Why the Water in ‘Sea of Thieves’ Is So Mesmerizing

Joab Gilroy
Xbox PC Gaming
Xbox PC Gaming Games

Sea of Thieves — the pirate-themed first person adventure game from the legendary Rare Studios — has some of the prettiest water in any game you’ve ever seen. It’s the sort of thing you can watch, mesmerised, for hours — if you’re not obsessed with getting as much booty as you can, anyway.

See the Sea

According to Rare, it knew from the start that the water would be a primary focus. Senior software engineer Mark Lucas recently shed some light on the thought process:

“We did research on what other people were doing, we looked at what they do in movies, how Hollywood solves the same problem,” said Lucas in one of the team’s dev diaries. “[We] just experimented with lots of things until we found something that gave us what we needed, gave us the dynamic control but also gave us something that looked really good.”

Sunrises and sunsets are the times when the water in Sea of Thieves is easiest to appreciate. The way the light reflects off the water is perfect, this anomalous element of photo-realism from a game which is otherwise dedicated to a fun, cartoonish aesthetic. It’s calming — to me, anyway — and often after a hectic hour or so of adventure on the high seas, it’s awesome just sittin’ on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away.

These quite moments, too, were planned by Rare. In fact, the developer felt it was important to punctuate high intensity stretches with periods of slower-paced gameplay. It gives your brain a chance to rest, it allows you to be present and mindful, and it fosters socialising with your crewmates.

The Physics of Fluid Dynamics

The way the tide rolls in Sea of Thieves is just as — if not more — important as the visuals. Everyone in Sea of Thieves sees the same thing, and that’s for a reason. As your ship surges up and down on the massive waves you’ll encounter at sea, your ability to aim a cannon is affected.

Cannons are largely static, and any movement can wildly impact the ballistics of your shots. If a wave sends your ship up as you fire, your cannonball will overshoot its target. As a player, a large part of the learning curve in Sea of Thieves is learning how to time your shots.

There’s another factor to the way waves impact combat — if a powerful swell blocks your cannonball, it can’t do any damage at all. Trying to fight a battle in a storm is mightily difficult, because there’s so much to contend with. The rain will fill your ship’s lower decks slowly, the waves will crash and smash into you, the wind will twist this way and that altering your speed in the blink of an eye. And the whole time the sea itself is lifting you up and about, and dumping you down again as you try to sight in your enemy — and they try to do the same to you.

That attention to detail — the way every player sees the same seas — is easily one of the most impressive things about Sea of Thieves. There are all sorts of systems driving the way Sea of Thieves‘ water looks and feels, acts and reacts. It means its beauty is more than skin deep.

sailing on the open seas
The wonderful feeling of hitting the open seas

Life Will be Better Down Where it’s Wetter

The brilliance of Sea of Thieves water extends far below the surface in more ways than one. There’s a whole world under the waves in Sea of Thieves, and by breaching the surface and going below you can explore it.

The game looks stunning below the surface — as stunning as it does above, even — thanks to more of that attention to detail. It’s not as filled with action as say, Subnautica, but unlike the indie darling from earlier this year you’re not supposed to live below the water in Sea of Thieves. Instead you’ll visit it briefly, when you happen across a shipwreck — or when you make one of your own.

There’s something exhilarating about plunging into the water, knowing that those depths harbour treasures, players, sharks and … something much larger still. Rare have cleverly kept combat the same above and below the water, so you don’t feel restricted — although you do need to make sure you have enough oxygen to stay alive.

No Water in This PUB(G)

For a time it was rumoured that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was going to implement Sea of Thieves’ gorgeous water technology into its game, but eventually they had to can the plan.

“I need to clarify this right now,” Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Green told GameReactor late last year . “I might not have been as precise as I should have been in the interview. A lot of people have misunderstood what I said. Yes, Rare offered us to use their water tech, but we quickly realised that it wouldn’t be possible to use in PUBG without having to do significant changes to the game’s core code. Changes that would have taken a very long time to do, or maybe even be impossible.

“By all means, it’s been incredibly fun to share knowledge and experiences with other developers, but there are just a few technologies we can’t use in our game. Sea of Thieves‘ water tech is one of these.”

It’s a shame, though totally understandable. PUBG has fine water as it is, and it’s actually difficult to imagine the Battle Royale phenomenon taking full advantage of the water tech anyway. Sea of Thieves‘ water tech is a star — putting it in PUBG would be like getting George Clooney in as an extra for a blockbuster film.

The Heart of the Ocean

By making the water itself a star in Sea of Thieves, Rare are dragging you in deeper than ever. It’s a character in and of itself — your friend when it reveals its bounty to you, your betrayer when it shifts and robs you of a perfect shot.

It adds so much to the experience, during both the downtime when you’re relaxing and in those scary moments when you’re not sure how you’ll stay above its surface. It’s just 19 days away now, due out on the 20th of March on both Xbox One and PC, and until then it’s hard to stop from watching endless videos of the game’s beautiful ocean vistas.

Joab Gilroy
Joab is a games critic from Australia with over 10 years of experience and a PUBG tragic.
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