What is the reason we fall in love with a game? Is it the visuals that are aesthetically pleasant and utilize some original style? Or is it the world, the story, the characters? Maybe the biggest thing is gameplay mechanics, or if we speak about metroidvania genre in particular the complexity of the vast map and its clever design, which makes nearly every path valid and interesting? That matters a lot if a developer can not only make a bunch of interesting locations separated by obstacles that require special abilities or items to pass them, but also performs a miracle of guiding you through it without showing direction with a giant red arrow on the map. Feeling not lost, but intrigued like a true discoverer traversing unknown grounds — that matters a lot. And Aquaria has all of that and more. It has voice and sound. Beautiful and soothing voice of the protagonist narrating events throughout the game being as clueless as the player. And a truly amazing soundtrack, which is not just some “accompanying music”, but a masterpiece on its own. It stands out like a pearl lying on the ocean’s floor shining against the background of dull sand.
And it has one fatal truly hurting me flaw, which makes me love this game even more. That must be stupid — to love something because of the defect, one might think. But this one is special. Aquaria ends on a high note with a cliffhanger of such enormous proportions, that the fact that sequel most probably wouldn’t happen ever makes me sad ‘till the present day. A craftsmanship of just two guys, it came out in 2007, and it has been 7 years since then. Bit Blot studio is effectively defunct. Derek Yu created wonderful Spelunky, and Alec Holowka composed a lot of wonderful soundtracks for a number of games and collaborated on various projects, ultimately launching the successful Kickstarter campaign for a Night in the Woods, which looks very promising. To tell you the truth, the story of an underwater journey is still very much satisfying, it closes script arch in a wonderful way, with a proper resolution and sensible ending. It’s just that final little itty-bitty glimpse, that promises more of Aquaria to come, that sticks to my brain. And I can’t let go. Among hundreds of games that I played it’s the one I easily can name as one of the most beloved.
But obviously that moment in the end wouldn’t irritate me if the game itself was mediocre. So let’s talk about it for a moment, instead of grieving the never-happening-sequel. You play as Naija. You can call her a mermaid, I suppose; except she doesn’t really have that fish-like scale tail and looks more like a green-skinned girl with flippers and strange ears. So, she breathes underwater and even is able to “sing”. This is actually the main form of interaction with the world. For the most part the heroine can’t affect game objects directly. Different tunes perform different actions like lifting or shielding. But they all change “form” of Naija giving her offensive, defensive and various other abilities. In order to perform a melody the player has to select the right order of color-coded tones. Technically you are bound to do it only once, when learning it for the first time. After that you can use it with a hotkey, but then you’ll miss the one tiny detail: tones actually change depending on the region you are in. And that may not be the exact detail that makes Aquaria so great, but it is a great example of how vast the game is. Honestly: you can’t just point a finger at a single thing here and say, that it’s the most important — they all are. From the glorious warm waters of near-surface areas to the chilling thrills of deepest abyss this game just doesn’t stop to surprise. A very simplistic beginning that reflects Naija’s life as “a simple creature” in her own words transforms and grows like an underwater life itself becoming more and more complex, throwing in more mechanics, more songs, more pieces of backstory. It simply isn’t possible to draw a line here. Where does the story end and the gameplay begin? Where does the world transform into a form of a narrative? It’s just one whole engaging thing. I guess this is the best possible result for metroidvania, especially the one which starts with a phrase “The Verse binds us, narrator and explorer; my story will become your own, and yours will become mine.”
But you don’t know what The Verse is yet, do you? That is the force that runs through all the Aquaria (yes, game’s world has the same name as the game itself), every living being contains small part of this power, and it can be guided with rhythms and music. This seemingly peaceful concept can deceive you in the beginning into the feeling that all of the game would be careless joy and swimming around looking at the beautiful scenery. Well, in a way it is, but as you path goes down into the darkness closer to the ocean bed the grim secrets of game’s world become uncovered. What starts as seemingly aimless journey started out of curiosity turns out to be an epic tale about extinct races, gods gone mad and ultimately finding out what this all was about… except that last tiny bit, of course, but you already know that, and it shouldn’t bother you for now. Because there’s a whole world ahead of you, don’t miss an opportunity to visit it.