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Simulated Seas: Raft

I am a mariner?

At The Mariners’ Museum and Park, we believe that we are all connected by the water and by our shared maritime heritage. And through that connection, we are every one of us, mariners. That’s what we say. I’ll be honest with you, though. I didn’t really feel that.

Animal Crossing: New Horizon ©Nintendo 2020 is available on the Nintendo Switch.

I grew up in landlocked western Pennsylvania. We weren’t beachgoers, we weren’t fishermen, and we didn’t own a boat. Sure my ancestors came to this country on a ship but does that make me a mariner?

I wondered that for a long time. Probably longer than I should admit as a team member of The Mariners’. That is until one lazy rainy Sunday morning while playing “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” on my Nintendo Switch. Yeah, you read that right.

As I watched my seaplane descend over my carefully manicured island paradise, it dawned on me how many video games have relied on maritime themes for their stories. I made a list off the top of my head, and it grew to dozens upon dozens of games.

It’s a fantasy, sure, but the modern era of video gaming makes it possible to experience that fantasy for yourself. You take the driver’s seat and chart your course. You are that mariner, and through these games and stories, you connect to the water and often to other players and fan communities.

Just a few of the games that immediately came to mind based on stories told about the water.

So, welcome, to the first in a series of blogs I’ve dubbed “Simulated Seas.” We will explore some of my favorite games and some I’ve never played before and discuss their maritime ties.

Are you ready to play? Our first game is:

Simulated Seas: Raft

“Raft” is an open-world survival game by Swedish developer Redbeet Interactive and published by Axolot Games. It is available on PC and can be purchased from Steam. Beware of possible spoilers ahead!

You are on a raft. That’s it. That’s how it all begins. There are no cutscenes to explain why or narration to tell you how. It all starts on a very, very small raft in the middle of the ocean. There is nothing around you but endless water. Oh, and a shark that circles your minuscule watercraft, menacingly, of course.

Then you see debris floating on the waves, the current pushing it toward you. Bits of wood, plastic, palm leaves, and barrels begin drifting past. You frantically grab what you can and work to put together what you find like a waterlogged MacGyver.

Sunrise on a limitless ocean in the early portions of the game. The lack of debris on the water tells me that I’m close to an island!

The limitless blue ocean that spreads out in front of you in the game’s opening moments calls for you to explore and see what’s out there. What happened to the world? Eventually, you find your way to various islands, gather more supplies, and learn to build more and more advanced components. The options for your raft are nearly endless to the point where many players have effectively made floating cities. But how realistic is that?

The ocean is immense, but you will eventually find your way to lush islands full of resources and supplies.

What is a Raft?

Rafts are primitive vessels characterized by a lack of hull, meaning they are flat bottomed. They stay afloat by utilizing buoyant materials such as wooden barrels, gourds, inflated bladders often made of goat or buffalo skins, etc., and are not usually propelled by engines. Rafts have been around since prehistoric times and are still in use today, although modern versions typically use pontoons, drums, or polystyrene blocks to keep afloat. Others are made of multiple layers of rubberized fabrics inflated to provide buoyancy.

The Egyptian Geyyi or Chatti raft comprises a central core of three bundles of reeds, flanked on each side by gourds (nine on the port side, seven on the starboard) which are lashed in place within a frame. It is currently on display in the International Small Craft Center at The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Accession Number: 1980.0021.000001

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from working at The Mariners’ Museum is that “primitive” does not mean stupid. Rafts are a simple concept and design but elegant in that they serve a purpose and solve a problem quite easily. Ancient people needed to navigate waterways to explore and transport people, livestock, or goods and found that lashing together logs with reeds or animal hides made that possible.

The Mississippi Raft Near Port Gibson, Engraved by Nathaniel Kinsey Jr., ca 1856. The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Accession Number: 1937.1328.000001/LE 1473

Advanced Rafts

In “Raft,” you are free to design your vessel however you want using the tools and pieces available. Players have created impressive structures, from floating cities to giant ships to castles. So how advanced did raft building get?

A couple of amazing builds by the very talented Alidove on YouTube. This is a really cute sidewheel steamboat they dubbed the “Nesting Ground,” and above is an awesome pirate ship. In “Raft,” you’re limited only by your imagination. Well, that and in-game physics, but really amazing builds are possible.

It isn’t uncommon to see rafts with structures on them, and living on boats is undoubtedly not a new idea. For example, sampan boats are typical in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Sampans are very shallow bottomed boats, usually including a small shelter atop that is sometimes used as a permanent home in addition to commercial uses.

Jangades of the Peruvians, 1778, shows a native Peruvian raft with a sail, shelter, and cookfire. The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Accession Number: 1937.0976.000001/LE 0511

Most of the time, you will see rafts with basic structures for shade and rest. Usually, this takes the form of a basic tent or lean-to. Sails for propulsion, rudders for navigation, and small cookfires are also standard on more advanced rafts.

It’s possible to make a sail pretty early in a play-through of “Raft” to give yourself a little speed and direction so that you can sail toward islands to gather additional materials that are only available on land. Also featured are my cookfires, a simple water purifier, and a smelter.
The view to the stern of my raft where I have begun building a simple house structure.

Tents, lean-tos, and sails are one thing, but what about the sort of things you can build in video game form? How likely are those? Flat-bottomed houseboats are pretty standard, but something even bigger?

If one sail isn’t enough for you, how about a dozen? This is an 1842 engraving, Raft on the St. Laurence [sic] at Cape Santé by William Henry Bartlett. The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Accession Number: 1968.0079.000001/LE 3025

The Great French Raft

Napoleon Bonaparte, known as Napoleon I during his short but prominent reign as emperor of France, had dreams of expanding the French Empire across Europe. During the War of the Third Coalition in 1803, Napoleon started planning to invade England. The French abandoned the plans in 1805 before the Battle of Trafalgar, but the threat was real, and England had to prepare to rebuff French advances.

Arrivo Di Napoleone Al Campo Di Boulogne translated to Arrival of Napoleon at the camp of Boulogne. The print shows Napoleon and his officers overlooking the National Flotilla as it actually looked. Note there are no floating citadels. The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Accession Number: 1984.0069.000027

From 1803 to 1805 France formed a new army known as the Armée des côtes de l’Océan stationed at training camps in Boulogne, Bruges, and Montreuil. Napoleon saw to the construction of a large fleet of invasion barges called the National Flotilla along the coast of France and the Netherlands (known at the time as the Batavian Republic under French rule).

With Napoleon’s posturing for invasion, print media in England and Europe went wild about what the Emperor might be planning. There were entirely unfounded and sensationalized rumors of an attack by a secret tunnel under the English Channel, a balloon airship fleet, and a floating fortress on a raft.

A hand-colored engraving titled “Afbeelding van het Groote Vlot te St. Malo” translates as “Image of the large raft at St. Malo.” Engraved by Daniel Vrydag (Vrijdag). Although it was never actually built, there were numerous engravings and drawings produced as propaganda for Napoleon’s invasion plans. The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Accession Number: 1935.1197.000001/LE 0037

The invasion raft was rumored to be 1900-2100 feet in length(for reference, the current largest ship in service is about 1500 feet in length) and 1000-1500 in breadth, equipped with three or four paddlewheels powered by windmills, or maybe horses, multiple drawbridges for offloading, an entire fortress with 500-600 enclosed canons, and could convey 1,500-60,000 troops including cavalry, depending on what source you read.

An alternate version of Napoleon’s invasion raft, ca 1798, reads: “The real view of the French raft as intended for the invasion of England, drawn from the original at Brest.” Turns out that it was neither “real” nor drawn “from the original.” The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Accession Number: 1936.0490.000001/QW 0082

Was it real? No. But the idea existed, and it spurred the British into action to protect their shores from French forces. Can it be real? Well, thanks to my new friend Alidove on YouTube, it’s real in Raft. They did a phenomenal job recreating this strange piece of history, so be sure to go over to YouTube to like the video and subscribe for more cool content!

Diving for Resources

One other crucial aspect of Raft is collecting resources. You need materials to expand your raft and progress the story. A lot of what you need you can find floating along the ocean’s surface or on the islands you discover, but the rest lies beneath the waves. With hook in hand, you leap into the water and dive to the riches below.

Taking a dive into the reef, I set out to find more rare resources that come from the ocean floor like clay, metal, copper, seaweed, and more. You never know what you’ll find when you take the plunge.

Freediving is a form of underwater diving that relies solely on holding your breath until you resurface rather than using something like scuba gear. Crafting an oxygen bottle, a makeshift breathing apparatus is possible in Raft, but most of your time is spent freediving. As you remain underwater searching for materials, your oxygen gauge will slowly deplete. If it reaches 0 before you resurface, your health bar will then start to deplete.

How feasible is it to search the ocean floor for materials while freediving? Actually, very possible. In fact, freediving has been around for, well, basically always. In ancient times it was the only option, after all, with the exception of the occasional use of reeds and leather breathing bladders.

A 1930 reproduction of a woodcut print by Japanese Artist Katsushika Hokusai, best known for his piece The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. This work features a group of ama divers collecting abalone. The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Accession Number: 1937.1472.000001/LP 1282

In ancient cultures, freedivers plumbed the depths to gather food or harvest materials like sponges, red coral, and pearls or reclaim sunken goods from shipwrecks. Records of Japanese Ama divers exist as far back as 2,000 years ago, diving for pearls, seaweed, and shellfish, especially abalone. Ama divers still operate today without the assistance of scuba gear, and the vast majority of ama have always been women.

Connecting the Pieces

Raft in a Squall on Lake St. Peter, 1842 by William Henry Bartlett. The Mariners’ Museum and Park. Accession Number: 1968.0078.000001/LE 3024

At The Mariners’ Museum and Park, we connect people to the world’s waters because through the water, we are connected to one another. You’ve probably heard us say it before, and you’ll definitely hear us say it again. Writing these blogs reminds me of just how real that mission is.

Storms are a common occurrence in Raft. The wind and rain kick up, the seas get choppy, and toss your raft about. It can feel quite harrowing, but luckily, during this one, I spotted land!

Through this blog, and through Raft, I was able to learn pieces of our shared maritime history that I never knew, and with the help of new friends that I’ve connected with, we were able to bring them to life. Each time I explore the rich world of maritime history, I find new threads that bind me to the world at large, meet new people, and experience new things. That’s the power that both our shared maritime culture and our digital world can have.

You may feel like I once did like you aren’t really a mariner. If you take the time to look around, however, you may find you have more connections than you realized and in unexpected places. Who would have thought that this ocean-based survival simulation would be able to open that door for me? All I had to do was walk through.

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