Anyone who has ever studied literature will know all too well that even works universally agreed to be timeless classics don’t necessarily appeal to everyone in the general public. Such will doubtless be the case with SeaBed, a visual novel developed by Paleontology Soft and brought West by localisation specialists Fruitbat Factory. It’s an absolute masterpiece, but for every person who recognises it as such, several more are likely to bounce off it hard for one reason or another.

SeaBed is an NVL-style kinetic yuri mystery sound novel (trying saying that three times as fast). For those less familiar with visual novel vernacular, what this means is that the story is told through full pages of prose rather than dialogue boxes; there are absolutely no choices for the player to make whatsoever; the relationships in the game are exclusively female same-sex ones; the core narrative is based around strange happenings that are at least partly left up to the reader’s interpretation rather than being explained explicitly; and voice acting is eschewed completely in favour of descriptive prose, atmospheric music and evocative sound effects.

Doubtless that description has already sent a few people walking away muttering something about wanting some actual “game” in their game, and that’s fine. What it’s worth remembering, though, is that rather than being a game genre, visual novels – whether they’re interactive or not – are best thought of as a storytelling medium like film, television, prose, poetry or theatre. They’re a means of delivering a story to an audience; nothing more, nothing less. Approach SeaBed with this in mind and a remarkable experience awaits.

SeaBed’s lengthy prologue establishes the mystery. We follow Sachiko, a woman in her late 20s, as she runs her successful but rather understaffed design company. We learn that Sachiko is struggling: she suffers from unpredictable but debilitating episodes where she suffers a horrendous ringing in her ears and that these incidents appear to be related to some sort of mental trauma she has suffered.

As the opening scenes progress, we learn that Sachiko used to be in a relationship with a woman named Takako. The pair had known one another since childhood, and had always done everything together; at some point along the way, they had developed their close friendship into a romantic relationship and together they had successfully ditched life as corporate drones, started their design company together, and begun living life the way they wanted to.

But then Takako disappeared. Sachiko doesn’t know where, when, how or even why it happened, and she recognises that this is a problem – particularly as she frequently finds herself hallucinating that Takako is still there alongside her. It’s as she starts seeking some relief for what are apparently some deep mental wounds of unknown origin that the story proper gets underway, and from hereon we see what unfolds from three different perspectives: Sachiko’s, Takako’s, and that of Narasaki, the doctor from whom Sachiko seeks psychiatric treatment, and a mutual friend of the pair from their childhood.

SeaBed unfolds chaotically, like a dream. It frequently jumps back and forth between perspectives and even chronologically between scenes, and it’s clear from the very first time that Takako takes over narration duty from Sachiko that something isn’t quite right here. It’s not immediately apparent exactly what – though you may well have some suspicions – but it’s intriguing. And, as things continue, more and more questions start to present themselves, both as part of the main narrative and through the optional “Tips” side-stories that unlock as you progress. This is a story that will get you thinking, and thinking hard, even after it’s all over.

One area where some prospective readers may find themselves struggling is the relatively slow pace of the action. SeaBed is a visual novel that makes good use of the verbose format for elaborate, evocative descriptions of characters’ surroundings, their inner feelings, the things they are doing… everything, really. It takes pride in gradually building its setting and characters a tiny, lovingly crafted piece at a time – and that means a lot of mundane, everyday conversations and scenes where some may feel that nothing of real importance is happening.

The age of the characters is relevant here, too; since most of the cast are pushing 30 and some are older still, there’s no energetic, wacky anime hijinks here, despite the art style. This is a contemplative, peaceful, oddly relaxing yet nonetheless slightly unsettling experience in which you never quite feel able to count on anything being exactly what it seems to be. It’s far from morose, however; there are plenty of scenes featuring amusing, witty dialogue between characters – anything involving Takako or Nanae, a character introduced partway through Sachiko’s part of the narrative, is always a particular highlight in this regard.

On the presentation front, SeaBed has a clear, distinctive sense of style so far as its characters are concerned, featuring a pleasingly rough, sketch-like feel to their design. The background art is a touch on the inconsistent side, however, alternating between what appears to be photographs run through a simple “watercolour” filter and comparatively pin-sharp pre-rendered 3D backdrops – though there’s an argument to be made that the shifting level of clarity reflects the ever-changing nature of a dream. The music, meanwhile, complements the action well, with cheerful, energetic, modern numbers increasingly giving way to mournful solo piano melodies as the narrative progresses and certain things start falling into place for the reader.

The centrepiece of any visual novel is always the writing, though. So long as the reader has the patience and the attention span to contend with the rather sedate pace of the whole experience – not to mention its substantial length, clocking in at 15-20 hours or more, depending on one’s own personal reading speed – SeaBed certainly delivers on that front, providing a compelling tale that stirs the imagination and serves as a fascinating exploration of loss, grief and the mental health matters that surround such things.

Conclusion

SeaBed is a beautiful, emotional work of digital literature that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but come in with the appropriate expectations and there’s a true masterpiece of the visual novel medium waiting to be enjoyed here.