful vision of a flooded, polluted world, but such sharpness is so foreign to its DNA that it feels almost indecent.

Flotsam thus lets you float around the world, completing your daily chores and maybe throwing in a new survivor from time to time (they’re actually called ‘drifters’ – ‘survivor’ is too active, too threatened, too excited). There’s nowhere to go, not much to see – as in the early days of No Man’s Sky, you are adrift in the world without any real sense of purpose. You move your little colony between spots of pollution, between piles of plastic waste and broken up ships, collecting bits and bobs along the way. You accumulate scraps from the world, adorning your ship with jetties and huts and – oh, you can make a lookout tower, and a perch for seagulls. The obvious critique of the game as replicating systems of consumer capitalism again feels unfounded, feels like it glances off the game’s genetic structure. There’s especially no particular joy associated with collecting new material – once you hit that certain stage of infrastructure, you really don’t need any more stuff. It just slows you down, makes it harder to move around and explore new areas. It’s not a game about unending collection and expansion, it’s a game about drifting.

The psychological lens again feels more compelling here than the eco-political. Plastic is not consumed, it’s accumulated, almost more by magnetism than conscious choice. You drift through life, and stuff comes to stick to you – as silt, as detritus, as plankton caught in baleen. it adorns you, becomes part of your dress and presentation. Possessions are psychological barnacles, unsought, but gradually found attaching themselves to your hull. You drift, and they’re caught in your wake. The context of climate disaster is not entirely alien to the game – one of your primary food sources is bottle fish, so-called because it’s fish stuck in plastic bottles – but again, it’s not experienced as disaster. There’s no sense of outrage or regret, no sense of mourning. Is that appropriate? Is it enough? Maybe not. But it has an emotional truth that feels compelling. It’s all over; here we are. Everything’s awful; take it easy.

As climate crisis creeps closer in our real world, strident, brassy protests are necessary and moral. But I find it hard to begrudge a game for exploring what it means to live through this period, for painting a psychological portrait that reaches further than anger. The sense of being adrift, of rootlessness characterised by your home on the waves – always mobile, never in place – of listless, limited purpose beyond the crude needs of survival, of cobbling together a life out of scraps from a garbage world – you can understand how someone comes to this place. Flotsam isn’t a manifesto, an indictment of the systems destroying our world. It’s a portrait of the psychological mechanisms used to cope.

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