Water has long been the enemy of many video gaming characters. Sonic would quickly drown when immersed in the wet stuff, the player often just too late to gulp down a life-saving air bubble; Rainbow Islands' heroic Bubby and Bobby were chased up each level by a rising tide; and the drink that surrounded Grand Theft Auto III's Liberty City was so toxic that the game's silent protagonist Claude would lose his health within seconds of submersion.
But not that many games place the oceans at the very centre of their narratives – and that includes underwater affairs like Ecco the Dolphin, BioShock and SOMA, where the seawater is mostly a backdrop for more pressing concerns, be they overthrowing a dystopian despot or rescuing your cetacean pals from Giger-inspired aliens. In new indie game The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human, though, the big blue is absolutely at the core of the story. It's turned from life giver to taker in the wake of a titanic rise in sea level, brought about by climate change. You are the titular human, alone in a new world that's completely unlike the one we know, exploring sub-aqua surroundings full of (occasionally massive and definitely deadly) creatures that have evolved from familiar ocean-faring beings of today.
'The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human', release trailer
The game's premise is that humanity was forced to retreat to cities beneath the sea as a direct result of the rising oceans; and then in 2971, as Earth's resources were dwindling, we sent a number of spaceships through underwater wormholes in search of other habitable planets. The one ship that returned, your ship, Argo9, finds only remains of the human race where once there was society reaching out into the stars – and both what's kept the ship away for so long and the fate that befell the human race is explained as the Metroidvania-styled, retro-aesthetic game plays out, through environmental clues and preserved "holo-tapes".
Sounds cool to me – and it's interesting to see a game so explicitly tackling a serious subject like climate change. The Aquatic Adventure's makers at Gothenburg's two-man YCJY studio, Josef Martinovsky and Christopher Andreasson, tell us a little more about how their new game came to be.
VICE: At the core of The Aquatic Adventure's narrative is a clear comment on climate change – i.e., guys, we've sort of fucked this. Was there a plan for the game's structure in place prior to this being a framing for the story, or did you begin from the point of looking how climate change could affect a future Earth?
Josef: Yeah, that became a big part of it. We began development with an underwater theme and then tried to get the initial gameplay down, and then when it was time to think about the story and the player's journey, it made sense to bring in current issues so that players could relate to the underwater world. However, we don't necessarily mean that we've "fucked this". Since the Industrial Revolution, we've been exponentially ruining the Earth – as our technology also exponentially gets more advanced – but it seems like now there are many attempts towards a more ecological approach. This is something we wanted to highlight – that even though we destroyed so much, we also tried to rectify it and mend the Earth. We are so many and need so much; even if we were all completely green and vegan and whatever, we're just slowing down the process, as if we believe there is another Earth somewhere out there.
Christopher: Climate change came naturally with the post-apocalyptic theme. It's a grim take on how our planet could end up, but we're hoping it doesn't have to be that way. If the game can make people more aware of the environmental issues of the world, that's great! However, that wasn't our primary goal when we decided to make the game. It basically started with us saying, "Let's make a submarine game with cool bosses." I'm happy that these themes came up, though, as we care a lot about the environment.
On those bosses that the player encounters, I've seen previous press coverage of the game comparing it to Shadow of the Colossus, albeit underwater. It also plays out in a 2D, Metroidvania-style. Were these touchstones at the start, or are any parallels merely coincidence?
Christopher: I've always wanted to do a Metroidvania game because I'm a huge fan of both the Metroid and Castlevania franchises (not to mention Cave Story) – so for me that inspiration has been there from the beginning. Josef had the idea of only having boss battles in the game when we first spoke about making it. I was a bit sceptical at first, since I had planned having smaller enemies – but I realised that it would make the game more unique. And, I mean, Shadow of the Colossus is an awesome game, and it really makes this gameplay style shine.
Josef: Yeah, we really like Shadow of the Colossus and were definitely inspired by it, but neither one of us have finished it. I've never played Metroid or Castlevania, but I get the whole Metroidvania genre. I guess we tried to stay a bit away from classifying ourselves as a Metroidvania since it might not be so "classic" in the way we approached it. We're both really big fans of the (Dark) Souls series and have probably been really influenced by them and the way that they were made: they are, in a way, Metroidvania games that don't really feel like one. Oh, it doesn't really classify as "classic", but Teleglitch was really inspirational – at least in the UI and combat. If you haven't played it, I really recommend trying it. It's so difficult though; I've barely gotten halfway through.
Christopher: Yes, the Souls series has certainly been very influential for both of us. I love how those games don't expect the players to be idiots and actually ask them to figure out certain mechanics by themselves, instead of constantly holding their hands or telling them where to go. I hate when games do that. Sometimes when designing a mechanic in the game, I've thought: "Does this need an explanation?" And then I start thinking of Dark Souls and think: "Nah, if people can figure out this or that there, then we won't have to explain this." This might be a lazy habit, but I think it actually adds to the game. At least, it may help to create a community around it. There are some secrets in the game that are very well hidden, which most people probably won't find by themselves.
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The very idea of playing as "the last human" is sort of depressing. What measures have you taken to ensure that the game isn't too much of a downer? Clearly there's a lot of action going on; but will players find light amongst the logs, glimmers of hope in a sea of loneliness?
Christopher: It is a depressing theme for sure, but I wouldn't say the game is that depressing.
Josef: We have some humour hidden away and a lot of bright colours, at least in the beginning. Players probably won't find too much hope since they'll know from the get-go that all other humans have died. So even when humanity was doing well, which it eventually was – and you read about it – you'll know that it didn't last. The fact that everyone is dead isn't meant to be depressing. It's just inevitable, reality. I think that because the waters are brimming with life, player will feel like they're observers of nature instead of feeling lonely – kind of like walking down a city centre street at 2am on a Friday when sober!
Christopher: Yeah, although all the humans are dead, the wildlife is thriving. The player might find some hope that the planet is still there – and it's not like the human race didn't leave a mark. There are ruins of great cities and suburbs, and even some technology that's still working, almost like huge monuments of human brilliance.
Josef: We tried to put a lot of detail into the backgrounds, so that when you're traveling around looking for the next place to go, you'll be guided by curiosity instead of feeling lost and alone – which is kind of the reality of it, though.
What led you to the year 2971? Was that just plucked from the air as a future point that isn't so far ahead of us that it's totally unimaginable, as you can project technological progression to that point? Or did you put some time into researching what scientists are saying about the possible need to live underwater. Not to say they're some sort of soothsaying wizards, but the boy band Busted did sing about living underwater in the year 3000, of course.
Josef: Ha ha! I hadn't heard of Busted, unfortunately. I just read the lyrics and, damn, we should've added a poster in the game for their seventh album. We looked up a lot of articles about the water level rising and predictions of how the Earth will look at different points in time. That mixed with looking at how technology will progress, population increase and how our oil needs will have to change soon, we kind of thought: "Let's pick a year that's close, but nobody alive today will be able to see if we are wrong..." I'm just kidding. In the year 2971, Argo9 gets sent into the wormhole to look for another Earth-like planet we can move to – but since it doesn't return in time, people figure that they have to fix the Earth instead of hoping to just use it up and move on. But yeah, we took inspiration from some articles about the water level rising and just exaggerated it a lot! We don't think the water levels will increase like 2,000 meters in 20,000 years – but it seems that if the overall global temperature increases more, a lot of coastal cities will have huge problems, and a lot of people will lose their homes. Maybe not in our lifetime, but still...
Christopher: Also, Jim Morrison died in 1971. I remember Googling that when we set that date. We had a very good friend named Morrison as well. You can see it as an homage to them both, maybe.
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The game's out now for PC and Mac. If it does well, will you consider console ports?
Josef: Yeah, that'd be awesome. We've gotta talk to Sony about that, I suppose. We've talked about wanting it on Vita, but I have no idea how that works with GameMaker, which it's built in, with performance and all that. And as far as the Xbox One goes, well, we don't even know if they have an indie section.
Christopher: If everything goes well and it's not too much of a hassle – as in making the whole game again – then yes, we'd love it on consoles. I've heard about games made with GameMaker being released on Sony platforms, so that's definitely not impossible. I'd love to see it on as many platforms as possible.
The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is out now. Find more information at the game's official website.
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Topics: Indie Games, Indie Gaming, VICE Gaming, YCJY, The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human, Josef Martinovsky, Christopher Andreasson, Interview, Steam, PC Gaming, Vice vs Video Games, Mike Diver, Metroidvania, pixel art