Aquaria: Tonal Shifts

If you ask me, the demo for Aquaria is misleading. This is because the demo is the beginning of the game, and the beginning of the game is the safe, comfortable area around Naija’s home. Brightly colored corals and anemones, shafts of sunlight streaming down, and if there are some dangerous fish about, there are also schools of harmless ones roaming about looking decorative.

Towards the end of the demo, there’s a brief glimpse of things to come, in the form of an interactive vision granted by a figure in a black cloak who appears in front of you without explanation: suddenly you’re in the shooting-stuff form and surrounded by bullets. This is your first glimpse of that form — presumably it was inserted so that the demo/beginning wouldn’t be too entirely misleading. But even there, the context made it seem like this was some kind of “Dark Naija” thing that you’d be shifting into involuntarily as the story (and level design) demanded it, like in Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones. But no, switching into shooty mode is a voluntary act, and in fact I tend to stay in that form by default, because that’s usually the best for reacting to surprises. What I really wasn’t expecting from the intro, though, is that I’d be using that form to kill those harmless fish I mentioned so I could use their meat and oil as crafting ingredients. Which shows how much I had misunderstood Naija’s relationship to the things around her, and also how quickly my attitude changes when I’m running low on healing items.

The thing that was really unexpected from the intro, though, was the descent into the Zerg Creep. There a certain lost city, probably once home to Naija’s ancestors, now home to aquatic ghouls. The walls sport what look like blood vessels in places, then turn into masses of exposed flesh, throbbing in places. There’s a skull-like door barred by what appear to be intestines. This is not the happy frolicking-in-the-sun-dappled-lagoon game I signed up for! I mean, I’m okay with it. But I haven’t even penetrated the deepest darkness yet; I expect there’s worse stuff to come.

I recall being taken aback by the shift in Ecco the Dolphin as well, which starts off as a story about a dolphin, and then suddenly sends that dolphin into outer space to defeat an alien invasion. Perhaps there’s just something about the undersea setting that changes my expectations. There’s nothing unusual about going to outer space in a videogame, just as there’s nothing unusual about shifting into veins-and-viscera decor as you get closer to the end boss. When a game starts off in a pleasant pastoral setting, I don’t normally expect it to stay there. But somehow, when it’s a pleasant underwater setting instead, I kind of expect it to not stray too far.

1 Comment so far

  1. McMartin on 8 May 2011

    One of the things I found very interesting about Aquaria’s earlygame is how it sets up the “bring counter-element X to element Y” levels. The first power you learn is Bind, which is sort of a construction power for cleaning things up and that would have presumably been used to build some of the cities. You take that into the Energy ruins, a monument to destruction, and death rampant.

    After gaining the power from the dead gods there, you then have your choice of two kinds of life rampant: the overgrown kelp forest, or the area made of cancerous tumors. (I particularly liked the fact that the first Meat Tube you encounter – and which you must in fact enter to proceed – is shaped a lot like a humanoid gullet. I noticed this and elected to check out that part last. I’m sure that was intentional.)

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