Aquaria Design Tour

By: Derek Yu

On: January 15th, 2009

Warning: the design tour has quite a few spoilers in it!

David Rosen of Wolfire Games posted his 4th design tour almost two weeks ago, and it’s about a game that I’m pretty familiar with – Aquaria! I’ve already mentioned this to David during our email discussions of the game and his tour, but apologies for not posting it sooner. I wanted to make sure that I gave the tour an adequate mindshare before I posted my response to it. (I’m also slightly hesitant to post news about my own games.)

First things first, I have to be honest and say that I was secretly hoping that David would do a tour of Aquaria, but I wasn’t sure if he had played the game or not. So yeah, I am pretty excited about it, considering the caliber of the other games he’s toured (World of Goo, Knytt Stories, and Gish). Thanks, David!

So anyway, my 2 cents (it’s actually more like a nickel) on his 2 cents:

David has a designer’s view of things, so it’s not surprising that a lot of the concepts he brings up during the tour were on our minds when we were working on the game. Chief among these was the idea of accessibility. Specifically, how much prodding should a developer give to the player to push him or her in the “right” direction, and to prevent them from getting stuck. “Getting stuck” has been anathema to game designers for a long time now, and it’s often cited as a chief reason why the classic point-and-click adventure genre died (in the mainstream industry, at least, but not so much in the indie scene). The holy grail of game design, it often seems, is to craft something that every person in the world can eventually get through and feel good about. And that’s not sarcasm at all – I genuinely believe that that goal underpins a lot of the choices that many designers (including myself) are making when they develop commercial games these days, for better or for worse. The fear, of course, is that if someone gets frustrated with your game or can’t get through it, then they will give the game a low score, they will not recommend it to others, or they will just give up before they get to some of the other goodies you spent a lot of time on.

And that’s something we did agonize over while we were working on Aquaria, and designing its puzzles, controls, and so forth, because it is a game we want people to play and experience fully, and yes, also purchase and feel good about purchasing. In actuality, a lot of the features that David mentions as being “hidden” in the tour (the hotkeys, the map, the hints, etc.) were added later on in the development (many of them as a patch Alec worked hard on after the release) to address those worries. As to why they are hiding in the game, rather than being displayed prominently, well… I think one reason is that we would prefer people to spin by spinning their mouse, sing spells note by note, and place each ingredient by hand, rather than using a hotkey to do it, and we would prefer that people get lost, even, rather than use a map hint. I won’t speak for Alec (even though I think he feels similarly), but I kind of wanted people to live in the game, and maybe even feel bad or bored about it occasionally. This is supposed to be Naija’s life, after all, and even though we didn’t want to make you watch her spend 5 minutes pooping after she eats, we did want you to feel (flashes, at least) of what her life is like, even the more mundane parts.

I’ll be the first to admit that it seems questionable to insert features into the game that you’d prefer the player not use, but in our case, I believe it was the right choice. Partly for the simple fact that it DID alleviate our fears with the game at a time when we were definitely worried that players would find the game too hard or too frustrating (i.e. it gave us more confidence in the game), and partly because people do find them and use them, but generally only if they are having trouble. It’s a bit of a fidgety situation, but I think it works pretty okay for the type of game that Aquaria is meant to be (your mileage may vary). I definitely should have added the hotkeys to the documentation, though – that was an oversight on my part that is easily rectified.

The puzzles – not so easy! The “Song Door” puzzle near the beginning of the game confounded us for a long time. If you had trouble with it now, you should have played its earlier incarnations (but I’m glad you didn’t!). I still feel like it’s a pretty simple puzzle, but I realize that that’s a meaningless opinion to anyone who got stuck on it for a long time. And David’s definitely right that, ideally, if a player comes up with a clever solution that should work within the context of the game, then it should work. I agree completely.

I am really glad David mentioned Alec’s level editor and animation editor, which are an amazing set of tools that we included with the game itself. I don’t think they get enough mention in reviews of the game. That the sprites have a slight “paper doll” quality to them is not ideal (we did try to think of ways around it), but it’s a small price to pay for the ease of the game’s creation (without which the game would not have been completed).

I do wish that there had been more mention of the game’s narrative and what was good or bad about how we executed it, because it’s a major part of the game and there were some interesting design decisions involved (like the use of voice over). But David told me that the original video was around 30 minutes long and he had to cut it down, which I understand. Overall, I, like the designers toured by David before me (that sounds slightly wrong!), am impressed with the things he pointed out and how close to home his observations were. In the end, I think we made the right choices with Aquaria, though it is not a perfect game by any means. But that doesn’t invalidate at all any of the things David pointed out.

Whew, okay, I said a lot more than I was originally intending to. That’s all (for now), and hope that it was somewhat elucidating! Thanks again, David. Looking forward to the next one!

  • rbelmont000

    I really enjoyed his video tour of this and World of Goo. I thought he was right about some things, but the concept of having a game that anyone can beat doesn’t sound appealing to be. But I do agree that having multiple, clever ways to beat puzzles is the way to go. His playtesting idea was really cool and I think more devs should keep that in mind.

    Also, I don’t know how often you get asked this or if you ever get asked this or if you’ll kick me out of the internet for asking this, but is there any chance of Aquaria being released on Wiiware? I loved the PC demo, but I never bought it because I never play through longer games on my PC.

  • John Evans

    >The holy grail of game design, it often seems, is to craft something that every person in the world can eventually get through and feel good about. And that’s not sarcasm at all – I genuinely believe that that goal underpins a lot of the choices that many designers (including myself) are making when they develop commercial games these days, for better or for worse. The fear, of course, is that if someone gets frustrated with your game or can’t get through it, then they will give the game a low score, they will not recommend it to others, or they will just give up before they get to some of the other goodies you spent a lot of time on.

    Hell yes, preach on.

  • Joseph

    I should buy this game…

  • Eclipse

    “I never play through longer games on my PC.”

    you failed at gaming D:

  • alspal

    It was good to see Derek’s opinion on David’s opinion.

  • deadeye

    I can see the point about the door puzzle, but having spent the better portion of my life as a Zelda fan I can safely say that I knew when I saw that door that there would be a method to open it somewhere further along in the cave. It’s a pretty standard action/adventure trick. But yeah, for someone unfamiliar with the language of these kinds of games I can see how some might get frustrated.

    Also: “we didn’t want to make you watch her spend 5 minutes pooping after she eats”

    …well, you’d be surprised what people want to see :P Have you seen the internet? It’s crazy.

  • neil

    if the story and narrative (which you are quite rightly proud of) are so important then allowing the player to experience aquaria in full should be essential. getting stuck and frustrated with a game disrupts its flow and is likely to result in players giving up – therefore, never experiencing everything it has to offer.

    adding more guidance or help throughout the game is the trend these days. people have less and less leisure time and require more hand holding – fable 2 and prince of persia are good, recent examples of this.

  • anon

    Hi Derek,

    I’m sure what you wrote is reasonable, but I can’t think of a good reason why it’s on the front page of Tigsource. I come here for news about indie games, which Aquaria is.. But David’s design tour is essentially just a review (albeit very good), making your “news” post just a response to a review. It’s easy to assume that your response was posted here because you feel defensive because it’s your game, and you put it where most people would see it. I know you don’t agree. But that’s what it looks like from here.

    You could have posted your opinion on your own site, or Bit-Blot, or the forums, or the comments, or David’s website – all of which would have been better choices than the front page of this site. It’s a bit self-indulgant. I don’t mean any offense, I just hope you’ll consider this in future.

  • shinygerbil

    I’m sure as soon as his next TIGSource paycheck rolls in, he’ll get right back to scouring the internet for wonderful indie games *just for you.* To save you the trouble.

    Oh, hold on a minute.

  • mofo of toast

    I never actually got past the “song door”

    *looks uncomfortable*

  • Alex May

    anon: Hmm, well the reason he posted it up was due to criticism for NOT having posted it :) As rinkuhero pointed out before, Derek hasn’t posted about his own work very much in the past, so you can hardly accuse him of using the blog to benefit himself.

    Derek: You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t :)

    mofo of toast: You should persist at least until you get some offensive weaponry, IMO – it gets a whole lot more entertaining after that. There’s a bit of a preview of that in the introduction sequence but it’s not really enough to give you a good idea of it.

  • renkin

    I actually think you should have gotten rid of the song/spin hotkeys and balanced the difficulty according to that. After finding the hotkeys, it just feels stupid to use the much less convenient mouse method. It’s like telling a Star Craft player not to use the hotkeys. That being said, however, I bought the game, finished it, and liked it!

  • Derek

    anon, I don’t consider David’s design tours to be “just reviews.” They are analyses of the design choices of popular indie games by a professional game developer, which I think is pretty newsworthy. And I’ve also already posted 3 of these…

    This is a site about indie games that’s run by an indie game developer. What I feel I can bring to it that’s different from other news sites is my perspective as a developer. I believe that when David records his tours, that’s the value he feels he adds to them that separates them from regular “reviews.”

  • Hauke

    I haven’t found the hotkeys until I almost finished the game. And I never looked for them either. I liked the idea of Naija transforming after singing a certain song. After someone told me about the hotkeys I tried using them but wasn’t as satisfied with them. In my opinion you could’ve just left them out.

    About the whole puzzle thing… I feel a bit so/so about it. The door one was a nice puzzle which need a bit of brains, but wasn’t frustrating at the same time – I liked it. The advanced version of the huge sunken city door was also still fair enough, even though more work needed to be done…

    However, the whole how-to-get-through-the-abyss thing was pretty frustrating… I got to the abyss far earlier than to the sun temple, the kelp forest and mithalis. And I really used songs controlling the fish to light my way through the abyss – always ending up at the right places, but being blocked by steam. And at the time it seemed like there has to be a solution somewhere close, so you swim around, always trying to keep those fish, and explore the whole abyss with some cheap light source, eventually being eaten by those weird monsters coming out of nowhere (first the fish, then yourself)… Good thing I like the music from that part so much, but really, some blocking mechanism which needed to be unlocked with your sun ability (at least half way through the abyss) would’ve been nice…

    This was really the only thing I disliked about Aquaria, though. I love exploration in games, and Aquaria has a lot of that, mostly without being unfair! Cool!

  • PHeMoX

    *The holy grail of game design, it often seems, is to craft something that every person in the world can eventually get through and feel good about.*

    While I agree that it is tempting to think like that, I personally think ‘every person in the world’ should maybe not be able to get through my games when it comes to actual game design choices, genres and what not.

    I’m thinking about certain overly accessible but fun games now. But also the kind that is vulnerable, these games can get boring quite fast for people looking for more depth.

    I think fun should be the primary goal and the game definitely should be worth it’s money as far as the fun most people would have goes, but I wouldn’t mind if only 2-10% makes it to the ending credits screen, as long as 90% gets at least like half-way through.

    I think developers should use all sorts of tricks to keep people playing if they had fun the first few levels. Perhaps make sure that there are some ‘cliffhanger’-like experiences along the way. I would try to make a game ever more interesting the closer to the end with an appropriate grand finale.

    I would still totally chose for a gameplay approach of increasing difficulty. Weaker players might otherwise continue where experienced gamers might get bored.

    Of course, preventing the weakest players from giving up while keeping the game challenging is probably the hardest part, but isn’t it just normal to expect a certain amount of experience before you are able to play through any game entirely?

    Think of it like this. Instead of virtual XP points to upgrade characters in an artificial way, game developers generally should do more with the actual experience players build up throughout a game.

  • PHeMoX

    I guess this sounds a lot like wanting everyone to be able to play through, but I’m against these games trying to ‘adapt the AI to the experience’ of players or crazy stuff like that.

    I just think a well balanced challenging enough but fun game will inevitably mean some people will not be able to play through entirely.

    If rewarding play-time only is the only way we can balance out an actual gaming experience for everyone, then I don’t think games will ever reach a certain ‘next level’ of maturity.

    Still, I would agree the old days of sadistic difficulty levels for elite-only gamers are over.

    Just my 2cts.

  • Supermansnavallint


    I’d have to disagree… David’s design tours point out many technical aspects of the games that have been covered thus far which the average player probably didn’t realize or even notice. He’s basically taking the game apart in layers as a developer, not as a critic. He does point out critical areas of the games that either work well due to their layout or the opposite, where the game may be lacking or could possibly use different developing strategies to help mold the game into a more cohesive package. That’s partially just my opinion but I think it holds water when you step back and watch them for what they are. The videos aren’t redundant like a video review (which 99% of all video reviews are). I think David’s videos provide some thoughtful insight behind the development aspects of the games he covers. They’re interesting if nothing else.


    This goes to you and Alec — Don’t ever make those horrible mistakes in development ever again! We expect perfection, nay, we demand it! It’s the year 2009, if we can create genetically enhanced lion/horse/hippogryph guard animals, then you can sure do us a favor and get your games straightened out…

    Of course I’m being totally sarcastic and would just like to say that I really enjoyed (still enjoying it) Aquaria and still think that as far as action adventure games go it’s quite a feat in indie game design.

    To be honest, indie games just keep getting better and better. Even the freeware action adventure games are becoming superior to the great games we used to play on the old Nintendo and the SNES and Genesis. I think that’s a huge compliment and I was glad to see that David had covered a freeware indie title (Knytt Stories) because it and games like it (small, free, but highly enjoyable) deserve the friendly analysis and coverage.

    Anyway, keep the Design Tours coming to TIGSource because I think it’s an appropriate place to bring them and that only brings more attention to David’s interesting tours of these games.


  • Gravious

    I found it interesting to hear Dereks response to the design critique, not least because it was considered and polite, but i think the thing we have to take away from this is that everyone has an opinion of how games should work, David is particularly effective at putting his opinions forward and as a game creator himself, he has an insight into design that many wouldn’t have thought of.

    Of course, so has Derek, and Derek may be a little close to Aquaria to take all the bruises with a smile, but i admire his take on Davids take.

    Personally, i found the demo not to my taste despite being of obvious incredible quality, i just couldn’t get hooked in, perhaps if i make the effort to try it again, I’ll find my way.. i want to :)

  • Eddie

    His design tours are always so mellow sounding. I always have the impression that he’s somewhat stoned. Maybe it’s just me.

  • Elvis Brevi

    cool graphics and gameplay.

  • Supermansnavallint


    Everyone knows that the actual game developers and people who actually do work in the gaming industry (the people who actually do the work on video games – not the bloody journalists) don’t get stoned… I mean aside from getting high off of computer monitor radiation… and perhaps mutating a bit from said radiation… aside from that they are perfectly normal, disfunctional human beings, like the rest of the human race.

    If anything I think the viewers and listeners are the ones that become STONED by watching and listening to his videos…

    Of course I jest…

    I think he (David) is just being himself and trying to sound clear and be as concise and to the point as possible…

    but who knows… maybe he smokes a mail-bag amount of marry-jane before each video.

    Does it matter?

  • Valkyrie

    In the very beginning of the game, I wished the entire game was swimming around and solving puzzles. I grew to like the combat, though. If I ever did get bored with Aquaria, I’d just have Najia sing impromptu harmony/melody to whatever music was playing, also a glorious time-waster in Ocarina of Time.

    Sure it had its lacking bits (I did what Hauke above did with leading the fish with song in the Abyss, which especially sucked when those damn glowy, transparent things ate them.), but I thought this was a great game.

  • Jad

    Anon: Sorry for being late to the party but in my opinion, you’re missing the point.

    This is not explicitely a news site for indie games. This is a blog where the owners of the sites post stuff about indie gaming that they find relevant and sometimes even offer their own opinions.

    For me, this is a prime example of what TIGsource is all about. Not only the design tour, but some good reasoning and retrospective from one of the game designers themselves.

    You really don’t want this on TIGsource? You just want ‘play this game, it’s new!’ posts? Err. I guess some of us do! O:

  • x_x

    This reminds me that I really need to finish playing Aquaria, because it seems like I didn’t even experience most of what he was talking about in the design tour and I had played for at least a couple of hours.

  • Samuel l. Jackson

    But what we really fucking want are the motherfucking sale stats.

  • Samuel l. Jackson


  • Anon

    Hi Jad, thanks for replying :)

    “This is not explicitely a news site for indie games. This is a blog where the owners of the sites post stuff about indie gaming that they find relevant and sometimes even offer their own opinions.”

    If that’s true then I guess I had no reason to feel uneasy about Derek posting this one.

    But still – and this might answer your last question – yes, I would rather not see this on Tigs when both Bit-Blot and Derek have their own blogs. For example, you might notice that Kyle Gabler posted a response to the World of Goo Design Tour on David’s blog, and it didn’t hit the front page of this site.

  • Derek

    Thank you for your sharing your thoughts, but I think your request is unreasonable.

    You’ll notice that I hid my response under a jump. It’s really easy to not read it if you don’t want to. Just don’t click on the link that says “Read more…”

    And FYI, if you click the link to the comments, it zaps you right past my response and straight to the comments.

    I made it perfectly easy for you to not read my response, while allowing people who did want to read it to read it. There’s nothing more left to discuss on this issue.

  • Switch0025

    I’m glad David added the cons to his design tours. It really improves them overall.

  • Jad

    Anon: Well, that’s err… reasonable reasoning! Haha, but yeah. I enjoyed it, you could live without it, it’s cool :D

  • Supermansnavallint

    Yeah Derek! Right on! FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT!!! Ban that bitch anon!!!

    Okay, now that I got that outta my system (and yes it’s a joke), I think it’s safe to say most of the people that have responded don’t mind and appreciate having David’s videos shown here… yes, even when they’re about a game that has been developed by someone who participates (and even administrates this site). I see it as no big-E since it’s relevant and interesting.

  • Alex May

    Shouldn’t it be “navel”?

  • Supermansnavallint

    @Alex May,

    Indeed it should. I was waiting for someone to notice. Unfortunately we can’t go back an edit our posts so the name sticks… until a new comment thread has started. :)

  • eobet

    This video actually made me want to buy the game for the first time.

    But I still can’t, because I do not like the art direction. It’s just too depressing for me.

  • eobet

    Crap. Ignore the above comment.

    I thought I was watching the World of Goo video for some reason.

    I already bought Aquaria twice. Once for PC and once for OS X.

  • Paul Eres

    World of Goo has a depressing art direction?

  • Skofo

    “It’s not a flaw, it’s a feature!”

  • Lyx

    interestingly, even though i have a strong designers and accessibility POV as well, i agree with most of Dereks explanations of why things were done the way they were done (except perhaps movement and song keys – there are situations in the game, where “manual singing” is simply too slow… so i ended up using a mix of both… singing manually when speed wasn’t an issue, but using hotkeys when i had to react quickly).

    I especially agree with Dereks view about “living” in that world. I actually enjoyed that aspect more, than “completing the game’s goals” – to the point, that sometimes i would intentionally not further the progress of the game, but just “play around” in the gameworld a bit.

    One thing about Aquaria in which i do however disagree with the developers and most of its fans, IS the “narative of the game”. I strongly disliked how overly “emotional” the story was told – especially the voice acting. It simply felt way exaggerated to the point, that i disabled dialoges and voice acting, because it was ruining an otherwise great experience. Ironically, that to me didn’t even take something away from the game, but actually added something, because the various scenes in the game are expressive enough to speak for themselves, without any dialogue necessary. So, this much hyped aspect about aquaria is actually something, where IMO less would have been more.