Beyond Blue brings a new understanding of marine biology to gamers through open ocean exploration

Marine biologist Anna Bakker stands in front of main character Mirai as she plays through a demo of Beyond Blue, an open-world oceanic exploration game from E-Line Media at the Boston Exhibition and Convention Center in Boston, MA.
Marine biologist Anna Bakker stands in front of main character Mirai as she plays through a demo of Beyond Blue, an open-world oceanic exploration game from E-Line Media at the Boston Exhibition and Convention Center in Boston, MA. Beyond Blue incorporates unique unused footage from BBC’s Blue Planet 2. Photo by Hannah Harn / Boston University News Service.

By Hannah Harn
BU News Service

The first day of PAX East is winding to a close in the Expo Hall. As developers and marketing staff mingle around the Beyond Blue booth, chatting with playtesters, one visitor talks excitedly with an enthusiastic exhibitor. 

The new visitor studies marine biology in college. Anna Bakker, his new friend, was an ocean consultant for the game. 

“That was the first person that is actively studying marine biology that I met today,” she said excitedly. “But I mean, today’s only the first day of Pax, so who knows how many more going to come by!”

“It was really important for us to actually work with scientists from the outset of the game,” Steve Zimmermann said, “not just because we wanted to pay respects to the Blue Planet 2 property, but also because at E-line Media we’ve gotten more bend toward where we want people to kind of shape the world with technology, not be shaped by it.” 

Zimmermann, the vice president of Marketing for E-line Media, said the company has a history of making games that fully immerse their players. Their last game, Never Alone (2014), told one of the oldest spoken stories of the Alaskan Iñupiat people. 

“We wanted to make sure that we were opening up the world of the Alaska Native people, the Iñupiat people, through cultural insights … in a video game format,” he said. “And we realized that with such a powerful medium that this was a kind of a great opportunity.”

Three years ago, when BBC first reached out to E-line Media about creating a game based on Blue Planet 2, they were quick to take them up on the offer. 

“They let us know that they were going to be doing a sequel to Blue Planet, and what would our interest be in receiving all of the licensed footage from them, all of the unseen footage, research, access to the scientists and things like that?” Zimmermann said. “Would we be interested in making a game from that? And the answer is very obviously, yes.”

And so, Beyond Blue was born. With it came unused footage and data, as well as real marine biologists and researchers. One of them is Bakker, who acts as a sort of scientific and marine biology fact-checker. After finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Washington in Seattle, she was looking for a path in marine research. 

“I was really interested at the time in doing outreach because I was really excited about the ocean myself and I wanted to get other people involved, too,” she said. “So I heard about E-line and how they were trying to make this game in collaboration with the BBC. I grew up always watching Blue Planet series and got really interested in how they were using that kind of video platform for engaging people, so this was also a cool outlet of using video games to engage video gamers.”

Thanks to researchers and consultants, the open-world exploration game is scientifically accurate, excepting some of the more futuristic technology features, and even offers players small bits of information as new species come into view. 

“It’s not trying to make the whole experience like, you know, ‘you have to memorize this exact fact about this fish,’ but it makes it a whole fun experience of finding the fish and seeing exactly what it looks like,” Bakker says. “You can swim right up next to it and look at the detail of a humpback whale and all barnacles going on its skin.”

Having expert scientists included in the development and design process means that players find a deeper sense of oceanic understanding in the game. Samantha Joy, the lead scientist, made sure to include brine poles as an in-game environment. Some of the unused footage from Blue Planet included one of the first recorded interactions of dolphins playing a game of almost-catch. If someone doesn’t watch the show or play the game, they might never see it. 

While the game is driven by factually correct science, Zimmermann said it isn’t about “edu-tainment.”

“We’re not what we would consider like a preachy or soapbox-esque company,” he said. “We want people to just be immersing themselves in an entertaining and compelling and fun experience. And then from that, be able to, at the end of the day, just pull off [a] little bit more knowledge, that little bit extra to open their minds a little bit to the questions, and kind of present it.”

In the game, which is colored with soft oceanic blues and filled with realistic ocean life, the player navigates the ocean as Mirai, a research scientist, whose team has been called to the South China Sea to investigate some unusual biological activity.

Actually diving into the game is quite calming. The music and ambient sound are soft and soothing, and there are no jump scares lurking in the kelp. There are no warnings about low oxygen levels or urgent quests. Players only need to focus on experiencing the world they’re in. 

“We set it a little bit in the future, so we have some technological conceits,” Zimmermann explained. “You’re not quite scuba diving, you’re using rebreather technology and things like that. So you’re not panicking about, ‘I have to get back to the sub, oh my God, I’m in danger.’ We want people to be able to experience the ocean as immersively as possible.”

A lot of that comes from a desire to increase understanding and curiosity about the oceans as space-set games grow in popularity. 

“This is not a game with jump scares or horrors and the player itself is never in any danger,” he said, “because that’s not the message we really want to convey about our world’s oceans.”

For Bakker, the game is an invitation to get to know the ocean a bit better.

“Most of the people actually, that I’ve interacted with, that have kind of filtered towards me said they’ve been scuba diving before, or they’ve heard about marine biology research,” she said. “They’re both interested in video games, and they’re interested in hearing about the ocean and they want to intersect the two, so this is the perfect place for them.”

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