Like a splash of cold water to the face, I Am Fish is a wonderfully refreshing physics platformer. This isn’t a grim tale wrapped in layers of metaphor, or a walking simulator that guides you slowly through a field of feelings. Here, you are simply a fish. The bowl is your prison. The ocean is your freedom. Now imagine Ian Mckellen with the same gravitas as he had playing Gandalf in Lord Of The Rings, except with a farmer’s cap on. He is peering into your googly, goldfish eyes. In a west country accent, he bellows, “Swim, you fool!”
This isn’t to say that I Am Fish lacks emotional depth. In fact, it may have elicited more emotion from me in a single sitting than any romance anime I’ve watched, which is really saying something. It’s a tale of four fishy friends: goldfish, puffer fish, piranha, and flying fish. They’re best buds and live blissfully in a bowl together. That is, until they’re forcibly separated and flung across the far reaches of Barnardshire, a fictional county that captures the West Country ideal so perfectly that I’m gutted it doesn’t actually exist.
But that’s besides the point. The scaly protagonists of I Am Fish can’t be living without their pals, so they straighten their fins and set out to reunite in the glistening surf. The game’s Pixar looks aren’t a ruse, either. This is Finding Nemo: Distilled, with genuine laughs and yelps and moments of profound happiness to be had in its short run time.
I say, “short”, but I guess it depends on how you take to the bowl. Right from the get-go, you play as the goldfish trapped in a restrictive orb of glass. In your quest for freedom, you must nudge your see-through home forwards – but carefully! This is when you come to realise that human constructs are both annoying and incredibly selfish. Stairs and shelves were not designed with daring fish escapes in mind, which makes every roll of the glass an absolute nerve-shredder. To succeed requires patience and grit. Your sphere of H2O is fragile, after all.
Don’t get too comfortable, though, as the bowl is merely a temporary vessel with which to navigate the toxic outside world. Success also means trading your round mobile home for a mop bucket, or a river, or even a glass of water to twist and turn and slide through Barnardshire. In many ways, I Am Fish is a puzzler as much as it is an adventure. You must scan your environment for safe passages and think outside the tank if it seems like there’s no way out. Stay out of water for too long and your little heart will stop beating, leading you to restart from a checkpoint.In a neat little throwback to the game’s predecessor I Am Bread, there’s collectable chunks of bread scattered around each level. You’ll need to navigate plenty of trickier, alternate routes to nab them all, though.
And although I liked my time with the goldfish, it serves as an intro to these key concepts. I enjoyed the escapades of the other fish a lot more, as they each have a special ability to draw on. The puffer can inflate itself into a big ball that can roll down hills or bounce off furniture, while the flying fish can leap out of water, pop its long fins and glide a short distance. Perhaps the most interesting is the piranha, who can latch onto marked objects with its jaws.
Bossa Studios have done a brilliant job designing their levels around these abilities and making their usage feel natural, not forced. Market stall tents might be home to pockets of water you can glide between. That kitchen tap is definitely loose. Roll into a ball and a fallen log will make the perfect ramp. Sometimes, it’s exceptionally clever. As the piranha you might find yourself in a bathroom sink and it’s up to you to figure out how you’re going to chomp your way out of what’s otherwise a very dry place. Quickly, you might realise that you can chew through some plumbing to flood it a bit. Then you might notice the toilet and nearby stacks of loo roll. Cloggable? Cloggable! Soon enough, you’re searching for more ways to raise the water level just enough for you to hop out of the window.
But yes, sometimes stringing together these moves in I Am Fish can be incredibly frustrating. There might be a ramp that you can’t quite angle yourself towards properly, or a pool of water that eludes you. So if you’re someone partial to chucking a controller in anger, then it may not be the game for you. But there are also ample checkpoints to keep you motoring, and even the ability to skip puzzles entirely if you’re totally stuck.The nightclub is a standout level, even with so many illegal dance moves on show.
Still, I’d implore anyone to persevere with I Am Fish, purely because it’s home to some genius moments that you won’t want to miss. At one point, you’re rolling through a nightclub, dodging out of the way of tipsy revellers in a mop bucket. Next thing you know, you’re hiding under a park bench as vicious seagulls circle overhead. Yes, there are basic stealth sections. Yes, I despise these seagulls with all my heart.
I Am Fish is a strangely visceral experience. It stirs those primal emotions, long buried in our ancestral DNA. The sort of feelings I’d expect our spear-wielding selves felt when hunting mammoths or bashing rocks together to make fire. Uninhibited by the crash of modern day living. Just pure, uninhibited feeling. Fear, anger, happiness. Particularly happiness. I’m not sure there’s any better feeling than plopping into that ocean after everything you’ve been through.
What Bossa Studios have done here, then, is make a game that’s immediately fun and frustrating and fishy. Its fish are cute as heck, its levels are clever, and most importantly it’s one of those games that anyone can play. You could show this to your gran and she’d be like, “Yes my child, I understand. The fish, they must be saved”. And I think that’s neat, you know? Even though it’s a single player game, it’ll make those around you just as invested in the fish as you are. I mean, you’d be a monster to leave them alone in their bowls.