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.

Aquaria: Swimming

I just compared the way that you swim about freely in Aquaria to Ecco the Dolphin, but the way you control the swimming is quite different. Ecco was written for the Sega Genesis, which means a controller with a D-pad, not an analog joystick. The movements of the dolphin were famously smooth and fluid, but they were created through moments of acceleration parallel to the X and Y axes as the player made carefully timed nudges. Aquaria supports two different genuinely analog control schemes — joystick and mouse. It also lets you use digital controls (D-pad or WASD keys) to move, and I’ve used that on occasion — when I want controlled, slow movement, and the ability to keep the mouse cursor on the opposite side in case I suddenly need to sprint away.

So, yes, there is a cursor. Pressing and holding the left mouse button makes Naija swim towards it; clicking again puts on an additional burst of speed. Call it cursor-based directional movement, as opposed to clicking on a destination for the avatar to go to like in a typical point-and-click adventure game (which we might call cursor-based positional movement). This isn’t the only game with cursor-based directional movement I’ve ever seen, and it isn’t usually my favorite thing: if all I’m indicating is a direction, I might as well be using a joystick, and if I’m indicating a position as well, I want the game to understand the position I’m pointing to as a position. But somehow, it feels pretty good here, and I think it has to do with the dynamics of moving in water. Unless you’re moving very slowly, you never have really precise control over your position. You accelerate, you swerve around, and you glide to a stop. Even your direction of movement isn’t absolutely under your control, because it takes a moment to swerve; although it’s not compensating for digital controls like Ecco, it’s still smoothing out your motions, processing your inputs into something that Naija can actually swim. If you’re not in absolute control of your position or your velocity, giving the game a continuously-updated spot to aim for is just about the right way to describe the amount and kind of control you really have.