As I prepare myself for all sorts of spectacular explosions and gritty realism at this year’s E3, I was able to find peace and tranquility for at least a good thirty minutes while exploring an ocean’s depths in ABZÛ. Before I get to next week’s insanity, I think back on my time with this indie and smile.
If you’ve played Journey, you’ll be right at home as the game’s director, Matt Nava, was the art director of that award-winning game. Like Journey, ABZÛ is not twitch-based, but nearly every movement by the player has the world reacting to the player's movements. As a school of fish passed by me, I veered in and out of their space and watched them skittle accordingly. I felt like I could just do this all day. I felt alive. Even though I’m pretty sure my character was dead…
The opening of ABZÛ begins with your character, a nameless woman floating like a deceased pet goldfish in a vast body of water. Suddenly, she bursts awake and you make your way down amongst the fishes although you’re clearly no longer sleeping. There’s a compass that essentially guides you down. There’s also said to be a narrative or at the very least a mystery to uncover. I came across something, perhaps alien in design: a giant metal door that opened after scanning the body of my scuba-wearing being. This was, I assumed, just the beginning.
You can also (as seen in the videos) ride the creatures of the sea, even a shark. There is no death (except maybe that opening), no game over. A lot of the time I found myself just marveling at being submerged in this brightly-colored world. At one time, you can see over 200 fish swim past you, each moving independently from one another. Some eat each other; some do not.
These are symbiotic relationships, which is quite a feat of design for any title, much less one made by the team of just ten. The Santa Monica-based developer Giant Squid has spent over three years working on this ambitious project. And let’s give them credit, for most of us, a water level is rarely anyone’s favorite section. This only occurred to me after playing the demo. That’s how successful ABZÛ is in being truly immersive. And it’s not even a VR game.
The team’s goal seems to draw upon ancient myths, ones that cross cultural boundaries in the hopes of giving players a unique experience. Old structures and hieroglyphics feel deliberately scattered about among sea life but by who or what? The name of the game is also steeped in mythology as "AB" refers to ‘ocean’ and "ZÛ" means ‘to know’. Simply put, the wisdom of the ocean.
Matt wanted to make something both serene and beautiful but also frightening and mysterious. He has the serene part down and as I neared the end of the demo, I witnessed something destroy an adorable drone I had activated about ten minutes earlier. I realized the "frightening" part was here too. But where will this mysterious watery world take me? I’ll find out this summer when ABZÛ releases on the PS4.