Dave The Diver is taking the world by storm. With a million copies sold in its first month, this indie title from Korean developers Mintrocket crosses diving and fishing with running a restaurant, and creates one of the best games we’ve seen in 2023. Here’s why.
Right now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in the midst of one of its annual explorations of the sea floor. Live-streamed on YouTube, an unmanned submersible drops down a couple of miles to the seabed, and films transects of the unexplored regions, as informed and excited scientists explain everything we’re seeing. Sometimes, if you’re very lucky, you’ll see them discovering a brand new species of peculiar deep-sea life, at which point (if they see enough of them to be sure it’s not the last of its kind) it’s very likely you’ll watch a remote-operated vacuum sloooooop up the little creature, for them to study up top. I am entirely unaware if they ever eat them.
I tell you all this because it’s with these fascinating explorations playing on my second monitor that I’ve been playing the absolutely wonderful Dave The Diver, in which I am making my own underwater explorations, attempting to gather new species of fish, in order to…serve them up in a sushi restaurant Dave is co-running with an odd chap called Cobra, and a wunder-chef called Bancho. It’s a very similar endeavor, just with slightly differing goals.
Think of Dave The Diver as the aquatic version of Moonlighter, Digital Sun’s charming action-RPG in which you delve into dungeons by night, collecting loot that you then sell at your shop the next day. Forgoing that game’s fantasy trappings, Dave is a pixel-based RPG in which you alternate between diving into a mysterious, ever-changing bay to catch as many fish as you can, and then helping run a bustling sushi restaurant that serves up your catches based on a menu you put together each evening, with a growing staff you (somewhat) manage, and a social media-savvy customer base to impress. You make money in your business to buy new equipment and increase (decrease?) the depths to which you can dive, the oxygen supply you can take with you, and the quality of your harpoon to catch bigger and more dangerous fish.
And if that were the whole game—diving for new catches, running the restaurant to make profit, buying new equipment to explore further—it would be a winner. I’d be fulsomely recommending it to you right now, because it would be a feedback loop of enormous satisfaction and fun. But that’s not the whole game, not even a bit. Dave The Diver is a game that will not stop getting bigger, more interesting, and perhaps most importantly, more outright bonkers.
Introducing new features like other games introduce loading screens, DTD evolves continuously. At first, you’ll be focused on getting your sushi place up-and-running, serving a handful of dishes to a scant few customers a night. During your two daily dives, you’ll catch the fish you need to create new recipes and dishes, along with finding various shells, starfish, and other novelties. Oh, and weapons. Guns. Lots of underwater guns, that can’t survive the transition above the waves. But the more you play, the more characters you encounter, who want to get involved.
There’s Duff, for instance, who will build you new, permanent guns, based on the designs of those you find, and with materials you pick up on your dives. Or there’s Ellie, who wants you to do some ecological work for spurious reasons, gathering all manner of non-fish life. And, er, Dr. Bacon, who wants your help investigating signs of a mythical underwater “sea people,” exploring ancient caves and deciphering strange runic texts. Oh, and there’s Maki, a young girl traumatized by the loss of her father who communicates through a furious glove puppet of a clione and who, in return for preparing a specific dish, will give you a fishing net for those hard-to-catch teeny creatures.
Yeah, it’s nuts. Brilliantly so. Even after many, many hours, the game is still chucking entirely new elements at me thick and fast. There comes a point where you’ll be certain you’ve got the bulk of the game by now, especially with its later addition of night fishing, when it suddenly introduces an entire fish farm, complete with breeding program, and a storyline for its host, Otto, about a long-lost missing son. There are other, far more ridiculous story elements that I’m not sharing because they’re much more fun to discover for yourself.
Importantly, the two core elements work very well. The fishing, which is how you’ll spend most of your time when playing, is about swimming the portly Dave ever-deeper into this inexplicable bay that changes its geology every time you explore. Along the way, you’ll harpoon all manner of fish, using all manner of strange harpoons (electric, say, or most confusingly, flammable), and an ever-growing arsenal of guns, used to weaken the large, stronger fish before you try to catch them. Many fish are predatory, and will attempt to munch on Dave, including some sizeable and furious sharks. Dave’s health is entirely represented by the amount of oxygen he has remaining, with attacks knocking off huge chunks. O2 is frequently replenished via underwater sources, but running out means a brush with death, and a rescue that only allows you to retrieve a single object you’ve picked up or fished on that dive.
The better your equipment, the further and deeper you’re able to explore, which opens up new arrays of fish to catch, and often more dangerous fish to battle. At the same time, a dive might have you facing off against a gang of underwater pirates, or some other surprise twist. On some occasions you’ll want to do a straight fishing trip, building up stocks for the restaurant, and avoiding the greater dangers. On others, you might try to reach a new depth, or complete a specific quest, without gathering too much you wouldn’t want to lose should you fail.
Then there’s the sushi place. Your job is theoretically “manager,” but in reality it’s “dogsbody.” Poor Dave. At first you need to do everything except for the cooking. That means pouring green tea, bussing tables, and clearing up empty dishes, all without customers getting upset at tardiness. Dave is not a thin chap, and like the mighty penguin, while superb underwater, isn’t the best on land. So you’ll soon be able to hire staff, even train them, to keep up with the growing popularity of the business.
Here too there are surprise twists, absolutely daft customers coming in with specific requests, for whom you will need to catch specific fish to meet their whims. So many elements of the restaurant are accompanied by hilarious mini-cutscenes, animated montages of new recipes being discovered, or customers’ experience of ecstatic pleasure at tasting their required dish.
And yet as much as I describe, Dave The Diver is doing so much more! It’s never overwhelming, thankfully, with the bustle of an evening’s service the most frantic element at play. The rest allows you to play things out at your own pace, a dive lasting as long as you can make it, without nagging you to get back. You can expect dives to last a solid 20 minutes each by the time you’re a few hours in, always with something new to do, somewhere new to reach, or some madcap quest to complete.
Then within this, every element is delivered with such glee. Its relatively simple opening belies an intricate game that’s more RPG than anything else, each aspect delightfully detailed and refined. If there’s any weakness, it’s that occasionally the Korean game’s English could be slightly tighter, but even this feels ridiculously nit-picky.
Dave The Diver very much deserves the enormous success it’s received in its first month, selling over a million copies, and hopefully making developers Mintrocket enormously rich. They’ve created something really special, an RPG-meets-Diner Dash-meets gentle SCUBA sim, that manages to feel utterly crammed to the gills with things to do, yet joyfully relaxing to play.
It’s also worth noting that the NOAA’s ROV submarine sure seems to have something attached that looks a lot like a gun. Just saying.