Highwater: Slow Reflections of Apocalypse

Games Mar 22, 2024

Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.

Reflections are everywhere in Highwater. The afternoon sun painting the moss covered skyscraper the colour of burnt leaves. The lilting surface of the flood water, beautiful and dreadful. Nikos and the doom to journey forever, a refraction of his namesake. Copied, and in the copying, degraded. The two hundredth sequel to a Shakespeare play. The last time they tried to convince George to stop drinking. The great surface of our home, now blue with water entirely, catches the reflection of the red planet: at once a promise of tomorrow and fickle distortion of what was once good about humanity.

Highwater imagines the end of the world in opposition to the McCarthy, Wolfe, Fallout splinter of apocalypse stories. Instead of destitute buildings with shattered window panes and moss strewn latches, the world is drowned in water, an ocean bifurcating the last great conflict of Earth. As history begins to end, we follow Nikos and his friends as they attempt the impossible: sneak onto a rocket bound for the future of humanity on Mars.

The story is filled with sequels to famous works of literature that deal with the ocean and the end of the world respectively. The sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, the author of which Nikos takes his name. Reflections of what came before coloured by what has become the certaintity of tomorrow: that there is no tomorrow. Highwater is so much about the space between the words. Sitting on the surface of the flood waters, the beautiful and violent symptom of the end, Highwater reaches for evocative and finds something that resembles joyful melancholy - longing for both a reality that can no longer be and for today to be an ounce less painful, an ounce more comfortable.

You and your friends ride in companionable silence, accompanied by Highwater Pirate Radio, your anchor in reality that plays indie records that range from head shakers to contemplative ballads. If The Last of Us emphasises the experience of crawling through the capillaries of fallen suburbia to foreground dread, Highwater is the anathema: the journey of Highwater is to find joy. Not just to survive but to find a reason worth living.

The story concerns itself with the decay of both the physical reality, everything but the tops of buildings, train networks, man-made islands is underwater, and the erosion of the social. Insurgents rebel against a would-be government. Early on Nikos comes upon a cult who control the trains, and his first instinct is to tell them they can’t own the trains, the railway is a public service. And some of this is tongue in cheek, sure, but the writing never pitches at the edgelord satire of Divinity Original Sin 2. Instead, the characters are played straight and joy and comedy emerges from their desires to survive and retain community, even if this comes to mean an orphanage home to hundreds of children with barely enough resources to last the week.

This bleankness transmutes Nikos' innocence into a blunt rejection of political theory. Any time anyone in the story pitches their ideology outside of pure utilitarianism, Nikos tries to logic them out of it, rejecting their praxis on first blsuh. At one point a Priest, a pirate and a kung fu expert sneak onto an island of insurgents only to find the militia accosted by two giant grizzly bears, to which the pirate sighs and says “A bear. Just what we need.” And the bears (plural) are as indifferent to the insurgents and government as Nikos -pure recollections of the true, unmyred violence of nature.

What follows is my favourite encounter in the game (save the end, which deserves its own meditation). Like all of the previous encounters, I assumed it was a puzzle after a fashion. Once you figure out what’s interactable and the gimmick of the encounter, you’ll win. Use the fishroad just so. Throw a fireball in this way. Use the shotgun and wind tiles thus. Instead, you have to flee. As the bears attack the militia, you have to hustle to the exit, avoiding the action. Powerless in a way, sure. But powerful nonetheless: sometimes there is nothing you can do but run. From danger. From safety. From certainty. From home. From the end itself.

Most pervasive is that at every opportunity to rest, to piss, to relax, Nikos cannot. This life built atop quicksand is balanced only by the apparent willingness of his friends to participate. They are horrified by the insurgents, yes. Horrified by the fascistic militia, yes. But of their own violence there’s a suitable, carefree tone. Not glee, never glee, but a morose excitement. A sort of barbarism to the very concept of violence because everyone they are fighting is wrong and that they have to fight is wrong. Not just ideologically but ethically, almost formally: as if survival itself has been perverted and all they can do is reduce themselves to imitations of those who would do them harm.

As the social erodes, Nikos and his community cling to the last remnants of what was. They celebrate one last time. The band plays a song of heartbreak and love and loss. Driving across the purple expanse of flood the next morning Nikos suddenly realises that he will never see his friends again. Never see the woman who raised him. Never seen his closest friends. Never sing along to their songs. Never break bread with them.

In the end, Nikos’ journey is a mirror of The Argos. A great burden and a great journey, to and from home. Only for Nikos, home is no set destination but the promise of what was. A new life, just how things used to be, on a planet that is a crimson twin of our own. Reflections and reflections. Eidolons and eidolons. And maybe, hope for tomorrow. Just maybe.


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David McNeill

David McNeill is the author of Maynard Trigg and editor-in-chief of ZeroIndent. He's a dedicated storyteller with a background in literary analysis and comms.

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