Abzu (2016), Giant Squid Studios, PS4
“The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides. The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.”
Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
According to the developers of Abzu (stylized as ABZÛ), the meaning of the word is simply “the ocean of wisdom,” Or, “to know the ocean” and this game encapsulates that sentiment perfectly. Abzu is a journey through the depths of the ocean, but also seemingly through time…
I’ve been having a bit of trouble with my reviews for longer games, so I’m thinking of covering a few indie games to get over my writer’s block. I’ve gone back to Abzu recently, and I felt like writing about it. Just discussing the gameplay (swimming around and occasionally pressing a button to interact with something) doesn’t really do Abzu enough justice. The spectacular art style of the game, and its visual storytelling are the elements of this game that truly grabbed my attention. The way that each ‘level’ is designed and presented is truly unique; in the same vein as Journey, not a single word is spoken in this game – no story is presented straight to the player. This leaves the visuals of Abzu to do the heavy-lifting, and it does so extremely well. The themes that Abzu deals with, largely environmental and historical, are also tied heavily to its visual presentation, which is one of my favourite things about the game. Anyway, enough rambling! Let’s dive in.
Under the sea
Abzu takes place almost entirely underwater, and the absolutely stunning environments that developers Giant Squid have managed to create are not only breathtaking, but also carry a meaningful narrative weight. The initial environments in the game are all beautifully bright, and teeming with energy and life.
The android-like diver that serves as the player character is able to interact with a lot of the sea creatures that the game presents – hitching a ride on a manta ray for instance, or leaping out of the water with a school of dolphins. These pure, wonderful moments take place in pristine blue water, sunlight filtering down to highlight the fish and coral of every imaginable colour. Abzu is all about exploration – none of the sea creatures you meet will be hostile, nor are there any environmental dangers (initially). You’ll want to swim through every cave, reef, and chasm. It’s a utopia, no question. The world is simply bursting with energy, colour, and life – until it isn’t.
The first time you find yourself in one of these dark, dreary basins is nothing short of jarring. The water is dark. There are no fish, or life of any kind really, to be found. The world feels dead. However, you can help – using a kind of blue energy (inherent in the ocean, and seemingly carried in the vessel of the character you play) you can bring the ocean back to life. This damage reversal and restoration are at the heart of this game. As you continue through the story, you get the impression that this damage has been done somewhat intentionally, and uncaringly – something has been taken from the ocean and left it severely unbalanced – and it is up to you to fix this, to restore what might have once been lost.
The changes in colour and environment communicate these concepts perfectly. This is also at play through a sense of verticality – as you dive deeper and deeper into the depths of the sea, you find these increasingly dark, dangerous spaces. As your character rectifies these mistakes – through a process of understanding and action – you begin your ascent back through space (and even time) towards a balanced, more harmonious version of this underwater world.
Abzu does an exceptional job of playing with expectations. Near the beginning of the game, there is a moment where you swim out of a cavern, a forest of seaweed in front of you, and one of your small robot friends – you can interact and ‘revive’ these small companions throughout your journey – is promptly eaten by a great white shark. Even without this experience, it wouldn’t be hard for players to see the shark as the ‘villain’ or at the very least, be intimidated by it – sharks are often demonized in media, and are more often than not a source of fear. The game continues to tease you with glimpses of the shark – it seems to be on the same path as you, though always slightly ahead – but never lets you get too close. You’re afraid of the shark – you see it as an enemy.
There are also several moments in the game where you swim over massive chasms and trenches. I think most people are naturally intimidated by these deep stretches of water – part of this being the fear of the unknown, the unseeable. My heart-rate definitely jumped while swimming in these areas (I owe my deep-seated childhood fear of open water to the eel from the sunken ship level of Super Mario 64 – still refuse to touch that painting) but after a while, you realize that there is nothing to fear. While still feeling uncomfortable, I safely traversed these areas, and explored their depths. It isn’t until almost the end of the game that you realize all your expectations of what is threatening and what isn’t are wrong. The great white shark is completely non-hostile – not only having the same objective as you, but seemingly the purest source of the mysterious blue energy that is capable of restoring the ocean. The only thing that can harm you in this game is the ‘man-made’ mechanical pyramids scattered throughout the depths. They seem designed to harvest energy from surrounding life forms (that same blue energy) for a purpose that is not entirely clear.
Perhaps to produce a power source for more of these machines? Entering the factory-like facility that seems to produce and house these pyramids is the most dangerous section of the game (communicated visually in dark reds and blacks). This reversal of expectation, and the game once more leaning into its thematic visual portrayal of environments, is what makes this game so exceptional. The ability to communicate so much through so little is what makes Abzu (as an interactive and visual medium) so stunning.
The living infinite
Throughout your journey to restore balance to the ocean, you’ll come across a section that resembles an ancient city. You’ve seen hints of this city, and its people, on mosaics and murals throughout your journey. Though long abandoned by the people who once lived there, the sea creatures you find in this area are literally from a time beyond. Prehistoric, ancient fish inhabit this city, from the Coelacanth, to the Elasmosaurus.
This sense of stepping back through time is tied into the restoration theme that the game centers on – of going back, to fix what has been done. A large portion of the narrative is visually revealed in this chapter, through another series of the wall murals. The understanding of this history, revelations of the past, is essential for our knowledge of how to move forward. In order to correct mistakes, we must understand the past.
It took me a couple playthroughs of Abzu to recognize that the central area where your character ‘revives’ sections of the ocean – a sort-of spiritual realm – is visually exactly the same as a chamber that you find in this ancient city. You can even see a similar ring of light on the surface, the same one that you see in the ‘spirit’ realm.
This sense of history, of a space left to be swallowed and forgotten by time, is once more reinforcing Abzu’s theme of engaging the past to restore the present. In the end, you re-unite with an ethereal version of the great white shark, and destroy the pyramid ‘harvesters’ to once more allow plants and animals alike to flourish. Balance is restored, and life begins again.
A deep dive
It’s difficult to talk about Abzu as a game – there isn’t much to it. It’s short, no more than 3 hours. You swim, you collect some things, and you use a button to interact with some other things. The story is never definitively presented – it must be sought after, teased out. It’s easy to dismiss this game as something trying to be artsy, or failing to be a ‘real game’. While not as emotionally resonant as Journey, (made by some of the same creative team) this title creates the same sense of wonder from the world it presents. It’s one of those games where you simply enjoy being a part of the world. I have about 9000 screenshots (in case you couldn’t tell from my review) it’s so gorgeous. It makes me genuinely sad that people would be dismissive of this game – I think it does what it set out to do extremely well. Its strong visual presentation of its themes, and play on expectations are my favourite aspects. There are still elements of this game’s story that I haven’t put together – and maybe never will – like the floating pyramid shapes in the sky, but I like to think about these puzzles every time I come back to this game.
Abzu absolutely nails what Jules Verne called “the living infinite” – the timeless sense of the ocean and its creatures, the hub of natural and organic life. To put it lamely, Abzu is such a pure and wholesome experience, I’m glad to have played it a half dozen times. I’ll probably play it again. You should too.
“The globe began with sea, so to speak; and who knows if it will not end with it? In it is supreme tranquility.”
Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea