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In this undersea fairy tale, it's better to go with the flow Add to ...

Naija, a "mercreature" with gills and a lilting English accent, is lost and alone in a vast underwater world. I should be worried about this - as the heroine of the PC game Aquaria, Naija is in my care - but many hours of guiding her through caverns and over sea beds have taught me to go with the flow.

A new passageway will open up eventually, especially if I cheat a little and ask for help, and there is something to be said for a game you can get comfortably lost in. Aquaria, which was recently made available online after taking the grand prize at last year's Independent Games Festival (IGF), is certainly that.

Even the story of its creation has an irresistible current. It began with Winnipeg native Alec Holowka, now 24. Two years ago he was a computer programmer working on very small games - simple parodies distributed as freeware or shareware - when he met an artist named Derek Yu. After a few false starts at teaming up, the pair began expanding a short prototype Holowka had put together: a game set in a two-dimensional undersea ecosystem with a lead character who could swim and sing.

For almost a year, Holowka worked on the growing project in Richmond, B.C., while Yu plugged away from his base in San Francisco. They formed a company called Bit Blot in order to enter the unfinished game in the main competition at the IGF, an annual event that takes place during the larger Game Developers Conference.

Aquaria won over the judges, earned the duo $20,000 (U.S.), and attracted a large following online. Bit-Blot.com now supports a thriving community, its forums filled with thousands of posts, and it is the place to download the full game for $30, a large sum in indie gaming circles. By all accounts, it is doing very, very well.

After a tour through its watery depths, it's easy to see why: Aquaria is drop-dead beautiful. Its caves, reefs and colourful creatures are all hand-drawn. It remains two-dimensional, harking back to exploration games made two decades ago, but the world it opens up is huge, with a deep and affecting story at its core.

You play it using a basic three-button mouse (it supports game controllers and keyboard commands, but not quite as intuitively). Naija swims where you point and she darts forward, or clings to walls, with a touch of the left button.

Most of Naija's interactions with her surroundings are accomplished through singing: Tap the right mouse button and eight colourful symbols, each with a different tone, appear in a circle around her. By moving the mouse in patterns between these symbols, you can play songs that open up abilities, such as moving rocks that block passageways. Or you can just stay still and entertain yourself with Holowka's homegrown compositions; the music is lovely.

Once you have figured out how to move around and solve Aquaria's musical puzzles, a story starts to take shape. These short bursts of narrative flow out of Naija's journey into ever-darker waters where she eventually - and reluctantly - has to fight off sinister magical types. (Being independent and distributed online, the game has no rating, but even its scariest content should be fine for players 12 and up; supervision and hand-holding may be required for younger players.)

Throughout this story, Naija becomes a fully formed character (thanks to voice actor Jenna Sharpe, who does a great job). She expresses doubts and insecurities and soon it becomes apparent that she, like her sprawling home, has more depth than meets the eye.

In fact, Aquaria, if you give it time to boil, starts to feel like the first 10 minutes of Pan's Labyrinth - a dark fairy tale taking place underneath our feet - played out over 16 to 20 hours.

To get that far will take some patience and, probably, help. This is a tough game to figure out and get through. After all, it was made by two guys separated by a border and a lot of kilometres. I frequently gave in and looked for directions online, either in walkthroughs, which are guides written by fellow players, or in the Bit Blot forums.

It's worth it in the end, and Holowka and Yu have included a full set of editing tools that will allow other budding coders to modify Aquaria or even create their own game. That means there are more new places on the way to get happily lost.

 

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