Aquaria: Runes

If there’s one thing the metroidvania format does well, it’s provoking a sense of place. You gain familiarity with the total layout of the gameworld because you spend a significant amount of time visiting the same places repeatedly — and not because the game forces you to, but voluntarily, because you want all the goodies that you couldn’t get at the first time around. It’s not like grinding in an RPG, because it isn’t about wandering the same stretch of ground waiting for random events. Your actions on revisiting are purposeful, or at least exploratory, and a monster you’ve met before is just something to be got past as efficiently as possible. Thus, revisiting places engenders mastery of technique.

Aquaria‘s cooking system adds an additional motivation for revisiting places: collecting ingredients for cooking. Specific items are dropped by specific creatures which can be found in specific areas, so when you discover a new use for an ingredient, you have a new reason to go back to where it’s plentiful. And if you do, you do in fact wind up essentially grinding, despite what I said above. This is something best pursued in combination with other goals, other reasons for backtracking.

"For daughter", it says. Whose daughter? Why?Lately I’ve been going back for a purpose that yields no direct benefit: I’ve been deciphering the runes. There are things written on walls throughout the game in an invented script. It turns out it’s just an alternate alphabet, and that the messages are in English. The first hint of this is actually in the opening menu, which starts off showing all its text in the Aquarian alphabet, then fades to Roman. This can be used as a kind of Rosetta stone for deciphering the rest, but it’s not really necessary — the game provides enough samples of the script to make an easy cryptogram.

I’ve managed to decipher 22 letters so far — the only ones missing from my mapping are J, K, Q, and Z, which simply haven’t appeared in any of the messages I’ve seen. The messages are mostly fairly predictable: the name of a city on a sign at its entrance, the word “Beware” just before a dangerous area, etc. But there are a few that are more interesting. One of the bosses has a lengthy message that I can only make out part of, because it’s partly blocked by the boss’s body, but it says something about someone devouring their own children — which, come to think of it, is a hint for the trick to defeating that boss. Elsewhere, in the place where I learned my first new song, “The light will guide her”. Another hint? At this point, I do have the power to create light, and I played with it a bit in that area to see if it opened up a hidden passage or something. But no, I think it’s just being metaphorical.

The messages may be mostly banal, but simply by putting them in a kind of code, the game invests them with significance. When I passed them by the first time, they were mysteries, and gave a sense of the mysterious to the surroundings. Now that I’ve broken the code, they’re little bonuses, to be eagerly attacked just in case they have something important to say.

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