Today's game is the IGF Seumas McNally Grand Prize winner from 2007 – Aquaria. Made by Derek Yu and Alec Holowka, Aquaria was one of the first indie games I ever became aware of when it was featured on The 1-Up Show. You can still watch the episode here. Derek has gone on to create one of the greatest games of all time, Spelunky, while Alec is now working on GRAVE. Considering how much I (as well as pretty much every other game developer in the world) love Spelunky, I'm surprised I haven't given Aquaria a more thorough chance before.
Aquaria was the first game in this series that I voluntarily played for more than the minimum half hour (I ended up playing about an hour and a half). However, there is a serious friction to playing this game that I personally encounter in a lot of adventure games. Aquaria drops you into a sizable world where you swim around until you find the one place you're supposed to go to progress. The problem with this is that it often takes a very long time to find what you have to do next, and that process is not very fun for me. Exploration is eventually rewarded when you figure out what to do, but the play up to that reward feels like a Zamboni-simulator uncover-the-whole-map game. If you reach a new area and struggle with it, it's never clear what the problem is. Did you miss a different area that grants an ability to make this section easier or even just feasible? Are you misunderstanding the mechanics of the area and that's why you're having trouble progressing? All of this leads to the game rewarding the habit of obsessively checking every nook and cranny of the map and constantly second-guessing if you're doing the right thing. For how much people crave less hand-held and more unguided experiences, this is an instance where it doesn't work for me.
This design doesn't work for my brain because work and play are such opposite mindsets in my mind. Work is setting out to accomplish something, identifying how to accomplish it, and doing it. Play is a state of experimentation, failure, and playfulness. Game-advancing objectives can be viewed as the "work" in a game. Aquaria's work is figuring out what to do. When I undertake that work, anything that deters me from that goal engenders frustration. Trying to find a temple and instead hitting a dead-end hallway does not make me feel good.
When does exploration work best? When it's not an explicit goal. This stops the player from entering the goal-oriented mindset of work. Instead the player is open to failure, frustration, and dead-ends. Grand Theft Auto is one of the best examples of this. There are clear objectives, and it is made explicit how to arrive at these objectives. However, there is never anything stopping you from ignoring those objectives and exploring. A player isn't mad when they accidentally drive off a bridge, enter an area of the map they've never been to, encounter a rival gang, have a car chase, accidentally blow up their car, and die. Coincidental failure becomes a generator of stories, not frustration. The best exploration is a choice. It's about being playful rather than goal-oriented.
In Aquaria I finally found the first temple after scanning through the entire overworld. I completed it after resetting the boss three times because I wasn't sure if (a) I had not understood the boss-fight mechanics properly or (b) the boss had glitched out and was unbeatable (I'm still not sure if the boss was glitched in the last portion of the fight) or (c) I had completed the temple to the point where the boss was able to be beaten. After completing the boss I returned to the overworld and took a break with the intent of continuing to play. However, when I sat back down I realized I'd have to restart the process of scanning the whole overworld to find a hint of what might be the correct next zone to go to. Since I had already explored the whole overworld I no longer had a fog-of-war indicator of which areas I had already explored, making my search only more difficult and frustrating. I swam around for a short time, discovered a monster in one area, and tried to kill it. I died. I tried killing it again. I died again. I had hit the same frustration and feelings of uncertainty I had encountered during the boss of the first temple. Was it my fault? Was this the right thing to do? What was I missing? If this isn't what I'm supposed to be doing, what should I be doing instead? So I stopped playing.
Join me on Monday as I play the first game from the absolutely colossal Telltale Humble Bundle Weekly Sale, Back to the Future: Ep 1 - It's About Time.
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