2016 had a lot of great video game releases; too many to count, in fact. But, one release that stood out as a hidden gem was a curious indie title, The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human, by a relatively unknown team called YCJY. As it turned out, the ominously atmospheric looking underwater adventure was a brutally challenging boss rush with exploration elements; an exhilarating journey that presented preexisting video game concepts in YCJY’s own unique, new light. The game, their first big release, came after a string of projects the pair had collaborated on, including Keep Walking EP, the positive reception of which was instrumental in the creation of Aquatic Adventure, which involved a Kickstarter that reached its funding goal.
The Sweden-based YCJY is comprised of two friends, Christopher Andreasson (designer, programmer) and Josef Martinovsky (designer, artist), and I had the pleasure of hosting a conversation with both of them regarding Aquatic Adventure, their influences, and ongoing projects.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity)
GS (GoombaStomp): To start off, what exactly was it that got you two started on or led up to The Aquatic Adventure?
CA (Christopher Andreasson): I think what one huge part of it was that we were both having…really nothing to do. We were living together and… neither of us had any jobs, and we had a lot of time together. And since Keep Walking went…better than expected, we just did it for fun, we just did it for fun, like a small thing. And we had some articles and stuff written about us, and we were thought: wow, it actually became something. So, I guess it is a combination of not having stuff to do and that reaction for something we made, and that was just a fun little game jam we decided to have together while we were studying…
JS (Josef Martinovsky): Yeah, it wasn’t even a game jam. We were just hanging out and wanted to make a game where someone was walking around, just in Christopher’s room. That was the whole thing, why and how it started to make [The Aquatic Adventure] but…that was just about how we started making games at all, like bigger games. I guess Aquatic Adventure was ’cause Christopher wanted to make an underwater game. And sort of a “Metroidvania“, and I thought that was fun as well, so we kinda went with that. I think the whole beginning part was trying to get the water to look nice and to like anything, to look like water at all-
CA: And from the start, we didn’t want to make like a huge, real game. We just started work on something and then it became bigger and grew and grew. Suddenly we had to start our own company and stuff so…
JS: It’s the classic thing, you know, when you make something, you just say, “oh it’s just gonna take a few months, this will be easy–we’ll make a small game and we’ll have like a boss or something. But then, oh wait, this will cool if we had this boss, and what if he had this boss, and what if we made it go around this way and the story is this”, etcetera etcetera. So, it eventually got to a whole game.
GS: The Aquatic Adventure obviously has a theme of a sunken Earth and mutated fish, and the last human coming back. What was it that inspired that? Was it something personal, with a personal meaning, or was it just an interesting backdrop for a game?
CA: I think it was Planet of the Apes.
JS: Yeah, I think Planet of the Apes was the main inspiration of the guy coming back to Earth and seeing like a changed Earth.
CA: We were talking about making a submarine game before that, but we had one night where we just watched Planet of the Apes, and then we decided it would be cool if we could apply the Planet of the Apes thing to this game. And when you have a post-apocalyptic setting, where the Earth is flooded, all the environmental stuff just comes with it. It was never an intention for us [for it to be about the environment].
JS: Yeah, it wasn’t from the start, but since it matters to us both, to all of us, we just decided we wanted to have kind of a, some kind of talk, say something, about the environment we were hearing about constantly on social media and on the internet and blogs and everything around us. Just, it seemed like at that time, especially it was a lot about the environment and what we’re doing [to it] and all that. So, we just decided to go with that.
GS: So, to take that theme and push it to the sci-fi level.
JS: Yeah, exactly
GS: It’s funny that you guys mention Planet of the Apes because I have in my notes in front of me that I was going to mention it. Since as someone who is a fan of even the bad Planet of the Apes sequels to the original, yeah, it made sense.
CA: It was lots of it, that we watched.
CA and JS: [Both laugh]
GS: How much of [Planet of the Apes] influence do you think it’s fair to say went into the end product?
CA: I think it’s just the premise of the game that’s Planet of the Apes inspired. We’re not huge fans of Planet of the Apes per say. It’s a great movie, but I wasn’t thinking of it when I was developing the game, more than the intro.
JS: The intro was kind of the main thing.
CA: And, also, we have this old sci-fi vibe theme and everything. More of it was Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea…that’s a bigger one. Obvious reference: we have a giant octopus. So, those kinds of old sci-fi books. Also, the title [The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human], a complaint is that it’s too long but, it’s on the lines of those of those books, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, and titles like that.
GS: You can’t make a game like this without referencing Jules Verne.
JS: We tried to stay away from the whole steampunk Jules Verne thing. I don’t really like that and I don’t think Christopher likes it either. And so, a lot of the look wasn’t Planet of the Apes, it was more kinda the Star Wars, Judge Dredd stuff. Big building and harsh blocky slums…
GS: I have to ask, the Magnetic Fields’s song “All the Umbrellas in London” –was that a tongue-in-cheek reference, or was that something stuck in your head or…?
CA: I love The Magnetic Fields. It’s fun that you actually picked up that reference. I think Josef wrote like 90% of all the audio logs for the game. And we needed some more, and I think I added a few of them. I was listening to a lot of Magnetic Fields at that time. I think the author name is like Methin Serritt or something like that; it’s Stephin Merritt. I thought it would be a fun reference, and fun if anybody got it. But it fits, right?
JS: Yeah, it fits with the…
CA: And I also can’t remember it but I remember it fit well, like the theme.
JS: [quoting the song] “All the umbrellas in London couldn’t stop this rain”.
CA: It seems like it’s a nice reference, and a nice little, “here, we like this music”. And also, it incidentally fits the theme of the game.
GS: In Steam reviews, I have noticed some complaints regarding the difficulty of the game, though personally, I think the difficulty is fair. But, since there is that conversation, what is your take on all that?
JS: I think we’re both a little split on this one, cause I think maybe it’s a bit too hard. I think Christopher says it’s fine.
CA: I think it’s harder than we might have intended for the get-go but I mean, the people who like the game actually like that it’s hard. Then, obviously, there are gonna be people that don’t like that it’s hard.
JS: I think the whole thing came from the fact that we kinda made it seem a little bit, maybe, I’m not sure, made it seems like it’s a kinda serene experience. That has all these calm parts where you’re not actually fighting; there’s nothing really going on except listening to music, and traveling and exploring. I think some people came in with that expectation. And then from the first boss, you’re getting pounded to the ground and destroyed immediately.
CA: Yeah, yeah, that could definitely be…
JS: From there, they’re just like, “Oh, what the fuck is this”, “it’s so hard, it’s impossible, what do they expect?” But then, you get those people who kinda know it’s a game that is supposed to be difficult and it’s supposed to be a challenge throughout it. And then you have these moments of quiet, and get that, like, what’s is called….?
CA: Yeah, it’s hard to convey that.
[JS talking to CA]: What was that word? The difference…?
CA: The contrast?
JS: The contrast, there we go. When people get that contrast it makes more sense and say, “alright, cool”. And not just expecting quiet and not just expecting-
CA: It might be true, it might have been like… looked upon as more of an exploration-focused game. Which it is but it’s also very intense with bosses.
JS: Exactly. Yeah, it’s both. We wanted to do that. That was our, exactly what we were going for.
CA: And that was nothing we even questioned during development. We were just like, that’s just how the game will work. So yeah, I can understand that people get disappointed that it’s too hard but, it’s not for them.
GS: Well, you guys definitely have a niche covered considering that games like Super Meat Boy and the Souls series, they’re very popular. There are definitely people out there looking for a challenge.
CA: I think those people are the ones who enjoyed the game the most.
JS: Maybe it’s too slow for Super Meat Boy fans.
CA: We can kinda blame Dark Souls a little bit for the difficulty because a lot of the times were like, maybe this is too hard, but then, “Ah, but in Dark Souls they did this, so people are fine with it”. We played a lot of those games when we were [working on The Aquatic Adventure].
JS: It was Bloodborne and Dark Souls the whole time, so yeah.
GS: You mentioned the “Metroidvania” genre that the game is grouped in, and Destructoid called your game “Shadow of the Colossus of the sea”. Do you think those comparisons are fair, or do you see them as limiting?
JS: I think the Shadow of the Colossus one is fair, that’s kinda where we took the whole boss thing from.
CA: With it only being boss fights…that’s pretty much there that they got it from.
JS: We honestly hadn’t played Shadow of the Colossus when we made the game. We just knew it only had bosses so were like, “Oh wait, that’s kinda cool, let’s do that too”. And then the “Metroidvania” thing… we were kinda against it because we don’t really feel like it is a Metroidvania…
CA: Ah, it is Metroidvania but also all of the games that are 2D and have exploration, and a map, are automatically called Metroidvania. I mean, if that’s what defines the genre, then yeah, it’s a Metroidvania. But, I feel like Metroidvania is a genre that’s like “FPS”; that’s a genre based on what perspective you perceive the game in. I feel like the more important genre is, is it a horror FPS? Or is it action…. or multiplayer FPS? Those are the keywords that describe the game other than the perspective which it’s perceived in. I think Metroidvania is pretty much the same thing. It is pretty vague in describing what the game is. And also, people, when they see Metroidvania they want… like, a Metroid? or Castlevania?
JS: Yeah, they want that Axiom Verge, a more classic take on it. As if, like, someway of re-doing the past, those kinda games. And doing it in the same way with a lot of upgrades and a lot of the same. Not backtracking and everything kinda connects to this…and you have to open these secrets and all that. So, we were kind of doing that but our goal wasn’t to make a Metroidvania for the fans of Metroidvania.
CA: It is a Metroidvania, you can’t argue with that.
JS: It is.
CA: But to answer your question, yeah, I think it can be a little limiting, in how the game is perceived. But we can’t…. I love Metroidvanias.
[JS talking to CA]: There’s… that’s kinda what you always say that Dark Souls is a Metroidvania.
CA: Yes, it’s like a 3D Metroidvania.
JS: And it’s so true, it is! It’s so cool that it actually works as that. As a different perspective, as well.
CA: But then, it’s the question, what is a Metroidvania?
JS: But it’s not called a Metroidvania, and that’s what you were saying.
CA: It’s only because [Metroidvania] is 2D.
GS: What was the most challenging aspect of putting out Aquatic, as indie devs?
JS: ….I would say it was pretty difficult doing the Kickstarter. That was a pain in the ass.
CA: Yeah, it was. It really was.
JS: It was. It was good that we did it, we needed it obviously, we used the money really well. I don’t think we would have gotten the same…if we didn’t have the money to use from the Kickstarter, which then led up to us being able to use it for a promotional…or a P.R. company. And since we used the P.R. company, it kind of took away or alleviated all that stress and…
CA: …. just focus on making the game.
JS: Yeah, exactly.
CA: The fact of being just two people, I think the hardest thing could be for me, as a programmer, it’s knowing that I can’t…I mean, if I can’t do this, it won’t happen. [laughs] I always have to adapt and I can’t really…lie or have someone code for me, I had to figure everything out. That can be hard, but it’s also very fun, I think. It would be even harder for me to work together with another programmer, I think. To cooperate. I prefer being like, alone in that sense…. does that make any sense?
GS: Yes, it does.
GS: You guys have a bunch of projects right now. I saw [on your itch.io page] SEASALT, Banana Boy, Keep Driving….do you guys see any of these projects reaching the same level as Aquatic Adventure, or are these just fun things you like working on?
JS: Well, SEASALT and Banana Boy, they’re just fun things. Some summer thing. I don’t know.
CA: Yeah, [Banana Boy] was for a game jam.
JS: Yeah, and we just wanted to put it up. Cause we wanted to figure out and just know how it works with Android and all that, and it was a kind of test for that. SEASALT, we just thought it was a fun game…and like we wanted to take it a little bit further. So, we’re just working on that now during the summer.
CA: That was also made in a game jam. So, the original game…. I think it was made in 24 hours.
JS: Yeah, 24 hours. So, we just thought, “Alright, this was good”. So, let’s keep working on that for a bit. But, Keep Driving is what we are aiming for. That’s our big thing.
CA: I think it’s gonna be…
JS: …much bigger….
CA: A much bigger of a project, for sure.
GS: Would you consider it a sequel to Keep Walking EP?
JS: It is like…a spiritual sequel to Keep Walking.
JS: It doesn’t… it’s not like a real sequel. Maybe it’s set in the same world. Probably not because they look different. But it’s, I don’t know, it’s the whole vibe of something that we’re more…we can relate to more.
CA: It feels like our- like we want that game more to be… it fits more with our vision of what games we want to make. Not that we want to throw away Aquatic Adventure. It was super fun and it’s very us. But, I feel like Keep Driving, at least for me, I can’t say for both of us, it seems more important in a way.
JS: Yeah, it definitely feels a lot more difficult to make, as well. So, it’s a much stronger like, a deeper process. In that sense, it will be a much bigger release, as well.
GS: As a parting question, would you say that developing Keep Driving is a lot more difficult because it’s something that you really want to do well?
JS: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I think Aquatic was definitely…we just kinda kept growing with it. And we were never questioning anything.
CA: It was surprisingly easy with all the decisions in The Aquatic Adventure. Because we knew what we wanted to do from the start. And we had something playable very early. Then we can just like, we add another boss, and we add another boss, and we add another environment.
JS: I don’t think we were trying to push the limits of games or anything like that. We were just kinda like, we wanted to make a fun game, and that was it. While with our new one [Keep Driving] we were trying in some way to make something different. Which is a lot more difficult.
CA: We have changed major design things so many times throughout this game. Huge parts of the game were just scraped.
JS: Like, months of work, “no, this sucks”.
CA: Realizing that, well, this isn’t fun, and then having to throw it away. Which I think is healthy for a game but uh, it’s not healthy for our wallets.
CA and JS: [both laugh]
The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human is currently available on Steam at a special price during 2017’s summer sale. You can keep up with and find out more about YCJY’s projects via their Twitter account, itch.io page and official website. The game’s soundtrack was composed by Karl Flodin, and can be streamed via Bandcamp.
As a personal side-note, I would like to thank Josef and Christopher for taking the time to have this conversation with me over Skype, despite the massive time difference that divides us.