Saturday, March 12, 2022

Aquamarine Is a Mysterious, Aquatic Adventure for 70s Sci-Fi Lovers

You know that feeling of finding an old, yellowing sci-fi novel from the 70s at a used bookstore, with some once-bright planet on the cover alongside a weird, alien creature? If you love that vibe, you might be interested in climbing into the spherical, seafaring pod of Aquamarine to check out its mysterious, dream-like planet.

Aquamarine is a beautiful, turn-based adventure about a spacefaring woman who crash lands on an aquatic world. She must survive by studying and coexisting with the local ecosystem, and eventually find a way home. It's slow paced; everything you do is turn-based, with movements consuming the fuel of your survival pod and your own energy as you search for more resources and your crashed ship. In between, you'll grow your own food and upgrade your pod with mods that let you explore further and deeper. All the while, Aquamarine's oceanic ecosystems will react in both subtle and grander ways to your choices, shifting the environment as you live in it.

Aquamarine's art-style and sound look like they're pulled from a sci-fi comic or cartoon…likely because that's precisely what inspired creator Patric Fallon when he first conceived it. In 2017, Fallon was an unemployed music journalist who was teaching himself to make games as a hobby using Unity video tutorials and a lot of practice on tiny projects. During that time, he and his then-partner became enamored with the work of French comic book artist Jean 'Moebius' Giraud - leading Fallon to realize that there weren't many or any games that looked like Moebius' work (Sable had yet to be announced, Fallon notes).

So they set out to create one with Aquamarine. Of course, Moebius isn't the only inspiration. Fallon tells me he was also inspired by the entire vibe of 70s and 80s sci-fi: French filmmaker René Laloux's Fantastic Planet, early Studio Ghibli films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and synth musicians like Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre. You know, the whole used book vibe I mentioned before.

"Really this whole package of those sci-fi paperback novel covers and the dusty vinyl of early synth music and comic books," Fallon affirms.

His partner eventually departed the project, making Fallon the sole full-time member of what became Moebial Studios, though he's worked with a number of contractors including composer Thomas Hoey over the last several years. Aquamarine ran an unsuccessful Kickstarter back in 2018, the failure of which Fallon says gives him mixed feelings. He's happy that, since Aquamarine was in such an early state when the Kickstarter happened, he was able to use the extra time and space to reflect, add on, and improve it considerably.

But Fallon says it was a bit of a curse too.

"Kickstarters, it's no secret, are extremely difficult things to run and launch and I was basically doing it on my own. My partner was helping with some of the art stuff, but as far as managing and preparing it and promoting it, that was all me. For it not to be successful is really, really difficult."

The Kickstarter's failure made Fallon realize he needed to move out of his expensive Brooklyn apartment and back home to the West Coast. While there, he took up gardening, an activity that ultimately inspired him to add a gardening feature to Aquamarine.

"This game is about someone who has suffered a loss and who has a large goal to attain, and who has to grow in many different ways in order to reach that goal. And that really resonated with me in terms of growing something in a garden…Doing that was really therapeutic and really just a nice change of pace from living in Brooklyn, New York, to having my own little backyard garden in the mountains."

Alongside the garden, another major system that Fallon was able to flesh out in that extra time was the way Aquamarine's choices and ecosystem work. Throughout Aquamarine, you'll have to make choices about how to interact with the creatures and environment you encounter. Do you kill a potentially dangerous creature you've never seen before? Do you approach a mysterious cache of resources, or leave it alone? Those choices will impact you and the environment in permanent ways because, notably, Aquamarine only has one save file at a time, and autosaves as you go. So unless you want to completely restart, there's no turning back or save-scumming for "better" outcomes.

If you make a choice to kill a creature...I didn't want that to just be something that happens and then you can go back and undo it.

And the music, too, is adaptive. It responds to the things you do, with composer Hoey having deconstructed his own compositions and rebuilt them to create different versions for different world states, rather than just looping different tracks for different zones.

"The game feeling is meant to be chill and slow-paced and not necessarily relaxing, but definitely something that you can sit and think about, and so I wanted to counteract that with a weight to the choices you make," Fallon says. "And so, if you make a choice to kill a creature for one reason or another, I didn't want that to just be something that happens and then you can go back and undo it. That was a choice that you made and the effects of that choice will be seen. It just didn't make sense to me that you should be able to do that as many times as you want, and you should be able to jump back and forth and change the states of it all. You're here."

I'm still slowly sailing through my own alien adventure in Aquamarine, unsure just yet of what it all means. I'm growing a little garden of aquatic plants, and I've already met some strange, cute watery creatures who don't seem to mean any harm, though I'm keeping my distance for now. I'm not the best at the resource management bits, but my little pod does its best to keep me safe as I trek onward through the depths in search of my crashed ship. Aquamarine, like the art and films and novels that inspired it, is doing a wonderful job of enticing me with beautiful mystery, and I can't wait to dive even deeper.

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.


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