ABZÛ, the new game from Giant Squid (a studio founded by Flower and Journey art director Matt Nava), is about as relaxing and calming a gaming experience as we can remember. It presents a beautiful underwater journey where your interaction with sea creatures is nothing less than compassionate. Assuming of course that giant stingrays take no issue with you hanging-on to ride them around a colourful choral seabed.
Now, what you look for in an experience can end up shaping how you feel about it as a whole. This translates to all artistic mediums, from film, music, paintings, to books, and sure, video games. Taken at face value, ABZÛ presents a relatively short game where you explore linear underwater environments in order to reach your goal. Trying to explain where the game ends up, and what that goal is, would probably rob you of some of ABZÛ’s power. If you’re thinking it looks like an underwater game where you interact with sea creatures and swim about in beautiful environments, then yeah it’s mostly that.
But it’s also so much more.
Without an intrusive user interface, or narrative drive to push you along, ABZÛ succeeds in capturing the awe and discovery of deep sea exploration. One of the key things that you end up doing at various points throughout the experience is stopping to sit on an underwater platform to meditate and observe the sheer abundance of life that surrounds you. Although presented using a distinctly wonderful and bright artistic style all its own, the various sea life of ABZÛ both look and seemingly act like the real thing. If you’re thinking, well that’s just sitting down and watching fish then yeah, it’s mostly that. But again, it’s also so much more. And again, it’s calming and relaxing.
There’s never really a sense of danger, or time limit, or the feeling that if you don’t go here you’ll have to start gain. Even when things take on a more sinister tone. By taking away these seemingly very important player mechanics, ABZÛ focuses squarely on the type of experience it’s trying to present. One where the journey is everything and contemplation is as important as pressing a button. An experience where visuals, music, and player interaction intertwine and dance like the thousands of fish that make up the underwater life in the game.
Much like with real-world underwater environments, ABZÛ is quite breathtaking to look at. But what separates it from being a realistic underwater sim, or swim, is the presence of the fantastical, historical, and spiritual. Exactly who you’re put in control of remains a mystery for the most part, and the ruins you discover, and strange objects you interact with, are left for you to try and interpret what it all means.
Perhaps the only real issue to be had with the experience as a whole, is the over reliance of the sort of simple puzzle design that takes the form of – ‘See that door over there? Follow the line to find the switch.’ It doesn’t get any more complicated than that, which is a shame. Because the pacing is spot on, and the moment to moment progression from location to location is a feast for the eyes and ears. Even though the experience is over in a few hours, each area you visit feels different. And the sense of discovery and mystery help propel you forward. Even if the gamey parts don’t.
In the end if you’re a fan of explorer, filmmaker, and scientist Jacques Cousteau or feel at home watching the deep sea documentaries of David Attenborough, then ABZÛ is something that you’ll definitely want to check out. It’s a relaxing experience, one where underwater movement takes precedent over things like survival. Or even clear narrative drive. With a brilliant musical score, some truly breathtaking deep sea vistas, and a profound ecological message ABZÛ is a journey we won’t soon forget.