Posted by Guest, Dec 31, 2007 06:00
There’re so many reasons to love independent games it’s a wonder why we, the gamers, don’t pounce on them with far more vigour than actually seem to. After all, we’re seldom impressed by multi-million dollar developments these days, and photo-realistic graphics do little to encourage us into parting with cash. Gameplay still reigns supreme after more than three decades of videogame development, and the scale of a production has very little to do with the core playability of a new game – whether it’s the next huge revolution from Microsoft or a back bedroom hobbyist’s mobile phone puzzle.
That said, the Independent Games Festival grows in popularity every year, with more and more impressive entries from amateur development groups. The winner of this year’s festival, and beneficiary of the coveted Seamus McNally grand prize was Aquaria, from the two man team of Derek Yu and Alec Holowka; otherwise known as Bit-Blot.
The pair had worked together on the hilarious, controversial freeware title, I’m O.K. – a vicious pastiche of right wing, sectarian fascist and narrow-minded mouth-on-legs, Jack Thompson. Aquaria doesn’t follow in the comically violent blood-fest of the team’s previous title, however; instead creating an awe-inspiring, genre-dodging work of interactive art.
It’s also delightfully refreshing to meet a game that loads quickly, doesn’t require yet another graphics card upgrade and lets you get on with playing it without watching 12 different developer, publisher, distributor and god know what other adverts. No disclaimers, no multi-multi-multi-level menus and no incessant buggering about simply trying to get the damn thing to begin. From the moment it loads, it becomes obvious that Aquaria is a game that’s meant to be played, not one that combines a plethora of non-interactive cut scenes interspersed with restricted snippets of constrained gameplay like so many commercial titles littering the shelves.
Like all good forms of storytelling, the adventures of Naija – the main character of Aquaria – is “shown”, rather than “told”; the evolution of her existence from a simple, solitary water-dwelling creature to the world changing magical entity she becomes is a mesmerising quest of epic discovery. The player is fed miniscule amounts of tantalising information and glimpses of the future through Naija’s eyes, always precisely the right quantity of intrigue that not only enthuses players to discover more, but provides the believable motivation for the main character to do likewise.
For once, when a game proclaims to take players on a free-roaming journey of discovery, placing gamers fully within the action and intertwining their life with that of the game’s character, it’s completely true. The world of Aquaria, the life of Naija and the experience of the player are beautifully connected throughout the affecting tale of evolution and self-discovery.
The mouse-based control system (although the option for a joypad is also included) of Aquaria is another blinding success of ingenuity which remains exceedingly simple (allowing for greater involvement in the gameplay) while simultaneously proving to be organically ergonomic. Navigating around the underwater realm, with its powerful undercurrents, teeming life and labyrinthine cave complexes genuinely “feels” like swimming, rather than the typical disembodied, invasive controls of most games.
Naija’s powers are similarly appropriate to her existence as a peaceful, underwater creature – favouring flight over fight until her way of life naturally progresses to meet the challenges of personal growth and discovery of the world around her. The world of Aquaria is permeated by an unseen force known as The Verse, which Naija has learned to manipulate through song. By singing certain notes in the correct order, The Verse is altered around her for limited periods, allowing Naija to protect herself, move heavy objects and perform a variety of other feats she’d otherwise be unable to achieve.
More songs are learnt as she gradually uncovers the mysteries of her existence and forgotten past, as well as different recipes for healing, power and other abilities using the rich animal and plant life she discovers on her journeys. These typical RPG elements blend beautifully with the adventure style gaming of Aquaria, never appearing as a bolt-on or genre-crossing attempt to mix gameplay styles – instead creating a seamless hybrid of gaming genus that holds the essential brilliance of Aquaria’s events at its core.
It might sound like a nondescript, banal or even cruel thing to say about Aquaria, but I’m irrepressibly inclined to say it’s simply a “nice” game; qualifying this rather characterless description with a request that you apply the term with the satisfying, enjoyable, multifaceted and user-friendly connotations it carries at full face value. If the word “nice” could be suitably emphasised with massively positive nuances, then that’s what I mean to suggest, and state once again that Aquaria is easily the nicest game I’ve played this year (and bearing in mind the impending closure of 2007, I count that as high praise indeed). Its emphatic exquisiteness laces every aspect of the game with inexorable appeal for every type of gamer without, somehow, sacrificing integrity or enjoyment. A rare and admirable trait.
Aquaria transcends typical gaming demographics – providing a simple, highly enjoyable adventure for young players, while also granting the kind of gratifying depth of innovation demanded by hardcore, mature gamers. Aquaria is a game for everyone, and being unrestricted by the unrepentant genre regulations imposed by a soulless committee of game producers, directors and designers who govern (and dogmatically restrict the creativity of) contemporary, commercial games, Naija’s adventure is free to be enjoyed and doted upon by a jaded gaming populace from all walks of life.
If you enjoy playing computer and videogames – as simple as that, and regardless of genre – Aquaria is a treasure trove of digital delights, and you owe it to yourself to dive into the marine world of the enigmatic Naija and rediscover the reasons you first fell in love with computer games.
Rating: 4.2, votes: 6