Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (2024)

Wholesome, harmonious and completely unwilling to settle, this is one of the most generous games in years.

I had been waiting for this for ages: my first night dive. Listen: doesn't the night transform things? A quick wander outside, a spot of sky-staring, even a casual glance out the window at the dark horizon becomes a thing of intrigue. Tall buildings picked out with those gorgeous red lights on the corners, trees rendered as cavernous congregations of clasping branches. And underwater? Underwater at night? What would that be like?

So, while I had legitimate in-game reasons to want to go diving at night - a customer back at the restaurant wanted moray eel for a dish that would deliver a spicy blast of nostalgia, and morays only appear once the sun has gone away - really, I just wanted to get into the sea to understand what it was like at night down here. How would the landscape, already ever-changing, already filled with bright mysteries, be transformed yet again?

In the end, my first night dive took place during a storm. I had been told I might get more than the moray eel during a storm - there might be an underwater vortex with a dangerous secret inside. Down, under the surface I went. The reefs I thought I would recognise were suddenly new again, their edges picked out in cyberpunk neon. Bioluminescence! Meanwhile, rain hitting the surface of the water above me formed a shifting repetitive ripple of disturbed water, corrugating, corduroying the surface: sea, but with a likeness of undulatus cloud. There was a feeling, suddenly very strong, that I was at the centre of everything.

I found the vortex after a few minutes of exploration, but that's not what I remember most about this first night dive. What I remember most is the glimpse of my first box jellyfish, like the eel it's another night visitor to the depths. It shambled towards me so unexpectedly I let out a yelp: a skeletal form, complete with jiggling skeleton arms and legs, all encased in a rounded layer of flesh so thin and translucent it could have been bubble gum. Catch it? Run away? Blast it from a distance? No: watch it. Just watch it. For ten minutes or so I kept pace and watched this strange alien beast knocking about on the sea floor.

Dave the Diver isn't a complicated game, but it can be a very busy one. I mean this as a compliment. From a simple core, it builds outwards in unlikely and enchanting ways. But that core keeps everything from becoming bewildering. During the day you dive and fish in an ever-changing reef and look for treasures. During the night, you serve the fish you caught during the day and try to maximise your profit and your customers' happiness. From there we get an adventure plot about an underwater society dealing with a mysterious menace, as well as run-ins with eco-warriors who continually do more harm than good. But also: rhythm-action, stealth, sections that play like visual novels. Racing. Farming. Chases. Business management.

It could so easily become exhausting, but for me my enthusiasm is renewed each morning when I take that first dive underwater. A typical Dave the Diver day is a thing of three sections: morning dive, afternoon dive, and then an evening working at the restaurant. There's often a sense of added pressure to your dives. (Pun sort of intended.) You need decent fish to serve in the evening at the very least. And then often a special customer will ask for a particular dish. Maybe there's a food festival on, which means there's the chance to make a ton of money on very specific recipes. Maybe the game's adventure plot is kicking in and you're looking for pieces of a gadget to advance the story or a way into a new part of the map.

All of that, but that first morning dive never feels anxious. Anything you miss now you can mop up in the afternoon. For now, it's just speculative stuff, and wonderful with it. You're a pixel-art 2D diver, racing through 2D depths, picking up shells and pieces of rope, taking down fish with your harpoon (it yields better results but is tricky to aim) or another more serious weapon (often easier to do damage with, but the quality of the catch suffers). Mostly, though, on these dives I'm just looking around, getting a sense of how the lagoon, which changes from dive to dive, now feels, getting a sense of what it contains and what I might discover.

Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (2)
Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (3)
Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (4)

Movement is beautiful - Dave is not a small person, but he moves through the water with an easy grace. Beyond that, earnings from the restaurant can buy better gear, allowing Dave to go deeper, breath longer - oxygen counts as health, so when you take damage you lose oxygen, tying a couple of systems together rather neatly - and carry more back to the surface before you take on a weight penalty that slows you down. Dave can dash, and uncover new weapons and weapon blueprints underwater, as well as one-shot gadgets, like oxygen top-ups or little underwater motors that give you a burst of speed. Upgrades are permanent but kit like this is there for a single dive, changing its texture and possibilities.

If it sounds like I'm rushing, it's because you could talk about any aspect of Dave the Diver for hours and not get to the bottom of it. What matters is what I came to learn about diving and the pace of things across the first third of the game. I learned that these dives are all about risk and reward. How much are you willing to push your oxygen in order to gather really cool stuff to bring back to the surface? Go deep, take on really big fish, and you might earn a fortune at the restaurant in the evening, but if you die underwater you can only recover one of the many things you found. Dave the Diver is almost an extraction shooter in this sense, except instead of shooting tooled-up baddies and aliens you're taking on beautiful fish, tiny bright swarms, or huge sinuous sharks that fairly ripple with menace. You're juggling a handful of possible disasters - running out of oxygen, which could also mean running out of health or time to return to the surface, running out of ammo, running out of carrying capacity. You're also juggling a handful of hopes - that you'll find more oxygen down there when you need it most, that a deadly fish will lose interest in you before it's chomped you to pieces, that you'll come across a pile of precious ore that you haven't seen before, that you'll find a communication point that lets you return instantly to the surface with everything you've gathered.

Even now there's so much more to say - the weapons you craft, the fish encyclopedia you build, card by card, the sheer beauty in the details, from the way your headlamp flickers to life when you get really deep to the little animations of the mollusks and corral. There's the way that this ever-changing lagoon somehow manages to retain specific locations, too: however it changes I always know where the sunken ship will be, where to head if I want to explore the maze of deadly thermals, or if I want to go to the secret cave that leads to... All of this, but so much more still awaits on the surface.

Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (5)
Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (6)
Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (7)

The surface! This is the second element of the game. Dive in the morning and again in the afternoon, and then head to the sushi bar come nightfall to serve what you've caught.

If one of the pieces of proper genius design in Dave the Diver is giving you two dives during the day - three if you opt for a night dive too - in order to balance the shopping list you need to tick off with something more speculative and explorative, another bit of brilliance arrives back at the sushi bar. This is the fact that you aren't preparing the fish and inventing the recipes yourself. You're Dave, and Dave is a diver. Back at the sushi bar, the food side of things is handled by Bancho, and Bancho, even from the start, is a sushi chef of rigour and brilliance. Everything Bancho cooks will be special, and rather than taking the pressure off you, this actually piles it on. Bancho's making great things from the stuff you bring back from the sea, but you need to get your act together to serve it in time, without customers getting tired of waiting, without falling over as you race to get the plate on the table, without losing the momentum of an evening and letting the whole thing go to pieces.

Having worked in catering myself, I was stunned at how Dave the Diver manages to capture that luminous kind of exhaustion and exhilaration that an evening shift in a busy restaurant can conjureThis line of work is punishing but also oddly addictive. On the surface it's so simple - grab dishes as Bancho prepares them and deliver them to the right customer before their impatience meter fills up and they leave. But within that you have to prioritise - work with the order of dishes as they come out, but also the distances from the serving area that each customer is sat at. How to get to everyone in time? Which dish goes where? Who wants green tea or beer, which must both be carefully poured, managing the pace and flow, if you want to get it just right? What about the plates that need tidying away? What about the wasabi that needs to be topped up or the whole thing falls apart?

There are so many ways to fail an evening - by running too fast, messing up drinks, running out of that maddening wasabi. And each time I fail I know that Bancho is simmering with fury, that I am simmering fury too! I am working with a brilliant chef and letting them down. After the thrill of that morning dive, I always find myself dreading the evening in the restaurant, but I only dread it until it actually starts going. Then I'm in love, trying to please the customers, serve them stuff they'll love and earn both their money and their social media likes, which will allow me to upgrade things. This dread turning to euphoria is oddly accurate for catering work too. Oh yes, and that bottomless complexity found in the diving part of the game continues here. Upgrades, different restaurant styles, dishes that can be improved to earn more, and then staff to hire, better staff to hire, deployment in both kitchen and serving to sort out, and those endless VIPs with their demands.

Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (8)
Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (9)
Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (10)

It goes deep, trust me. And again, it properly feels like real restaurant work. It pushes me to my limit and makes me lose track of time. I find myself caring deeply about things that disappear in seconds. What's part of the magic of serving food? It's that it makes all the difference and yet it's also completely ephemeral - a bite or two and all that effort is gone. Or rather, all that effort is transformed. Hopefully.

If this was all Dave the Diver was it would be brilliant enough already. A great diving action game, and a great restaurant action and management sim. But this is just the basis from which Dave the Diver builds outwards. It's not just a game set in a reef, it is a reef itself, expanding wildly, vibrantly, unexpectedly in all directions.

Some of the stuff I don't want to say too much about. I don't want to spoil the main plot for you, beyond saying that it involves boss fights against huge beasts and puzzley dungeons and a separate underwater city hub - underwater, and yet still with its own waterfalls cascading over rocks! Magic! But I can tell you that elsewhere there's a wild variety of different game styles. The guy who makes Dave's weapons draws you into fantasy rhythm-action sessions, the plot drops you into a handful of different stealth scenarios, while a character's backstory unfolds in conversations and dialogue choices. I don't know if you've seen the Netflix food show Ugly Delicious, but on my first watching of it I was stunned at how a subject would come up in an interview - Tokyo, Naples with its pizza tradition - and then the show would just jet off to Tokyo or Naples or Mexico or Copenhagen or wherever without taking a breath, the whole thing powered by invention and curiosity and generosity and Netflix money. Dave the Diver feels like that. A minor character will say something that feels like an aside, but then minutes later they're a minor character no longer and they're teaching you how to farm, or manage fish reserves, or you're trying to follow the beat or make sense of a visual novel. Dave the Diver has that improbable Netflix Money feel.

Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (11)
Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (12)
Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (13)
Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (14)

And incredibly, it all fits together. It all harmonises. And I reckon that this is because deep down, Dave the Diver's many asides and endless costume changes are all telling the same stories. Stories about kindness and doing favours for other people, helping them out. Stories about exploration but also caring for the environment, taking only as much as you need and clearing up behind you when possible. And stories about food and the difference it can make, taking the time to find out what someone needs and serving it to them.

Nothing sums this up like that moray eel, which I found on my first night dive. One element out of a million moving pieces in a game that piles on systems and complications and opportunities. An old guy at the sushi bar wanted to eat that moray eel, because it reminded him of childhood. And when I served it to him - after Bancho had prepared it - the old man became a boy again, just for a few seconds, before returning to old age with tears in his eyes. Innocence and experience in flux.

It was such a surprising moment. And it was authentically moving - a testament to the power of good food and generosity to transform moods and possibly even lives. And it's just one part of this game. Crikey. It's just one bright and tiny fish swimming through a gigantic and improbable reef.

Dave the Diver - a dizzying game of many parts, and a journey into deep wonder (2024)
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