Due to the long history of Atlantis, merpeople, sea monsters and other myths about the ocean, people are fascinated by the mystique of the sea. Most Speculative Fiction stories, particularly in the fantasy vein, may well try to explore or add to the setting by introducing the presence of some sentient underwater species inspired by merpeople. Futuristic science-fiction oriented series may well have men colonize the ocean floor in undersea domes - or perhaps people have discovered that Cetaceans are actually sentient and have been hiding in all along. In the horror genre, there may be an Eldritch Abomination and its spawn waiting at the bottom of the ocean. An alien race or precursor artifacts might be down there somewhere. Plus, the ocean has pirates.
You'd think that all of this this might make for a really cool setting for stories.
You'd be wrong.
The ocean is boring to humans. All of the conventions of human society are missing from the ocean. Even with the addition of colonies to the seafloor, you can't really write a story down there as easily as you could on land. There are probably no ocean theme parks, no underwater romantic restaurants, no ability for the cast to move around. Also, like it or not, the basis for about 80% of fantasy, science fiction, drama, and adventure stories is They Fight Crime!. But there's hardly going to be any crime to fight — there are no underwater bank robberies.
Also, everything underwater is typically depicted in various shades of blue. This will get depressing and boring alike after a while. The fact that things tend to move more slowly underwater doesn't help, either.
As Larry Niven once said, humans mostly only use or think about the top of an ocean. From the perspective of most humans, the ocean has only one environment: water. There are no forests to get lost in, deserts to be stranded in, mountains to scale, swamps crawling with disease, or cities to have adventures in. It's just water and fish. This is a vast oversimplification of the incredible diversity in underwater ecosystems and biomes to the point of outright falsehood — any oceanographer would tell you there are forests, mountains, barren wastelands, briny mires, plenty of places to put Atlantis, and much more — but it's the popular perception.
As a result, settings that have a rich undersea world will inevitably ignore it. Writers just can't figure out what to do with it. It will be pushed into the background, forgotten about, or openly mocked. Tabletop game expansions that take place underwater are just going to produce a heck of a lot of unused character templates - because creating an underwater setting or making a character that has to have saltwater poured over their gills regularly is hard. Besides, it's rather hard for a being without lungs to survive out of the water, so their utility outside their intended setting is limited. And living your life in a futuristic sterilized bubble colony at the bottom of the sea where there are no intergalactic battles or intrigue would just be plain boring when you could set a story on a space station!
Speaking which: Space settings share something of the same problem, with the side-benefit that space, given FTL travel, is a route to other planets where humans might find useful environments. Humans, like other animal species, have an environmental niche which we require to exist. A race of undersea sapients would likely find land stories boring, because they can't experience land directly, just as humans can't experience undersea (or space) directly. Any being has a limited range of environments it can ever directly experience. See Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale, All Planets Are Earth-Like, Single-Biome Planet, Rubber-Forehead Aliens, and Planet of Hats.
Contrast Awesome Underwater World.
Anime and Manga
- In Digimon, the smallest group of Mons is the Deep Savers - Digimon based on aquatic animals or monsters like Cthulhu and Leviathan. There are only a couple of dozen of them, while every other group has about 100 monsters each. To make things even worse, you don't have to breathe in the Digital World - in other words: there's absolutely no point to having an aquatic monster.
- Despite being one of the original iconic races of Magic: The Gathering, complete with their own lord right from the first print run, merfolk ended up taking something of a back seat to land-dwelling creatures like elves or goblins, culminating in no more being printed at all after the Invasion block ended. Six years later, Lorwyn finally brought them back...as river dwellers.
- From a flavor standpoint Magic struggled a lot with the idea of sea creatures attacking enemies that were on dry land, or up in mountains. The storyline to the Odyssey block did avert this to some degree by creating a unique and interesting underwater civilization that was at war with itself, and, with the exception of Ambassador Laquatus, only really became involved in the larger plot when other characters had to come down there.
- From the Zendikar block onwards, it's clear that Merfolk aren't going to fade anytime soon. The new breed of Merfolk are bipedal, allowing them to be used in surface plotlines.
- Part of the problem is that it's never been clear what the cards actually represent. Some early cards representing sea creatures were designed with the weakness that they couldn't attack if the defending player didn't control islands and would die immediately if their own controller didn't control islands, the idea being that these are aquatic things that can't survive on dry land. But that raises more questions than it answers. (Why can't dragons destroy forests with a breath? How can anything except Mountain Goats attack a player with mountains?) If players think about lands as actual terrain that battles are taking place on, then no creatures native to water could fight on the land or vice versa. Under that theory, Atlantis would have to be boring, and so the designers cut back on purely aquatic creatures, but the more current idea is different.
- Aquaman and the Sub-Mariner's titles suffer from this. Badly.
- In Aquaman's case, they keep on trying to avert this, but it never takes. Their first big attempt in one of his more recent series was making Aquaman into an underwater retread of the King Arthur story. This was followed by having San Diego turn into an underwater city and all of the inhabitants turned into merpeople so that Aquaman could fight crime. "Sub Diego" proved somewhat popular and managed to last until the book was reworked to star a new Aquaman.
- Before Sub Diego, the later issues of Aquaman's previous title rather desperately tried to provide Aquaman with crime to fight by suddenly giving Poseidonis (Atlantis's capital city) dark alleys, racial prejudice, a drug problem (hallucinogenic fish) and a humanoid-shark mob boss. The only part of this that rung even vaguely true to the city's portrayal up til then was the racial prejudice (since these were the same people who left young Arthur to die because he had blond hair).
- Tellingly, The New 52 Aquaman title is the most popular in decades, and Atlantis didn't appear until over a year into the book — Aquaman is headquartered out of a lighthouse and claims to not even know where Atlantis is. Naturally, his adventures are still primarily oceanic, but he didn't live underwater for a good while. Eventually (and inevitably) he did reclaim the throne of Atlantis, with stuff like rival kingdoms and usurpers keeping things interesting.
- As per the page image, Atlantis in Invincible is the most boring place in the world at first. Second time it appears, it's actually interesting.
- There's a certain subset of transformation fiction which favors humans becoming merfolk. Inevitably when the transformation has finished, the merfolk are restricted to the water, and after the first few scenes of swimming free have passed, the fics become very boring. Even when some kind of underwater city has been set up, and ways to talk underwater and so on. The stories almost inevitably become porn, since the Mermaid Problem is always averted for these.
- The imaginatively-titled story "Mermaid" by Keiko Jade (there are 11 parts, link goes to the first one) manages to avoid this for the most part even without introducing underwater cities. The protagonist has a long and eventful journey as she attempts to cross the Pacific Ocean on her own, and after giving up when she just barely survives to make it to Hawaii she spends a while interacting with humans in further adventures without leaving the water. The ending was a bit disjointed and literally deus ex machina, but the trip there was a fun one.
- A.A. Pessimal's Good Omens fic I Shall Endure... sees Aziraphile and Crowley advising Noah on how to build an Ark. Crowley explains a prolonged absence from the shipyard as due to his need to visit this fabled land of Atlantis, before it gets squelched. note He complains that it's so bloody boring there, as the Atlanteans used to be into drink and promiscuous sex and wild parties, but they'd told him they don't do that sort of thing any more, they've cleaned up their act and are now acting out of higher motives of spirituality and empathy with the planet. "Actually, we're into philosophy and mysticism now. And we'll all live so much longer, too!"
- Fully embraced by Fred Saberhagen's Books of Lost Swords. One volume featured a town where, due to a curse, a subset of female children would spontaneously become merfolk at puberty, whereupon they would be abandoned by their families to the local lake. Said mermaids were bored to tears since there's nothing to do in a lake. The Mermaid Problem was also in full force, until a local sorcerer managed to get one of them pregnant.
- Lampshaded in the book How to Be a Superhero in the section addressing aquatic superpowers. There's no places to conquer or rob underwater, so there isn't much point to underwater superheroes.
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. It's a product of its time and reads like one, but even a mid- to late-19th century novel should be called up on the carpet for including paragraph upon paragraph of the names of exotic sea creatures and plants with only occasional description. If ever there was justification for not paying authors by the word, this would be it:
The division containing the zoophytes presented the most curious specimens of the two groups of polypi and echinodermes. In the first group, the tubipores, were gorgones arranged like a fan, soft sponges of Syria, ises of the Molukkas, pennatules, an admirable virgularia of the Norwegian seas, variegated umbellulairae, alcyonariae, a whole series of madrepores, which my master Milne Edwards has so cleverly classified, among which I remarked some wonderful flabellinae, oculinae of the Island of Bourbon... (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Part 1, Chapter X, by Jules Verne)
- But he did more or less avert the trope with battles with sharks, forests of seaweed and other adventures under the ocean.
- They actually do visit Atlantis. It's just a collection of ruined buildings, though.
- All of the Les Voyages Extraordinaires are written like that though, Five Weeks in a Balloon was rejected for being "too scientific". What Hetzel published was toned down.
- The sequel, The Mysterious Island, included the same detailed description of the plants and animals on the island. It also included detailed instructions on how to make dynamite with only natural materials.
- But he did more or less avert the trope with battles with sharks, forests of seaweed and other adventures under the ocean.
- Hal Clement's Ocean on Top deserves credit for its extremely creative (and scientifically plausible) take on the Underwater City trope. Still, it has almost no plot at all, being significantly less interesting than his other stories.
- In Roverandom, the titular dog visits the undersea kingdom after living on the ridiculously imaginative moon, making the sea seem dull in comparison.
- In Harry Potter, a tribe of merfolk inhabit the lake on Hogwarts grounds. They are one of the least-explored of the series' various fantastic creatures and races, appearing in one chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and showing up again to sing at Dumbledore's funeral and that's it.
Live Action TV
- Ocean Girl was a live-action Australian kid's series about an amphibious alien girl called Neri that befriended boys living in an underwater base. It was incredibly long-running, and actually somewhat interesting - but most of the episodes took place on dry land (on the nearby islands) or in the base. And the main point of the series was less adventuring in the ocean, and more trying to keep up a Masquerade of not letting anyone know the girl can breathe underwater before getting progressively more arc-based, with themes such as Neri's origins, the discovery of her sister and another male alien, an alien artifact scattered in pieces across the world that's the key to preventing the End of the World as We Know It and culminating in a three way battle between the main cast, a couple of evil aliens who want to melt the polar icecaps allowing their race to take over the Earth and Australian agents.
- On that note - hello, seaQuest DSV.
- To be fair, that setting had some potential—the ocean floor was heavily enough colonized to have a full range of human activity for the characters to have adventures with—but the writers weren't up to it. The show did have its moments.
- Invoked in the Sesame Street song "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon" in a verse about living in the sea: "I might stay for a day there, if I had my wish, but there's not much to do when your friends are all fish."
- Baywatch eventually had issues writing around this - you can only have so many children get trapped in underwater air pockets. Fortunately, the show compensated in other areas.
- Played with in the Fred Astaire song We Saw the Sea.
"We joined the Navy to see the world, and what did we see? We saw the sea."
- There were a couple of underwater races (weresharks, merpeople, and really weird - mervampires) and settings for the Old World of Darkness that were largely ignored by the player base.
- The trope title was lampshaded in the underwater sourcebook Blood-Dimmed Tides, with a sidebar explaining that the book doesn't say anything about Atlantis because it has been done to death. The book featured a great deal of material for getting regular groups underwater, but nobody really paid any attention, and the new threats (like the Lovecraftian Chulorviah) were left alone in later books.
- Also ignored were most of the aquatic supplements for Dungeons & Dragons. Or any tabletop RPG, really.
- This was averted by a sourcebook and a trio of adventure modules centering on the Sahuagin (evil fish-people who worshipped sharks) were released, which fleshed them out enough to be arguably as interesting an antagonist as Drow or Mind Flayers. But that was when TSR was still an independent company (i.e. 1996). Nothing comparable has been written since, either by Wizards of the Coast or a third party company.
- There's also the sunken cities of the Aboleth. But then few adventurers would survive a visit, so it rarely comes into play.
- The "Savage Tide" adventure path published in Dungeon magazine kept getting close to providing aquatic adventures, but never quite delivered. The adventurers explore an ancient ruined Aboleth city, and find that it's in ruins because a magical artifact drove all the water out of it leaving it stranded in an enormous air bubble. Then later the plot takes the party to a plane known as "The Deep", home realm of an evil deep-sea god, and it turns out to be a pretty ordinary island in a storm-tossed but otherwise normal ocean surface. The most common demonic minions encountered there were the vulture-like Vrocks.
- It's kind of a running joke among roleplaying gamers that aquatic races exist to pad out the page count of monster manuals.
- Back in the 90s, Games Workshop put out Man O War, a naval combat game set in the Warhammer world. Despite plenty of support, the game did poorly, to the point where it is one of the handful of games whose rules are not available from GW's Specialist Games site.
- In general, players tend to be rather averse to the prospect of water-based levels in games that also have land-based levels; see Down the Drain for more info, but in general players hate more sluggish movement and the constant ticking clock of an Oxygen Meter. Entirely water-based games tend to get off a bit easier.
- The ability to create an aquatic race in Spore was probably axed for reasons related to this.
- Related: There was going to be an Atlantis level in God of War II, but it was cut.
- Kingdom Hearts II limited the The Little Mermaid section of the game to nothing more than a singing minigame.
- In Super Robot Wars OG Saga: Endless Frontier, player can't explore the aquatic realm of Varna Kanai save for Wilkurkind's ruins.
- Commander Keen had an underwater level (The Well of Wishes), and it was boring. No more jumping, no more pogoing, no more shooting or anything interesting, just 8 directions, a maze and some things that can kill you. If you don't start drawing a map...
- Though at the same time, you have to give it some credit for introducing the Dopefish.
- The submerged areas in the Metroid Prime series are a somewhat interesting case. They do have some nice puzzles and you do get an upgrade that takes away the mobility reduction, but they suffer from reduced coloring and visibility. This was not helped at all in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes by having That One Boss and several DemonicSpiders in there. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption just removed water altogether.
- If you get a submarine in a Final Fantasy game you can explore the entire bottom of the sea but there will be only a single dungeon and maybe one or two secret treasures on the entire worldmap. in Final Fantasy X you don't even get the benefit of the sub.
- Minecraft varies depending on the player, though generally leans more towards a straight example rather than an aversion. While it is possible to create an epic underwater base and ruins, for the most part it fits this trope perfectly. The 1.8 (post full release) update is attempting to avert this by adding underwater temples, a hostile underwater mob, an underwater boss, and a plethora of blocks that can only be gotten underwater, though whether or not they succeeded on averting this trope still varies depending on the player. The 1.13 update (Update Aquatic) seeks to avert this even further by adding more water-based mobs, corals and seaweed, as well as Underwater Ruins.
- Some players take advantage of this by building bases underwater exactly because they're boring to be around, and hence rival players are less likely to loot it.
- The ocean is really just an obstacle in Civilization. Aside from some seafood, there are no resources all the way until the Industrial Era (when you can build oil platforms), and it takes massive amounts of time to earn the necessary techs to cross it. Navies mean very little on almost every map type. Most civilizations only care about the ocean in terms of getting land units across it and onto the next continent as soon as possible.
- Especially egregious when one considers the massive influence that the ocean and seapower has had on the course of human development.
- Somewhat averted in Alpha Centauri, since you can build aquatic cities (or submerge existing ones) and the alien fungus which is one of the best resources later in the game grows just a well in the sea.
- Civilization V moves away from this a little bit; sea resources are available from almost the very beginning, maritime trade routes are far more lucrative than their land-based counterparts, and barbarian encampments will send out ships to pillage those trade routes (so you have to send your navy to protect them). Unfortunately the AI is pretty bad at naval warfare, so their fleets are never a very significant or interesting threat.
- The Sega Saturn game Deep Fear somehow manages to make a survival horror game at the bottom of the ocean (which has the inherent advantage of perfectly justifying why no one can leave) into a dull, monotonous, boring experience. A lot of it had to do with the endless backtracking, slow action, and being near bereft of challenge. It's really, really boring. It certainly doesn't inspire any kind of fear, especially not of the deep variety.
- Literally used in Golden Sun: The Lost Age with Lemuria, the game's version of a surfaced Atlantis, where two children complain how there's nothing to do. It's required to advance the plot and a sidequest, but there's no real reason to come back.
- The developers of the Twisted Metal series set out to make Critical Depth, a submarine version of Twisted Metal. As it turned out, you can't take a franchise with rooftop jumping, drift-by shooting and bouncing around in a temple flooded with lava and replace it all with "you can go left, right, up, down, forwards and backwards". The identical blue water used in every environment from a coral reef to the polar sea and an alien base wasn't helping. At least the game had mechanical piranha swarms.
- The underwater level of the second Jimmy Neutron game was quite tedious, relying on attempting to fit your sub through obnoxiously tight spaces while dealing with monotonous environment design and music. In contrast to the fast-paced gameplay which set Jimmy Neutron vs Jimmy Negatron apart from its predecessor, this level was extremely slow and long.
- In the Team Fortress 2 comics, the people of New Zealand sunk their country and made a underwater domed city to live in. However they aren't really happy about it as the Sniper's father bankrupted the city, and made a huge hole in the glass dome, flooding the city, when he tried to send Sniper into space, but ended up in Australia instead.
- Under the Sea levels were numerous in previous Donkey Kong Country games, but completely removed in Donkey Kong Country Returns.
- The third title of the Monster Hunter series averted this as listed below, but then played completely straight in the fourth title when they removed the swimming mechanic that the previous game advertised and used so much entirely.
- The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker: This is especially weird because the entire overworld is the ocean, and yet it's little more than something to traverse. There's no diving and even simply trying to swim can cause you to run out of breath. The one underwater location magically acts as if it isn't completely submerged.
- In Gender Bender DNA Twister Extreme a lot of characters gain the ability to become Half-Human Hybrids of animals, and inevitably one of them becomes a mermaid. It makes no bones about how fast this gets boring, and when she confronts her friend about it later she holds back nothing about how no, it was not awesome.
- Sea routes in Pokémon are easily the most boring and frustrating areas in the main games. It's due to little variety of trainer classes (pretty much limited to swimmers and their variants) and Pokemon to find (most of them being Wingull, Tentacool and Basculin), along with long stretches of nothing but open sea. The Hoenn region games are probably the worst offenders, since half of the region consists of various islands scattered throughout the ocean. Ocean that you have to Surf through several times, before you eventually become able to get around by Flying, at which point you'll probably avoid traveling by sea whenever possible.
- Ever since the introduction of the move Dive in the third generation of games, its use to go underwater on certain areas has only made one comeback (if you don't count the third generation remakes). Presumably, this is because underwater environments in their first appearance where very uniform and monotonous, and they only featured three different Pokemon to find and catch (and of those, only two were new, one was Chinchou, which debuted on the previous generation), no matter where you dived.
- Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire, the third generation remakes, introduced some changes to try and avert this. Travel and exploration by sea was made much easier with more checkpoints for the player to fly to and the introduction of Sharpedo as a Power Up Mount that was faster than usual, and the underwater zones got their own unique trainer classes (Scuba Divers and Free Divers) and an upgrade to the scenery. However, if the infamous "Too much water" IGN review is anything to go by, the success of these changes was limited.
- This trope is probably the reason why Alola, a region based on Hawaii, has no water routes between the main islands (unlike Hoenn). Water trails do exist, but the ones you have to cross to beat the game are few and far between. Also, sea routes are limited to coastal areas where you're not too far away from land at any given time
- The underwater base the team infiltrates in We Are The Wyrecats is located in the Marianas Trench, but as the comic is largely focused on action during that chapter, there isn't much focus given to the undersea life or landforms.
- Sealab 2020 was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon about a colony under the sea that may have been one of the most boring shows in the history of television.
- Its parodic sequel series, Sealab 2021 had a lot of stuff going on, mostly at the behest of the Too Dumb to Live crew.
- Cartoon Network replaced Toonami's afternoon block with a Lighter and Softer version called Miguzi. Whereas Toonami was set in deep space, Miguzi was set underwater. It only lasted 3 years compared to Toonami's combined 12 (and counting, again!)
- SpongeBob SquarePants deserves a special mention here, since there's hardly any recognition that the series takes place underwater at all. There's no swimming, people drive on the floor in boats, fires are lit - etc. Basically, the setting is purely cosmetic.
- Tiger Sharks, which was ThunderCats (1985) UNDERWATER only lasted one season. Their main enemy was a hydrophobic crime boss. On a world covered in nothing but water. What part of this seemed like a good idea?
- Street Sharks. Granted, the show had other obvious problems, but the big one was that the boys turned into shark-hybrids that swam through the streets.
- The 80s-comic-book-turned-prime-time-cartoon-series Fish Police (and of course, in the comic itself). Like Spongebob, it tried to avert this trope by ignoring its setting entirely: the aquatic characters lived in a modern city, drove cars, only ever swam 'standing upright', and only along the 'ground' (the taller buildings even had fire escapes... think about that one for a second). Between this trope, the Animation Age Ghetto, and the fact that it was a frigging cop show pastiche starring fish, the series was quickly canned.
- Diver Dan was a diver who regularly visited the fishes.
- This is probably the reason why My Little Pony hasn't featured hippocampi in ages, except in a spinoff where their aquatic origin didn't really matter.
- This was averted in Season 8 of Friendship is Magic. When the CMC transform and visit the underwater city of Seaquestria, Scootaloo actually prefers it to the surface world.