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Abzu is an underwater exploration game that wants to strengthen your connection to the world around you.
Back in high school, Matt Nava befriended a sea lion while scuba diving. “It was an incredible, playful experience with this giant creature,” he recalls. He continues to carry a love for the ocean.
You can see some of that love for the natural world in the organic game worlds of Flower and Journey, for which he was art director. It explains why he decided to name his studio Giant Squid and why their latest game, recently released on Steam and PS4, seeks to bond players with a lush and vibrant underwater paradise.
“That sea lion was very influential on the kind of mood we were going for with Abzu,” he says. More than anything else, his game seeks to put the player in a world that is full of history, life, and value.
To truly create a sense of place within their game, Nava and his team focused on crafting interactions that stressed a sense of connection. “We wanted to create interactions with the sea life that were positive,” Nava says. "How can we make an interaction that is respectful of these creatures?”
The answers were remarkably simple. Abzu is not a game rife with complexities or burdened by excess. Its systems and interactions reward curiosity and deliberately foster a sense of awe. You can swim into the center of swarming schools of fish, or lightly place a hand on larger creatures with the ease of a single button press that relinquishes control to them, catching rides to destinations unknown.
Of equal importance was ensuring that the world properly captured the realities of the underwater realms it emulated. “We wanted these fish to have things to do and be interesting to observe,” Nava points out, "so we inserted a simulation of the food chain.”
This feature isn’t necessarily apparent when you play Abzu. Unless you are watching very closely, it is possible you will never take note of the lovingly crafted ecosystem. It is possible to never see predator hunt prey, or other minute interactions. But they are there and, for Matt Nava, they are important. “The world needs to feel authentic,” Nava explains. "This helps communicate the sense of awe we were looking for.”
That sense of awe also needed to be protected from some of the medium’s typical trappings. The place is the thing for Abzu. To this end, Matt Nava and his team kept a question on their minds throughout the process: “Do you feel like you’re interacting with a game system or are you not even focusing on those systems and instead feel like you’re in a world?”
While Abzu might track a host of variables such as player health, depth, and speed, none of this information is relayed to the player through persistent UI or HUD elements. Weighing down the player with the technical aspects of scuba diving would distract from the world. To the same end, Nava and his team focused on eliminating anything that felt too in line with video game tropes or convention.
“For example, the player is able to boost quickly. That ability to boost has a resource that depletes and refills,” Nava elaborates. The boost mechanic itself is a somewhat hidden, arcane thing that the game doesn’t necessarily tell the player about. After testing various resource mechanics, the team settled for silently refilling an invisible gauge. “It let you have the mechanics without forcing the player to think about game elements like collection,” he says.
Abzu is a game that wants to focus on very few things. It is about sensations over data. The emotional over the analytical. Mostly, you swim through areas, perhaps stopping to revive an old diving robot that will clear a path for you. Beyond this, it is pure navigation. The closest it ever gets to anything overly prescriptive is a small, unobtrusive notification in the bottom of the screen which pops up to tell you the what kind of fish you are connecting with. It pauses to categorize and inform, if only for a moment, to remind the player that the bright corals and wonderful creatures they encounter are not sprung from fantasy. They are real and they are majestic.
Abzu’s ocean is a relaxing place to be. There’s hardly ever any rush to achieve goals, and the only sense of great speed comes from segments where you glide down jet streams and let the current carry you through colorful landscapes of seaweed and underwater ruins. It is easy to get lost in large areas, but it never feels bad to be lost. The ocean provides a safe escape from real life. But you can’t stay in that sea forever.
“I think the powerful thing that video games can do is they can take you to another world,” Nava says. Abzu taps into this power considerably, seeking ways to transfer you from your couch and into another world. “It’s wonderful to escape from our world from a time but it’s better to come back from that imaginary realm that a game takes you to with something to reflect upon and relate to our own existence and our own lives.”
It all comes back to that sea lion from so many years ago. A connection between man and animal forged in a moment of curiosity and playfulness. By sharing that experience and the world that created it, Nava hopes players leave a message that players will latch onto, like their diver clinging to the belly of a whale.
“The greatest escape also includes a return. You come back with more. In Abzu, we try to tell a story about the ocean. If you look at the state of our own ocean, it is in dire need of help.” Nava notes with some melancholy.
However, Abzu seeks to leave the player with a positive impression. “We wanted to have players come away with increased interest in the ocean and some hope. That’s what I hope players bring back.”