Eater of Trees

Review: Aquaria

Posted on: January 8, 2011

Short version: The game is pretty good, beyond one plot point that I really hated and wasn’t very well done at all.  Also it stars a woman without much sexism, so that always helps. (Yes my review mostly focuses on the sexism there is, what, did you think I’d ignore every little fault?)

Beyond lie spoilers.  For pretty much everything.  So go play the game first, if you want to.

Okay, before I get into the inevitable dozens of ways the game fucked up, because they always do, I’ll get out of the way the fact that this game is awesome.  More or less.  It stars a woman, and you get to kill God. …well not God exactly, more like the demiurge.  But still.

Now for the expounding on everything I didn’t like.  First off, Li.  You more or less bump into him swimming around near the surface (or, since we’re underwater in this game, it gets called the Veil), follow him back to his cave and then SUDDENLY: KISSING.

There’s a tiny bit of foreshadowing that this will happen earlier, but it’s still completely out of nowhere and undeveloped.  Li literally says nothing the entire game.  A lost memory you recover later (or possibly earlier, but I didn’t do the things in that order) indicates this isn’t the first time you’ve encountered him, but that still means that we basically have a romantic relationship in this game that practically falls out of the sky (perhaps literally since it’s implied he’s from a floating city).  And the love interest character isn’t established at all.

He does later on play a slightly important role in the plot, which mostly involves you having to rescue him, and then doing some weird merging thing with him so you can clear past some obstacles in the Creator’s stomach and then kill him.  And there’s a sort of implication that your relationship with him is part of why you are willing to attack the Creator or something.  Because the fact that he’s trying to mind control you into being his lover and has already committed genocide on like, every race you encounter is not enough.

And the part I found especially creepy is it felt to me like this was probably a thing stuck in the game because the character was a strong independent woman (it may have been designed from the beginning with this in mind, but the complete lack of characterization on Li’s behalf makes it feel really tacked on.) and of course women need to be in relationships with men. :\  (And of course, his presence alone makes the game pretty heteronormative.)

To be fair, the plot never centers around him, so it isn’t like he’s sidelining Naija or anything.  And he gets stuffed in the fridge twice and you have to rescue him, so it really can’t be seen that he’s making her weaker or anything.  But it still feels like he’s tacked on for no purpose but to make sure the protagonist has a man, and for the obligatory babies at the end.  (And seriously, making the reward for adventuring women always be settling down and having babies is a pretty creepy thing too.  This is far from the only work that does that.)

So that was the one thing that particularly bothered me.  And, to be completely fair, this really mostly stems from how poor the characterization was.  Really, your mother shows up only in the last scene after the denouement and is a more interesting character than him.  If he were actually a character and not just another pet to shoot monsters for you, it would probably come off as much less problematic.  (The baby thing I stand by, though.  It’s way too common and would probably be a bit creepy even if Li were a character and not a pet.)

Anyway, enough on that point, on to the other points.  The clothing in general didn’t bother me.  It wasn’t exactly not sexualized, but it didn’t seem that overdone, especially when taking into account that the men of Naija’s species, when they show up, wear significantly less.  …except one of the costumes you could find seemed to have no purpose besides being as revealing as possible.  So yeaaaah….

Everyone in the game is white, so no inclusion on that front.  As I mentioned already, the plot is pretty heteronormative, and there’s certainly no covering of trans issues.  It might be possible that Li never speaking–which seemed like it was supposed to be caused by the fact that he was from beyond the Veil and thus didn’t naturally breathe water, and thus couldn’t speak under water–could be interpreted as disability, but I’m not particularly sure how well that works.

The game itself had a couple bits that were slightly more frustrating than they should’ve been because I’m color blind, and it uses color coded symbols for song notes, but the symbols also usually used in accompaniment with the symbols and notes, which did help a lot.  Though the pods that you had to sing to open almost always required some trial and error to open.

There were a few jumping puzzles that were really obnoxious, though those were all optional, and I found the jumping bits other then in the three spots were actually pretty entertaining.

The secret ending bothered me a bit.  Specifically the fact that it seemed to set up, for the sequel, that Naija has been kidnapped and needs to be rescued.  By her son.  Which would be one of those plots I really hate.  Alas.  Your mother, however, was a pretty interesting character.  And I really liked her voice.  But she was introduced practically out of nowhere as a sequel hook, which didn’t seem particularly well done.  And, you know, half the reason I played this game was because it had a female protagonist, so setting up the sequel to possibly not is not making me particularly optimistic.

Anyway, other than all that, the game was pretty well done.  Despite my review mostly focusing on the things that bothered me, some of which were really nitpicky, the game was really good.  Unless you’re looking for lesbianism or POC, anyway.  (Though the energy form sort of looks the part for the former…)

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4 Responses to "Review: Aquaria"

I felt the same way about the ending. She really wants to go on more adventures but BABIES! Then you mom shows up and brain wipes you.. AGAIN! Which means your now memory-less and *gasp* vulnerable. Though at the end I thought it was Li going after you not the son (of course it’s always a MALE child. A female child would mean she’d want to be just like her mother…)

The person seemed shorter and had a different hairstyle than Li, so I took it as the son.

And I totally missed that the memory wiping was probably setting her up to be “vulnerable” again in the sequel. Crap, even more reasons to be wary of it.

Last I heard there isn’t actually going to be a sequel anyway, because the rights to Aquaria are equally shared between two people and they’ve gone off in separate directions to work on other projects.

I certainly agree about the romance being unsatisfying. At the same time I’ve also seen people complain if adventuring women DON’T get a married-happily-ever-after because they think it’s suggesting that strong women don’t deserve love, or that men will always reject successful women, or something. So I’d rather protest that I don’t like the way the romance was handled in this particular game rather than put a ban on adventures leading to settling down; some people do want that.

That’s a reasonable stance to take as well; I’m more bothered by the fact that it always leads to stopping adventuring and babies than that it necessarily involves long term relationships. Long term relationships would be completely okay, except that if they’re tacked on it really looks like you just added it so there would be a romance in the story because that’s obligatory. And sticking a tacked on relationship with a man when your protagonist is female really sort of implies that women exist to be in relationships with men. Which isn’t helpful. Though that concern would probably go away if the relationship didn’t feel tacked on.

Also I’m not proposing a ban on it; I could definitely see ways in which that plot could be done well. Also I’m not entirely sure how just leaving out any sort of romance would imply anything particularly problematic. It’s not like there would be any men that would at all be worth having relationships with in that game besides Li. Having relationships in the story that always fall apart, that I could see being an issue. See, ie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where at least one of the relationships explicitly fell apart because her boyfriend was frustrated with her being strong.

(And the other examples that come to mind which involve babies at the end and seem creepy for it the relationship–or lack thereof–doesn’t feel tacked on. The babies, however, do. And it’s not like the “women must have babies” narrative exists and is seriously problematic. Long term birth control is like, nearly impossible to get because of it.)

Also I have to admit, tacked on heteronormativity really bothers me, probably at least partially for the simple reason that I’m mostly not hetero. And that queer erasure is really rampant, and games get praised for inclusivity when they still are locking out romance subplots by gender. Again, if it were well written I could probably accept it, for the obvious reason that most women aren’t gay, and presumably they want representation too.

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