I was playing Aquaria yesterday when my wife Jennifer walked into the room and asked "what's that game?" Now this may seem a trivial question to you, but to me it was a momentous event. I play a *lot* of video games. I don't finish many, and I can't say I enjoy most of them, but I try to keep up with the latest releases as best I can. Despite all the gaming that goes on in this house, Jennifer has never once asked me, "what's that game?"
It gets better. I told her it was an independent game called Aquaria and offered to show it to her. She was interested. Another milestone. I spent five minutes or so swimming around and playing musical notes. She was fascinated. She said she liked the music and the water. At the end I asked her if she was interested in giving it a try...and she said yes. Yahtzee!!
Today I decided to follow up and find out what interested her in Aquaria. Her response was straightforward. "Most games you play all look the same to me. You're looking down from above on some guy running around with a gun. This one is different. I like the way it looks and sounds."
She's casual and I'm hardcore, but her response to Aquaria captures my feeling about this game exactly. I like the way it looks and sounds. I like its style. For lack of a better word, I like its vibe.
So what the heck is vibe, and how do you get it into a game? I think Aquaria has a few valuable lessons.
- One thing you don't need is originality. Aquaria is a clever mash-up of design elements from Metroid, Zelda, Ecco the Dolphin, and the LucasArts adventure Loom. Vibe comes from what you do with these elements - how you spin them to serve your own goals and dress them up in Aquaria clothes. If the spin is clever and fun enough, we'll quickly forgive the derivative design.
- Make your character pop. Aquaria's designers have done many little things to personalize Naija, adding style and flair to her appearance and movement. Color matters in this game, and it's used purposefully. Naija is an aqua-green-skinned elfish girl with white hair. She fits into her underwater environment perfectly, but her hair starkly distinguishes her from other sea creatures, making her seem both of the sea and from outside it. That white hair also makes her easier to track when the action gets frenetic.
When Naija swims, small bubbles trail in her wake, then slowly disappear. As she glides through the water, she sometimes casually pulls one arm behind her head as if striking a pose. Very nice little touch. If you stop moving her, she floats upright in the water, periodically flapping her arms and legs to maintain her position. She blinks her eyes, and her cape subtly waves with the water current. The camera very slowly zooms into her as if to say, "I'm your girl. Let's go."
- Music is key to vibe. Give it a signature. Integrate it with gameplay, if possible, and provide the player some control. Don't just think jukebox. Also think karaoke. Less Final Fantasy cinematic and more Rez interactive. Game music typically conveys mood and environment, underscores action, and establishes locale and character motifs. That's how movies use music too. Video games can do more, and Aquaria is a good example of how that can work.
- If you've created a visual and sonic vibe, be sure to let the player play in it. Aquaria's sumptuous and colorful environments beg to be explored with no pressure to accomplish anything. Naija controls so beautifully--with a mouse, keyboard or gamepad--that there's joy to be had simply swimming around. Let the player soak up the vibe. In my case, I use these playful interludes to make up little tunes with Naija's wheel.
- Use actors who understand the vibe you're going for. In the movies, Cate Blanchett does this better than anyone. She can be soft, imperious, seductive, mysterious--whatever the role requires--and she accomplishes much of this through her voice. In Aquaria, Naija is voiced by an actress named Jenna Sharpe whose characterization is entrancing. Maybe I'm a softy for a breathy English accent, but Ms. Sharpe's evocative rendition fits the world of the game perfectly.
None of this has much to do with level design or narrative or gameplay mechanics. These are competently handled in Aquaria, but they aren't what really matter. What draws you into Aquaria's underwater world and keeps you there--what matters--is the vibe.