Somewhen beyond the Sea

Whenever I get to know someone, I always dread telling them about my passion for video games. This is not because I am ashamed of being associated with the stereotypical gamer, but because explaining what types of game I actually play usually leads to an awkward ramble about “well, all types of games I am interested in”. The short answer is that I like to see weird shit, but you can’t mention that in polite company, and it doesn’t fully explain that my interest in games is, for the most part, not tied to the mechanical frameworks that we named our genres after. In other words: I am not exclusively playing real-Time Strategy or First Person Shooters or Lucas Arts-style Adventure games. Instead, my interest in games more closely follows the thematic genre sensibilities established in other types of literature, such as novels or films. I like Science Fiction, surreal landscapes, wide, open spaces, post-apocalyptic societies, giant monsters, desperate struggles and the search for existential answers. Most of all, however, I enjoy games that carry strong enough themes to stay in my mind for a while.

Aquanox 2: Revelations is one of those games, although I would hesitate to call it a good game. It carries what many would call serious flaws, beginning from the manner in which it tells its story, to the disconnect between setting and game feel and, finally, the rather unfortunate localization. During my sessions with the game, I was tempted to just shut it off and move on to other projects, but something pulled me back in.

That little something is the setting in which Aquanox and its two predecessors take place (Archimedean Dynasty, aka Schleichfahrt in German, and Aquanox). It is the rare and perhaps only example of a post-apocalyptic Science Fiction series that is set underwater, a genre that I would love to call Seapunk if that name wouldn’t conjure garish colors, dolphin clipart and wandering Vaporwave pads.

It is the future, again, and due to pollution, humankind has taken to the seas, or rather, into the seas. While a thick, impenetrable layer of gunk formed on top of the waves, the people of the land started to migrate into stations and cities on the bottom of the sea, building an underwater culture with its own factions, slang and legends.

One of these legends revolves around the Angel’s Tears, a mysterious artifact with undisclosed powers. Many have tried to find it, but all of them have failed. So has the father of the game’s protagonist, William Drake. William has lost his family down in Aqua – his mother to pirates, his grandmother to age, and his father to the search for old artifacts. When he sets out with the family’s last remaining freighter to find his own adventures down in Aqua, he soon realizes that he wasn’t prepared at all for the wild waters. While out in his tiny yellow submarine following a distress call – the oldest trick in the book and never in the history of science fiction a good idea – a colorful crew of pirates, mercenaries and adventurers hijacks William’s freighter. The band’s leader, a bearded, swearing roughneck called Amitab, offers him a choice: prove your worth or, in what might as well be his catch phrase, “shove off.”

William, incredibly naive and wide-eyed as he is, has a hard time finding his place among the crew. Some of them, such as Nat and Animal, appear unapproachable at first, while others immediately show sympathy for William. Stoney Fox, a boasting, fun-loving joker, helps William out on his first mission, while May Ling, a battle-hardened mercenary, immediately seems to be just one step away from tearing off William’s clothes for a bit of the horizontal dance, ultimately leading to a ridiculous plot point (seriously, she betrays the group because William rejects her advances).

Angelina, William’s actual love interest, plays the role of the mysterious, brooding philosopher, and finally, there’s Fuzzyhead, a laid-back, grey-haired mechanic who is a nice change from the usual tool-wielding, techno-babble spouting mechanics found in other science fiction stories.

All together, the individual crew members are barely more fleshed out than the cast of a soap opera. But what they lack in layers, they make up for in representation. Each crew member provides a personal look at the different ways to live life in Aqua. Stoney, for example, just wants to “go with the flow”, May Ling seeks the thrill, and Amitab appears to be clinging to a forgotten ideal of seafaring. They are broad stereotypes, sure, but they allow the writers to paint a varied picture of Aqua and how humankind has adapted to the life aquatic.

Although we experience most, if not all characters in Aqua as rather one-dimensional, dismissing that as nothing more than bad writing might rob us of a deeper truth about them. Questions about authorial intent aside, nobody in Aqua feels like a complete, well-rounded person because nobody in Aqua actually is a complete, well-rounded person. Humankind was forced into the oceans, into an environment that is almost as hostile to the human body as deep space (fitting, as the game design takes so many cues from space flight simulators). People depend on special gas mixes to breathe, artificial light to see and well-constructed walls to shield them from tons of water crushing them under pressure. Nobody can be truly at home here. Therefore, everyone is searching for something to fill that void, be it quasi-religious prophecies, treasure, or adventure. Even more, the people of Aqua seem tired of this life, tired of clinging to these substitute identities, weary of a life that is literally under pressure at all times. Each character shows hope, in more or less subtle ways, that they will find happiness in tomorrow’s battle, in the bars of the next port, or in the discovery of ancient artifacts.

Unfortunately, the actual game can’t hold up with the potential that this theme holds. This is mostly due to the game feel and the presentation of its underwater world. When playing Aquanox 2’s missions, you truly have to squint to accept this game’s claim of taking place at the bottom of the sea. Driving your submarine feels far too direct and controllable, more akin to a sluggish version of the DOS classic Descent than anything you would expect from a submarine. Even the slowest, heaviest boat, the Mighty Maggie, has a hard time of taking you to its world, as it turns faster than you would expect from a thick bomber diving miles below the surface.

In the context of the fast-paced, action-packed shooter that the game clearly wants to be, having fast boats is vital. You have to dodge bullets, plasma bolts and torpedoes, and to be fair, diving through a bullet hell to take out the opposing boat feels incredibly challenging and satisfying. However, when it undercuts the whole atmosphere of the game’s setting, you might begin to wonder if the premise of a “fast-paced underwater first person shooter” was a good idea in the first place.

But not only does the game not feel like actually diving underwater, it doesn’t even look that way. The underwater landscapes are brightly illuminated in a world that is supposed to take place at the bottom of the oceans, yet the view distance reaches way too far into the horizon. In addition, the battles lack the movement that most players might be expecting from other vehicle-based shooters. Since the boats can strafe, dive and rise, you’ll often find yourself locked in face-to-face battles with a single opponent. After a few shots, your opponent will turn around, move to another position, turn around again and then continues shooting from this fixed position. In the end, when hostile ships become bullet-sponges and larger in number, the battles start looking as if someone took all the momentum out of a game such as Star Wars Rogue Squadron – ships standing in the air like hovering UFOs, shooting at each other until one of them either explodes or turns around to change position. These battles look rather unfinished and break the promise of the fast-paced shooter that the cover artwork evokes. In addition, they clash with the other half of the game, ironically elevating the non-interactive dialogues between the missions to the part that I was most looking forward to during my play sessions.

When I first played Aquanox 2: Revelations, it was on the DVD supplement for a German PC magazine that I was reading at the time. It was one of the magazines that had, a couple of years prior, prematurely celebrated Aquanox 2 in previews as if it was the first high quality video game to ever come out of Germany (German video game press likes doing that a lot), only to throw it away on the magazine’s DVD one or two years later. But they were right in a way – Aquanox 2 was a comparatively big budget production, sporting a self-developed engine (that was also used in the Spellforce series, for those two people that care about that fact) and a cast of well-heard German voice actors who usually took on dubbing the voices of Hollywood actors. Listening to Aquanox 2, therefore, was a bit like listening to a movie, or at least a TV show. The production oozed confidence, and as a result, most of the game comes off as sincere, genuinely believing in its characters and its themes.

This confidence in its own storytelling, a confidence that I couldn’t find in the entirety of its gameplay, might be the reason why I didn’t forget about the game. I felt the most immersed in the world of Aqua during the non-combat parts – for example, I always went through the trouble of manually navigating to the ship’s console to bring up the game menu instead of simply pressing the Escape key. I was constantly checking how I would react to my crew in place of William’s naivety. Last but not least, I kept wondering about how life below the surface of the sea could impact human societies, and how it would shape individual, human beings.

Considering how much more diverse and open games have become in their approach to genre, it is really a shame that Aquanox 2: Revelations was released during a time in which your ambitious science fiction world had to be delivered through the action genre. In the end, the game could have had a far more concise form if it had left one of its halves stand for itself – either tell a story about mankind’s future beneath the waves or have a vehicle-based first person shooter.

On the other hand, it might be just the strangeness of this unlikely mix of genres that makes this game so special to me. In other words: I got to see my fair share of weird shit.

Game: Aquanox 2: Revelations
Developer: Massive Development
Year: 2003
Available on Steam, GOG

Favourite characters: Amitab, Fuzzyhead
Favourite submarine: The yellow one, why not

Next time on Press Start to Read: A quick look at Otherland by Tad Williams.

 

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