February 15, 2016 7:30 AM | Joel Couture
It's about the world and its story, and not the character the player is controlling, in The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (Aquatic Adventure). It required some careful maneuvering in the design of Josef Martinovsky and Christopher Andreasson's work to make place the most important aspect. They had to carefully sculpt the player's impact on the world through gameplay, the scope of the visuals and the player's place in it, and the way they conveyed story in order to maximize the importance of the vibrant undersea caves and fields they had created.
For place to be the star, all other aspects had to pull back.
Place can be a difficult focus for a game. Many narratives focus on stories about characters and their actions within a place, and while that location may be important to the plot, it's still the character's actions that are the focus. If too much importance was placed on characters, in any aspect, the player will hone in on that. Martinovsky and Andreasson had to be especially careful to keep any one aspect from drawing attention away from the world they made.
To begin to create the world's importance, they first set out to create a world worth focusing on. For the two developers, this meant working on a place that both scared and awed them. "I have always been both fascinated and frightened by underwater environments and creatures." says Andreasson.
Aquatic Adventure takes place thousands of years after humanity has fled Earth, having caused an unknown catastrophe that buried the planet under water. Now, the last human in existence makes the return trip home, piloting a sub on an unknown quest as they travel through the waves. The entirety of the game takes place in these peaceful waters, players piloting their subs through luminescent caverns and pitch-black seas as they search for something unknown.
The developer's fascination helped them create environments that captured the eye and the imagination, designing wonderful places filled with fish and sea life making their homes on the remains of human civilization. "I was really excited about drawing an underwater world because there are soooo many weird things underwater, and I like that everything moves and sort of dances." says Martinovsky. The setting allowed him to create striking life forms, taking special care in how they move as they pass through the water.
That care draws the player's attention out into the world beyond the little sub they control. It becomes less about the player's journey through this place, and more focused on the things they see along the way. The developers worked to create awe in every place, drawing the eye to the harmless sea life as it flits past their ship, or even just to the seaweed that waves as you pass by. The developers want you to savor this journey and its sights.
To this end, combat is minimized. Most of the sea life won't hurt the player's sub on contact, something that may surprise the player when the first huge fish just passes harmlessly by. A few things will do damage to the sub, but the player can't hurt these creatures back, and can only try to dodge around them. Aquatic Adventure isn't about looking at this place and seeing what you can fight in it, but seeing how you can move and coexist within it. You must merge with the place, not exist despite it. It is not the villain, but the star of the game.
"We were pretty set to make the game feel more relaxing than most classic action-adventures since we wanted players to have the time to look at the surroundings and listen to the music and generally explore. You know, take it all in without hoards of generic enemies attacking." says Martinovsky. On a simple level, more enemies would have been a distraction from the visuals they wanted players to see. On another, the enemies take focus off of the place and get in the way of just taking it in.
"I had something more classic in mind at first, but when me and Josef started to discuss we decided to go with the more peaceful approach. I think it fits the theme very well. It really feels desolate and it emphasizes more on the loneliness of being the last of your species." says Andreasson.
That's not to say there is no opposition in the game. "Yeah, I'm really scared of the ocean. However, it's one of those fears that I like to challenge. Every time I'm by the sea or ocean with big waves I want to jump in and fight the water." says Martinovsky. Part of the world's story is how this place is extremely hostile towards human life, passively and actively. This meant some combat needed to be added in, and if the developers were going to do that, they were going to ensure the player felt their fragility and insignificance to this world through it.
Aquatic Adventure's bosses have been designed to crush all but the most careful, determined player. These monstrous creatures require dozens of hits from specific weaponry, but they can kill the player in a few impacts. It takes a long time to whittle these huge beasts down, and all it takes is a wrong move or two for the player to fail. "When facing off against giant sea creatures, it would feel weird (at least for me) if they were easy to overcome. I also think they leave a greater impact for the player if they are challenging." says Andreasson.
"The fact that you die so easily and the threats are so large and deadly increases that theme of fragility without words and art but purely by the gameplay. This makes you *feel* small." says Martinovsky. High difficulty lowers the player's feeling of power over the world. Death comes quickly and easily in Aquatic Adventure, and with that comes that sense of insignificance.
Most of the time, the player's actions are useless gestures against giant beasts that will rip them to pieces with an errant movement. You are not some powerful being in this world, but rather something that can, and often will, be scrubbed from existence on a whim. This is a planet that humans aren't welcome on any more. The opposition the player meets, and how easily their journey can end at their hands, ensures they know that. It's very clear to the player that this planet and its story will go on long after the player's influence on it ends.
Difficulty makes these moments stay with the player, but so does the division between peaceful exploration and combat. With fighting being so infrequent, its importance and danger are intensified. "It's like The Pixies with the song Tame. That song is just super quiet verses and then totally explosive choruses. Those choruses and whispering verses really get imprinted in one's memory and they symbiotically elevate each other." says Martinovsky. "The silence becomes quieter and the screams become harsher. We really wanted to achieve a this polarized, dynamic effect."
With the danger feeling heightened, again, it makes the world and its creatures stand out more than the player. It creates a fear and respect for the world the player inhabits, as it is unclear when one of these powerful beasts will rear up out of nowhere and end the journey. It creates a sense of mortality - that life can end in a single instant, that strengthens that sense of insignificance to the planet's story. The player's tale can end quickly, and the player feels that throughout the game due to that back and forth between peace and war. The player feels how unimportant they are, and fears the knowledge of how disposable they are.
The player's size on the screen implies their importance to the game world as well. When the player sees themselves so small compared to the creature they need to fight, they can internalize their insignificance. Even outside of combat, the sub is a tiny vessel in a large world, drawing on that same polarizing effect. Seeing the character as small makes their presence and impact on the world feel small. On the other hand, the world becomes larger in the player's mind just as it is in their eye. The world is a powerful, beautiful place that was filled with history before the player arrived, and will continue to live on when they're gone.
Andreasson and Martinovsky had a story they wanted to tell as well, but that required a deft touch. "Having a voice-over, or notes that the last human is writing, would put too much focus on a character and less on the actual environment that we wanted to highlight." says Martinovsky. There is a reason as to why the humans have died out, and it is discoverable in the game world. It is not the player's story to tell, so the act of discovering it through the holo tapes made an important distinction.
Had the player character been keeping a journal, it would shift the story to the character's interpretation, turning the focus onto the character instead of the world. A voiced holo-tape would have also given the information a connection to a character and voice. Instead, the silent, written holo-tapes feel like an artifact of a lost age - something gone so long the story belongs to the world itself. It is not about one person's interpretation of history or about a single voice telling its own story, but a varied set of notes and writings that point to a story of why the world is as it is.
This is why the notes tell such varying accounts and come from different perspectives. There is no one person who can account for what has happened. In piecing together the story from various accounts, you still get a clear image of the story the developers wanted to tell, but without a singular focus on any given character. Instead, the pieces form the shape of a large event in the world's history, again putting place in a position to be the main focus of the game. It is the world's story, told through multiple voices.
Games are about players taking action within a created world, though, which can make it difficult to make them feel unimportant in the world or take focus away from them. Their commands are what move the story forward, giving them an undeniable importance to the narrative. If the game world needs you to exist, how would a developer make you feel unimportant?
"You know from the get-go (or from reading the game's title) that there is little hope for humanity. Our focus was rather on the history of human civilization than the last human itself." says Andreasson. Aquatic Adventure is not about the player's character in the world. Even if the player controls the pace of the story through their exploration, the developers have worked to make them feel like visitors in this place rather than its masters.
The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is about a world after humans are long gone. It's about the place we've left behind living on, beautiful and powerful and strong without us. It is a place of life that exists despite us, and even when we're visitors to it again, we're not important. Our trip there isn't the focus. We're simply explorers to a place that doesn't want us any more, and through its design, the game makes sure we never forget that. This world will be all right with us, and it will be fine, and alive, when we're gone.
"The empty cities, and car parks and suburbs are lonely to us in the game because we imagine them having been full of families, movement, and familiarity. When they are stripped of us - the human aspect - they become like hollow rocks - like a part of the fauna." says Martinovsky. "I'm sure there is a lot of life - crabs and small fish and bacteria - living in our ruins. We just need to be reminded that the lack of human life isn't the lack of all life."
The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is available for $9.99 on Steam and Itch.io. For more information on the game and YCJY, you can head to the developer's site or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.