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Taking a serene look at the end of the world with Highwater

By Aaron Potter. Posted

Contrary to how it’s presented in a lot of dystopian fiction, ecological collapse won’t see the Earth consumed in a ball of flame. Rather it’s wet. Really wet. So envisions Demagog Studio, whose upcoming game Highwater was one of the standout showcases during Summer Games Fest earlier this year; its vision of a world consumed by harsh flooding against a pastel colour palette was truly a unique sight to behold. Scenes of skyscrapers and islands engulfed by high tides were a regular occurrence, all as a lowly boating crew try and sail their way through it in search of safety.

With small-scale indie hit Golf Club: Wasteland already under its belt and apocalyptic platformer The Cub in development alongside Highwater, the end of the world is a setting Demagog’s titles have swiftly come to be defined by. “We simply find reality fascinating,” says CEO and creative director Igor Simić, on the studio’s interest in the subject. “Across the globe, floods are frequent and reported almost daily in the news. And actually, if you think about the history of storytelling from Mesopotamia, the Nile, and Noah’s Ark, floods are a reality-inspired, recurring theme elevated to powerful stories about nature, humanity, and the divine. We’re just continuing that tradition, but through gaming.”

Each ally you recruit boasts unique skills and abilities useful during turn-based battles, but surrounding items can come in handy too.

It’s clear that Highwater has a strong dialogue with the team’s other two games, opting for a minimalistic art style and simple premise in order to convey its lofty ideas. This time, however, the journey centres on player-character Nikos and his group of friends travelling through the flooded regions by boat. Along the way, they open up new passageways and uncover islands populated by other survivors, and sometimes have to confront ne’er-do-wells in classic turn-based fashion. Gameplay is clearly a major step-up compared to, say, the pared-back swinging depicted in Golf Club: Wasteland. It further emphasises the need to fight to stay alive in this world, as opposed to simply being able to kick back and “enjoy” its gentle views.

“Nikos is our party leader, but you also have playable team members such as Josephine, Rimbaud, Lin, George, Laura, and other people who all have unique abilities, skills, and boosters the players can pick up along the way,” Simić explains. “Turn-based combat has a puzzle feel with a lot of environmental interaction where the player will be able to use items – rocks, shopping carts, bottles, cans – and also big objects – lamp-posts, billboards, signs – in combination with their own makeshift weapons to survive conflicts with Alphavillians, Insurgents, and other common people.”

It’s not hard to find brief glimpses of natural beauty within the wider world’s collapse.

Battling against these various other factions will mostly take place on land, as expected, but travelling between these places via the water is intended to be just as evocative and meaningful. Highwater will give players the chance to experience environments they would otherwise think of as mundane in an extremely surreal manner. The opportunity to do this isn’t lost on Simić and his team: “Going through urban environments by boat is an uncanny experience. You’re suddenly floating by the third floor, entering apartments, people living on roofs, highways turned into lakes.” Haunting imagery like this, he adds, simply wouldn’t be possible if the player were travelling by car or foot.

Pushing you to explore such neighbourhoods as the Hightower safe zone, Humboldt Botanical Gardens, and the Silicon Valley-inspired city of Alphaville (where the elites reside) are rumours of an imminent rocket trip to Mars. Highwater begins roughly a week before this supposed launch is set to happen, with Nikos and gang hoping to escape the fate of the world by snatching a place away from the ultra-rich. This main narrative throughline is mostly linear, Simić explains, and isn’t intended to be subtle, but exploring every inch of these distinct territories means finding “side strands that not everyone will discover”. Shane Berry, as your returning resident pirate radio host from Golf Club: Wasteland, will also provide context to the situation as your mission to Mars becomes clearer.

Highwater stylistically ties in nicely with Demagog’s other games, using simple shapes and colours to portray the Earth’s end.

It’s hard to look at Highwater – or any of Demagog’s other games, for that matter – and not think that the studio is trying to say something about the state of humanity. And while sailing past brutalist architecture against the backdrop of a neon-pink sky is undoubtedly beautiful, the sight of floods is something Simić himself is all too familiar with. “I was in college in New York during the New Orleans floods and was in Serbia during the floods in 2015,” he explains. “Most recently, in Europe we had floods in Germany towards the end of 2021. These are only examples of places where I either knew someone affected or was in the proximity and was able to lend a hand.”

Despite personal ties to the game’s ecological subject matter, though, Demagog primarily wants to create a fun and thoughtful experience that again neatly fits into the category of chill apocalypses it specialises in. Simić hopes people play Highwater, enjoy it, and come to their own conclusions about where humanity is at. “We have no intention to teach anyone anything,” he concludes. “We’re simply inspired by our own experiences and the reality we’re already living. Our ambition is much higher than ‘raising awareness’. The goal of our games, animations, music, and stories is the salvation of the human spirit. Because that’s what games are best at.”

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