The Secret Garden of Aquaria

Posted on March 15, 2011

This was originally posted on a class blog. I am happy enough with it to want to share it and preserve it here. Indie games are amazing. That is all.

In these ancient ruins laid the untold histories of Aquaria. With exploration and perseverance, I would rediscover long lost knowledge.

Aquaria is a beautiful action-adventure game developed and published by the independent game company Bit Blot (a name that is, appropriately, meant to indicate a synthesis of technology and art). (Gamasutra) The world of Aquaria demonstrates what Fullerton et al describe as a “regendered,” perhaps even a “degendered” space in the tradition of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. This is not, however, because Aquaria lacks combat mechanics. Rather, Aquaria’s world (its “space”) is one dominated by a spirit of mystery, intrigue, and discovery.

The first hour of Aquaria’s gameplay tends to turn away a large number of “gamers” attuned to gendered spaces as described in A Game of One’s Own. Naija, the game’s protagonist, is distinctly female and resembles a mermaid. Her primary ability is the composition of song through eight notes made readily available to the player. With these notes she sings to plants to encourage them to release ingredients for Aquaria’s cooking mini-game (more on that later) and perform other skills, the first of which can create a protective shield around her. Aquaria’s “Narrative Environment” is facilitated by the game’s early emphasis on exploration and introspection. (Fullerton et al) The exploration motif is driven by a beautifully illustrated, largely benign world (at the beginning) whose mechanics are generally unknown to the player: enjoying the world and discovering which parts of the landscape can be interacted with are important pieces of the Secret Garden concept. Introspection comes in the form of a voice-over of the character and in-game “visions” of the future. The voice-overs are written from an authoritative, first-person point of view and often hint at future events in the storyline while drawing the player into the character very intimately.

A race, known as the Krotites, had built this temple to worship this fallen god. They’d honored raw power over anything else. Unlike the spirit I’d encountered in the crystal, these people had no interest in creation. They reveled in destruction.Their lust for power led not only to the downfall of their civilization, but also the destruction of another. Now, this destructive power simmered within me.

Although Aquaria maintains these motifs of exploration and introspection throughout, its nature changes dramatically after an hour or two of playtime. Naija ventures into a temple where she discovers a new song that transforms her into a being of power (referred to as her “energy form”) capable of destroying pieces of the world she previously related to only peacefully. This is where “attuned” gamers begin to enjoy the game more and where Aquaria’s nature comes into question. However, this form neither turns Naija into a killer nor makes the game a shooter. She recognizes the sadness of the power she has gained and, although its usage is up to the player, does not revel in it. Regardless of the powers and skills that Naija finds, the world of Aquaria is not a battlefield: it is very deeply “imbued with story and mystery to be discovered and uncovered.” (Fullerton et al)

I was enveloped by a warm light, as familiarity overwhelmed me… I had come home.

Aquaria contains notably domestic motifs for an action-adventure game. A large amount of space and relatively little utility is given for Naija’s home. This space’s sentimental value is very aptly developed for the player: the unique art assets combined with Naija’s comments encourage the player to form an attachment to the “home waters.” Naija’s little section of the world features, among other things, a bedroom and a kitchen. An important component of the Secret Garden formula is secrecy, a motif that comes across in Naija’s home. The space is open, somewhat mysterious in places, is shared with benign sea creatures and plants, and cut off from the (slightly more hostile) outside world. The wispy curtains in Naija’s bedroom are visually and emotionally fantastic: this is a retreat from the cares and stresses of the unknown world outside.

There were many strange ingredients to be found in the waters of Aquaria. By cooking them together with the verse, I could create new foods.

The game features a semi-optional cooking minigame that both encourages the player to pay close attention to the world of Aquaria and strengthens their attachment to it. Ingredients are littered about the world and often require a sharp eye and a song for retrieval. Many advanced recipes can only be “cooked” in Naija’s kitchen. The weighty backdrop of domesticity in Aquaria reflects the successes of The Sims and other “degendered” games without coming across as heavy handed or loaded.

In summary, Aquaria is all about discovery, exploration, and introspection and features overtly domestic motifs that lend themselves to comparison with The Secret Garden and the games that exhibit similar motifs. It is a roller coaster of a game: tranquil at times and frantic at others. Throughout, it is charming and engaging for both the “attuned” gamer and the new gamer alike, regardless of gender.

Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (aka Ludica) (2007). “A Game Of Ones Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Game Space.” In Proceedings, Digital Arts & Culture 2007, Perth, Australia, September 2007.

Holowka, Alec; Yu, Derek. Interview by Alistair Wallis. Road To The IGF: Bit Blot’s Aquaria. Gamasutra, 2006. March 14th, 2011. http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=11362.