Aquaria

Game Description: A massive ocean world, teeming with life and filled with ancient secrets. Join Naija, a lone underwater dweller in search of her family, as she explores the depths of Aquaria. She'll travel from hidden caves, shrouded in darkness, to beautiful, sunlit oases, all lovingly handcrafted by its two creators. Naija's story, narrated fully with voice overs, will become yours, as you join her on this magnificent adventure.

Aquaria Review

Your goldfish is jealous

Aquaria screenshot

HIGH The dreamlike charm that permeates the entire game.

LOW Having to stop in the middle of the action to sing.

WTF Underwater fire?

I could make several laughably bad "jewel beneath the waves" puns here, so I'll just save everyone the trouble and say that BitBlot's indie hit Aquaria is a definite winner...which, granted, also happens to be beneath some waves. In the realm of the 2D platformers that make up some of Aquaria's roots, I can say without question that it belongs on the shelf in the company of Super Metroid and Mega Man X.

The game follows the story of Naija, an amphibious girl living beneath the ocean who must solve the mysteries behind the disappearance of several lost civilizations of the water—loosely similar to Lady in the Water, except not boring or convoluted in the slightest. Indeed, the story reaches that evasive point between depth and simplicity, being compelling enough to make me care about Naija's trials while also being simple enough not to get in the way of the gameplay. And while the narrative is certainly a high point, the game's appeal consists of much more than that.

Aquaria has a certain charm about it that elevates it from a simple platformer to a fine gaming experience. Naija swims almost effortlessly through a gorgeous undersea environment (which gets more out of sprites than one would imagine) combined with excellent music/ambient sounds and a wide range of enemy and non-enemy creatures to be found. All of these things give way a dreamlike feel (and no, I was not on drugs) that holds throughout the entire game. Indeed, this feeling caused exploration of the game world to be a treat rather than a hindrance, which counts for a lot when the player spends a large amount of time searching each area for items and such. The music fits extremely well with the game's various settings, from the freedom of swimming through a new area to the intensity of an impending battle to a forgotten graveyard of a lost people. The character of Naija is also handled well—the voice work for her is great, and I saw more character development and exposition than one would expect from a game of this type. And on top of all that, seeing a female lead that wasn't over sexualized for once was refreshing to say the least.

Aquaria screenshot

Aquaria's gameplay is simple and elegant, much like its 2D ilk. Naija must swim her way through dangerous waters, picking up various new abilities and treasures along the way. Starting in a small cave at the beginning of the game, progress yielded way to what became a truly massive universe, with the discovery and exploration of each new area bringing a real sense of accomplishment. Progression is ability-based, as the new forms Naija acquires will give her additional powers which will allow her to access more areas. There aren't very many puzzles in the traditional sense of the word, but there are several musical puzzles that make use of Naija's singing ability, which is also used to change forms and activate various devices throughout the game. I found the game to be challenging, but not so much that it ever became frustrating, achieving that hard-to-reach middle ground between boredom and frustration. The later levels in particular gave me some trouble, and ultimately it was satisfying to see such a pretty game not be afraid to show some fangs.

The only real gripe I can make is a slight one against the controls. The player has the option of using the keyboard/mouse combo or a controller. Personally I found some actions, precision swimming chief among them, better suited to the controller while others such as singing and form switching were better served by the keyboard and mouse. For example, during a few of the boss fights I had to switch from one form to another quickly in the middle of combat. This was somewhat awkward, as I found myself switching back and forth between using the keyboard and the controller in several instances, especially for the form switch hotkeys. If Aquaria ever makes the jump to a console, the ability to stop the action when I want to sing or having a form cycle function would be nice, since having to stop mid-battle and sing the song to change forms would be a tad frustrating.

Aquaria is an extremely high-quality product and a fine example of a genre that hasn't gotten a lot attention in recent years—it's no surprise to me that it took top honors at the 2007 IGF awards. Its charm and style engrossed me from the opening level and never let go, and I received an experience with lots of substance, challenge, and a little heart thrown in for good measure. I can only hope that a console version will be released eventually so its gets the greater exposure that it deserves. Rating: 9.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via Steam download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 16 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: This game has not been rated by the ESRB at the time of this writing.  There was nothing major that I would be uncomfortable exposing a child to, although some of the monsters might be a little spooky.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All spoken lines are subtitled. However, some of the musical puzzles require playing a song by ear and there is a portion of the final boss fight that uses audio cues pretty heavily, so a person with poor hearing might have some trouble with this game.

Interview with Alec Holowka and Derek Yu, creators of Aquaria

First off, allow me to introduce myself as this is my first "official" blog post. The name is Richard, and I've been here about two months and it's been fantastic so far. I think that's enough about me for now, so let's talk about something that's actually cool.

Recently I reviewed Aquaria, a fantastic title from indie developer Bit-Blot and winner of top honors at the 2007 IGF awards.

Aquaria is currently available only on the PC and Mac, through both their website and Steam download. The minds behind the game, Alec Holowka and Derek Yu, were kind enough to speak with me about their work and their company.

Interview with Alec Holowka and Derek Yu, creators of Aquaria

What are some of your favorite games, and how did they influence you when working on Aquaria?

Alec Holowka: I think it was a combination of Zelda 1, Final Fantasy VI and Blood Omen for me. Zelda for the exploration, FF6 for the storytelling and Blood Omen for the use of voice overs.

Derek Yu: Zelda and Final Fantasy influenced me, too.  Visually, I drew some   inspiration from really lush 2D games like Legend of Mana, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Princess Crown/Odin Sphere.  There are a ton of games that I've played or recalled over the years that are not personal favorites that probably also influenced some of my design.  Like... James Pond.  Or maybe Shadow of the Beast. And some shoot 'em ups.

How did you come up with the idea for Aquaria's setting and the character of Naija?

AH: Since an early age I had been trying to create an RPG that reminded me of the fun experiences I had with Final Fantasy VI. I read an article about Ron Gilbert that suggested (jokingly) to take one of your favorite game concepts and set it underwater. In this case, it actually lead to some pretty cool inspiration.

Naija's character changed a bit over development, but she was always kind of based on a fusion of our more curious personality traits. I think she's a pretty vulnerable character, and that makes the game's story more interesting. My personal experience with creating Aquaria involved a lot of stretches of time in which I felt very lonely. That feeling of loneliness got transferred to Naija. She's not sure if what she's doing is the right thing. She experiences what could be considered depression and also joy. When I play the game now, I can see where a lot of those creative decisions came from in terms of my personal feelings at the time. I think that's one of the factors that makes the game unique.

DY: I've always been fascinated with the ocean.  I drew a lot of fish when I was a kid.  Mostly killer sharks and stuff like that.  It's such a mysterious place.  I've always thought of the ocean as an alien world that's right underneath us.  It would be great to meet visitors from outer space, sure, but there's plenty of alien life living in the waters of our own planet.  It wasn't difficult at all to make the leap from underwater reality to underwater fantasy.

Regarding Naija... she's really the point of contact for the player to experience this rich world that we created, so it was important that we establish her character well during the game, without making it feel ham-fisted.  We put a lot of thought into her personality and mannerisms.  I don't think it's surprising that Naija, at the beginning of the story, is very naive, because we were very naive as game designers and people.  I don't know how conscious it was, but the game's story follows our own personal struggles during the development very closely.

Interview with Alec Holowka and Derek Yu, creators of Aquaria

What was the most challenging part of making Aquaria?

AH: One of the greatest challenges for me was conquering the fear that the game would somehow be a failure. When you're creating something with a very small team, you carry a lot of the responsibility for whether or not its going to entertain people. That responsibility would weigh on me and sometimes it would interfere with the joy of creating the game.

DY: It's a pretty huge game, so the act of juggling all the different parts that we were each responsible for was a big challenge.  Also, I didn't get the impression that a lot of people, even within the games industry, really understood why we were making this game, this way.  That was definitely a mental hurdle I had to get over.

The creative process often involves a project being completely unrecognizable from the original concept. How much did Aquaria change over the time you were developing it?

AH: It actually changed a lot. The original concept involved more RPG elements: starting the story when Naija was young, dealing with a world full of NPCs and a complex dialog-tree-character-building system. (the dialog choices that the player made would affect Naija's personality)

Eventually we realized that the game was really just about Naija exploring this mysterious world - and that focusing on that would make for a much richer experience. I'm really grateful that we were willing to throw out our hard work and start again with a better vision.

A lot of indie game projects (and software projects in general) often fall by the wayside before they ever see the light of day. Was Aquaria ever at any point in danger of being given up on?

AH: At one point, money was getting thin and it wasn't apparent how I could continue. Fortunately we managed to get over that hump and from then on out, we knew we would eventually finish the game.

DY: I don't know how real the danger actually was, but there were points when it certainly felt real.  We didn't have any contingency plans, so it would have been a pretty big setback for us each personally.  In hindsight, I think we were both too driven to have given up on the project completely.

How much time did it take, from initial concept to rollout, to make Aquaria? Did this become a full-time job, or did you still keep day jobs and work on Aquaria in every spare waking moment?

AH: I had prototyped the basic concept on my own three years before the game was released. A year later, I met Derek and we started talking about doing the concept. It took about two years to fully develop the game and release it. I spent a year (off and on) after that tweaking the game to improve various things.

Tell me a little bit about Bit Blot the company-were you originally self-funded, or did you get investors involved?

AH: We managed to get a small angel investment that went a really long way. Without that it would have been a lot more stressful. But for the most part, we just lived cheap.

DY: The prize money from IGF was a big deal for us, too.

You both live in different countries-how did you meet and wind up working together? Who worked on what? (music, programming, artwork, etc.)

AH: I heard about Derek through the comments of a slashdot post, oddly enough, about anti-video game lawyer Jack Thompson. We ended up working on a parody game about JT after that. (I'm OK—Derek did art and I did music)

For Aquaria we both worked on the design, I did code and music and Derek did art.

DY: Alec also wrote a lot of the story and dialogue.  I built a lot of the levels.  I think the work broke down really well between the two of us.

Are there any plans for expanding the company, or do you want to keep it a two-man show?

AH: I think I'd like it to remain a core of two people that is open to taking on temporary extra help when needed. It really depends on the project I think.

Any plans to work for a big game company someday? Why or why not?

AH: I'd like to try it out for a while, but I'm imagining that I'd get fed up with the lack of creative control and the forced work hours at some point.

DY: No plans in the meantime.  I'm going to try to stay independent for as long as I can.  There's just so much more joy in realizing your own ideas than someone else's.  It's worth a lot of the resources and stability that a big company can provide.

Interview with Alec Holowka and Derek Yu, creators of Aquaria

At this time, Aquaria has only been released on the PC. Are there any plans to release it on consoles or other platforms?

AH: We released a Mac version through Ambrosia Software as well, but there are no plans to port the game to other platforms/consoles at this time. 

You included a level editor and a set of modding tools with Aquaria—what sort of user-generated content have you seen thus far, and how does it make you feel about the original product?

AH: There have been a few small mods of the game—usually little levels that focus on certain gameplay mechanics. Someone made a nude patch for the game, which I find pretty entertaining. 

There's a big mod in development that is a prequel to Aquaria. Its very interesting to play through how this fan sees the events before the game unfolding—they've taken ideas from the game and interpreted them in ways I didn't predict. Its actually really cool.

What can we expect to see from Bit Blot in the future?

AH: We're kind of split up at the moment. I think one of the problems of making a game of this scale with only two people is that it puts considerable strain on all your relationships. Since Aquaria, I've gone on to create a game called Paper Moon with a new team called Infinite Ammo. Now that team is also burnt out! 

One big dream project that I'd like to work on is called "Marian", but I'm not sure how to produce it yet. I'm in the prototype stages—I'm just exploring the potential of the concept for the time being. Its a weird place to be in, I'm not sure what the next year is going to be like.

DY: I've got some of my own projects in the works that should be announced before the end of the year.

There are lots of aspiring indie developers out there who are still trying to get off the ground—do you have any advice for them?

AH: Its a tough road. Its one thing to finish a game and have it be a reasonable success. Its another thing to finish a game and keep all your relationships intact. My advice would be to remember "balance"—burning out doesn't help anyone.

DY: Make games, but more importantly, learn how to finish them!  Work with other people who are as dedicated as you are.  Submit your game to IGF.  Be a part of a community (like The Independent Gaming Source) where everyone is friendly and willing to share with one another.  Be good at what you do, but always be willing to get better.  Don't be afraid to throw out bad ideas or change your perspective.  Study philosophy.  Keep yourself healthy.

Interview with Alec Holowka and Derek Yu, creators of Aquaria

Once again, I'd like to thank Alec and Derek for their time and for making such a great game. I'm definitely looking forward to their future works.