How Abzû taps into the Beautifully Alien Nature of Life Beneath the Waves

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Chris

No trip to the beach is complete without the stench of seaweed squatting in your nose holes. That mass of slowly dying of plant-life might typify the whole experience but it’s not a particularly beautiful sight, is it? It’s smelly, it’s slimy, and it’s usually littered with flies treating themselves to a stinky feast.

It’s hardly the kind of thing to inspire gushing romantic prose like rambling forests or snow-capped mountains, but then, seaweed isn’t particularly designed to be on the beach. In it’s natural habitat it stands tall and dances in the currents, swaying left to right in a floaty hypnotic jig. Beneath the sea its beauty is obvious but then take it to the surface and it all drains away. It doesn’t belong on the land, just like how we wouldn’t look too great if we spent a few days living beneath the sea.

All forms of entertainment have touched on our incompatibility with the ocean. From classic works of literature like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, to low-budget Hollywood dumpster-fires like 2006’s Adrift, many have drawn inspiration from our immortal struggle against really big bodies of water. Naturally, video games have tried to get in on that action, too, and like everyone else they’ve mostly focused on the ocean’s dangers.

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In Bioshock, for example, the sea is a constant, looming anxiety, always pressing in and desperately searching for a way to get its icy mitts all over you. In Subnautica the sea is a thing to be conquered, you build and improve until you carve out a small niche for yourself away from all the peril. Abzû (brought to us by Giant Squid) is a little different. Rather than shine a light on the dangers it focuses on the beauty of marine life and revels in the colour and spectacle of it all.

The ocean is a vastly unexplored space. It’s an uncharted alien world that’s right on our doorstep. Abzû channels that idea and delivers a gorgeous sunken ecosystem that’s a delight to explore, whilst constantly reminding you that you probably shouldn’t be there.

The game begins with a mysterious diver floating peacefully on the surface. The pale-blue sky mirrors the calm seas in a serene start that acts as a familiar jumping off point for the player. There’s recognisable clouds and the same old sky we’re used to; it’s the world we know.

It might seem like they start you off here just to force a diving tutorial on the player and, while that’s an important element, I think there’s some interesting narrative implications, too. The surface acts as a barrier. A doorway between our familiar surface world and the alien one beneath the waves. Starting the player above it highlights that contrast. It puts the onus on them to step through that threshold and dive into the adventure.

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One of the key figures in Abzû’s creation was the former art director of Journey and Flower, Matt Nava. While Abzû shares similarities with Nava’s other work, it sets itself apart in a few important ways. There’s a focus on exploration and engaging with your environment that’s just not as present in his other projects. Despite sharing much of Journey’s DNA it still feels different and expects the player to hang around to do a bit sightseeing rather than forging on to the next story beat. Thankfully, it also shares Journey’s penchant for gorgeous worlds that are lovely to spend time in.

The sheer amount of life swimming around on screen is staggering. The quantity and variety of the fish is almost hypnotic, with schools by the hundreds forming dense clusters that dissolve and reform like flocks of playful sparrows. They range from the tiny anchovies to the looming sperm whales but what they all have in common is the sense of detached apathy with which they regard the player. For the most part, you don’t exist to these creatures. They’re perfectly happy to swim around gobbling each other up to ever bother with a weird, limb-having tourist like you.

You can grab onto the side of the larger fish and ride them about like mighty sea steeds but even then they’re not particularly bothered by your worrisome boundary issues. It turns Abzû into a very lonely game despite all the life swimming around you. It often feels like you’re a ghost, invisibly roaming in the world of the living. It all contributes to a lingering sense of isolation that leaves you feeling removed from everything that’s going on. It heightens the notion that you don’t quite belong in this alien space and tickles your curiosity to delve even further.

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With such a beautiful and bizarre world to explore, it’s a shame that navigating through it all can be a test of patience. It’s ‘strongly-recommended’ that you play the game with a controller and even then it puts up a determined fight. I haven’t dared to brave it with a mouse and keyboard yet as I can only imagine it’ll feel like operating a particularly heavy submersible that’s been hooked up to a broken grand piano. The camera struggles to follow the rapid twists and turns a player can make which often leaves traversal feeling slow, sluggish, and ultimately frustrating.

A few rhythmic taps of a button sends you shooting off in a straight line for a limited amount of time, drawing comparisons to the limited flight of Journey’s scarf-touting protagonist. What precedes this joyous burst of speed is an awkward lining up period, where you hope and prey that you got your calculations right or you’ll be overshooting your target and blasting towards a whale’s backside like some sort of Jonah-seeking missile. Speed in Abzû always seems to come at the cost of manoeuvrability.

While the lethargy of the controls rubs the wrong way it does come with the upside of indirectly feeding into the idea of exploring a world you’re not suited to. It’s not your world you’re exploring, after all. It’s supposed to be difficult to get around, much like how a jellyfish might struggle to strut the aisles of your local Tesco. Whether or not all this was deliberate is up for debate, but regardless of intent, it’s an interesting example of fundamental mechanics being used to build on the themes of the narrative.

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Thankfully, the areas you muddle through are a riot of exaggerated colour that helps to set the tone of your exploration. Vivid reds, greens and pinks build a bright and charming backdrop to lighter scenes that shift to darker blues and blacks in parallel to the ebbs and flows of the story. Abzû’s use of colour is a master-stroke as it turns a fairly simple aesthetic into one of the most gorgeous games of 2016. A lot of time can drift away just taking it all in, snapping screenshots and soaking up the atmosphere.

There’s even a special feature included to help you do just that, as hidden away in each environment is a special statue for the player to sit and ruminate on their surroundings. During these ‘meditation’ sections the focus is taken off your avatar and placed on one of the of myriad of fishies gliding around them. The player has no direct control over any of these creatures, you’re just an observer, watching it all play out in front of you like an episode of Blue Planet but somebody’s muted David Attenborough’s narration because apparently they’re a sub-human monster. Not only does this slice of quiet-time give you the opportunity to fawn over the beauty, it also strengthens the feeling of the player as an outsider, gazing from the sidelines at a world that’s not their own.

Observation is clearly a key theme as it’s how Abzû does the bulk of its storytelling. Rather than rely on tightly choreographed cutscenes or reams of flavour text it tells its tale through environmental detail. As the player explores further they come across mysterious, ancient-seeming ruins interwoven with futuristic technology; all evidence of an advanced civilisation that once lived beneath the waves.

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The history and purpose of all this goes mostly unexplained, with a lot of the finer details left up to the player’s interpretation. Hints are dropped in murals daubed on temple walls but they give very little away. Abzû keeps its story cards tightly pressed to its chest and expects the audience to fill in the deliberately wide gaps.

Being a renowned idiot, I struggled to pick up much outside of a vaguely anti-industrial message but I think that’s OK in this case. It feels like a story that’s not meant to be understood straight away. The sense of bewilderment is an important part of the experience. It’s a world you’re not supposed to immediately understand as it’s not a world that you’re meant to be a part of, bolstering the feeling of separation that flows through the experience.

One of gaming’s greatest strengths is the ability to bring the player into a world with a sense of agency over what they do in it. With that in mind, it’s a shame to see so much generic repetition in the worlds on offer. From contemporary cities turned into secluded floating islands, Tolkienesque fantasy realms stuffed with predictable orcs and elves, to the dilapidated urban sprawls riddled with zombies, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve visited a lot these places a million times over.

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It’s the games that inject their worlds with personality and inventiveness that truly stand out in the crowd. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind’s beautifully barren land of Vvardenfel instantly leaps to mind, as does Dishonored’s grimy city of Dunwall. These are the kind of places that capture your imagination and inspire you to keep playing just to find out more. Abzû (while not quite living up to the likes of Journey) certainly fits into this category.

It’s a slice of marine life that’s a wonder to behold and exploring its gorgeous environments are an utter delight. What’s more impressive, though, is the lonely tone the world fosters. It masterfully captures the conflict of surface and sea and does so without resorting to low-hanging fruit like irritating air timers or gruesome shark attacks. Its a game about beauty, not danger, and even with the occasional gripes it’s well worth diving in.

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