As human beings, we continuously try to define art. In the world of video games, this impulse to put clear definitions to the world around us surfaces when we narrow our focus down to genre or use wider reaching umbrella terms like interactive entertainment. Each game is an experience within its own universe and can feature the full diversity of the human experience. ABZÛ can’t be defined by categories, as it falls messily between several, but only by experience alone. The aquatic adventure immerses the player in its undersea environment and the journey through that oceanic world is something special.
Matt Nava, the creative director at Giant Squid, has been working on bringing ABZÛ’s aquatic ambiance to life for the past two years. After working as the art director on both the critically acclaimed Journey and its predecessor Flower, he sought to create a world filled with life instead of one void of it.
“After working on Journey, which is this very desert, dry game, I wanted to make something that is very vibrant and wet - this sort of opposite world,” Nava said. “I actually love to go scuba diving myself, and I’ve had some great experiences diving. That, I guess, was the inspiration for the game.”
In ABZÛ you play as a nameless diver who can freely swim around without restrictions so you can focus on the world around you. Ranging from serene views to engaging set pieces in a world rarely seen by man.
“It’s an underwater adventure game where you take control of this diver and you’re sent to the bottom of the ocean. We tried to create a game for folks who dream of scuba diving,” Nava said. “What that meant to us was that there’s no air gauge, you do whatever you wish you could do when you dive. When you actually scuba dive you have all this gear you have to worry about. You have to think about how long you can stay down and in this game you don’t have to do any of that.”
The environments start off as simple coves populated by hundreds of fish, which are all based off of real species. From name to physical scale, the species in ABZÛ bring a sense of realism to the fantasy world making it feel plausible that somewhere in the depths these locations exist.
“These fish are all as big as they really are, and you can ride on these larger guys,” Nava stated, indicating some of the more massive acquatic creatures. “One of the cool things fish do in this game is they eat each other. Just kind of the main thing that fish do. You really don’t see that too often in video games, which is kind of cool for us because it was a really fun thing to make. You can ride this guy and watch him eat some little dudes. Sometimes you see a smaller predator that you’re riding get eaten by a larger one right up from underneath you which is pretty fun.”
One of ABZÛ’s strongest traits is its odd sense of realism; the sense that you’re not swimming through someone’s imagination, but rather an unexplored region on this planet brimming with life and secrets. Along the way you will run into natural (and unnatural) barriers such a thick coral. To pass through natural and man-made barriers you will have to recuse and repair mini submersible robots that will aid you in your endeavors.
Using the diver’s ping ability, which acts a sonar and commutation tool, you can unlock secrets and navigate your way through dark trenches and caves. Anything that appears out of the ordinary should be pinged at. In some areas there are fish sealed away and breaking the seal will release an entirely new species into the surrounding environment.
“We recently added where you can sit down and meditate. This just lets you watch the fish. You can see what their name is and see what they do,” said Nava. “See who they’re eating and whose eating them. It’s pretty cool to just watch these guys. You can put down the controller and it will switch between fish automatically its like a little aquarium mode.”
The tone of the game is peaceful, yet is full on many tense moments. Not from fear or stress, but the feeling of the unknown. Consistently wondering how deep you can go and what exactly is going on. The music expresses this wonderfully, which is no surprise since Austin Wintory wrote the score - the same man who composed the music for Journey, which earned the first Grammy nomination for music in a video game.
“The game is this very serene experience and a lot of people ask us, ‘Is there a story in the game or do you just explore?’ and the answer is you definitely discover the story as you go deeper.” Nava said. “There is no text or dialogue in the game at all it’s all told through the environment and the events that occur. These little drones, the diver, you start to figure out who they are, why they're here, as you find more clues.”
Just like the games Nava has worked on before, you can expect moments that will take your breathe away. I swam into majestic areas filled with more wish than I could count and felt like a small speck being engulfed in a world I thought I knew. Though experimentation, Nava and his team found a way to redesign aquatic life from the sea floor up.
"One of the spaces has about 10,000 fish in it now. To get that many fish we had to really rethink how we animate fish from the ground up. Most times when you animate fish in a game you have kind of a skeleton that moves them,” Nava said. “This is a very traditional animation technique, but it’s expensive for the computer to render. So instead we don’t have any sort of internal skeleton for the fish that animates them. We make them move with mathematical formulas. It makes it so we can render way way more, and when we changed it to work that way we went from having about 100 fish to about 10,000 fish. So that was a really good day.”
ABZÛ will be available for the PS4 and PC this summer on August 2. From my time with it, I think it will be worth taking the plunge to explore this world that words really don't accurately capture. Whether you just want to relax in the ocean or find every secret tucked away in its watery depths, ABZÛ seems to be shaping up as an adventure that shouldn’t be missed.
“Something that’s really cool about the ocean is how little we know about it,” concluded Nava. “I think everyone has this sense of wonder and imagination about what could actually be happening down there. We wanted to capture that kind of surreal elements of the ocean in the game and this is our take on it.”