Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy a good AAA title as much as the next gamer. I’ve spent more than my fair share playing games like Assassin’s Creed, Fallout, Halo, Call of Duty, and Overwatch. But lately, I’ve been turning to indie games more and more. Step away from the huge studios and million-dollar titles, and I’ve discovered that you’ll often find a real treasure. Yeah, maybe the graphics aren’t as good (though often they are), and there aren’t any high-profile voice actors (in many cases there are no voice actors at all). But somehow, these small-studio teams make the best use of the resources they have at hand to tell incredible stories and address deep issues in ways that games stuck trying to please the gamer masses just can’t.
Such is the case with Abzû. Developed by a team of 13 people at Giant Squid Studios, Abzû moves away from traditional land and space environments and takes you to a realm little explored in the gaming industry: the ocean. As someone who is unable to scuba dive due to an inner-ear problem, I was particularly looking forward to diving in and exploring this game’s chosen universe.
The first thought that I had when this game loaded up was, “Wow, this game is pretty.” Giant Squid makes great use of Unreal Engine 4, creating a world that is breathtakingly rich in color, movement, and sound. Light filters in from the surface, fish swim by in graceful schools, and all of it is accompanied by the gentle background of Austin Wintory’s soundtrack. I could spend hours simply enjoying each of the underwater environments and the game would lose nothing.
That’s likely intentional. Several of team members who worked on creating Abzû also worked on the game’s predecessor, Journey; and, like Journey, Abzû is more about experiencing the wonder of each environment than it is completing the game’s short storyline. There are several monuments scattered throughout the game where you as a player are encouraged to stop and meditate. Doing so allows you to swim along with each type of fish present in that particular area, learning their names, watching them eat (and be eaten), and simply enjoying the beauty that the game’s creators have managed to capture.
Each type of fish seen in Abzû is based on a real-life creature, from its appearance down to its movement and schooling patterns. However, to avoid the game from becoming too visually overwhelming, each creature was whittled down to most essential traits. The game is highly stylized for the same reason; visual overwhelm was a concern, and so the creators focused on smaller environments that could easily be made to feel full with less.
Director Matt Nava is a passionate scuba diver, and that shows.
The game’s focus on environment and wonder doesn’t mean that the story isn’t compelling, however. You awaken as an androgynous diver (the creator refer to the character as female, but this is in no way apparent), alone in the middle of a vast ocean, automatically triggering a wealth of existential questions: “Who am I? Why am I alone? What am I supposed to do?” The game immediately answers none of these, leaving you to discover the answers for yourself.
You’re guided gently (stray too far, and your diver will simply turn themselves around, heading back in the “right” direction) from one objective to the next, restoring life to certain parts of the environment as you go. Using an energy stored within you, a simple touch brings back fish, whales, sharks, snails, and other sea creatures.
As you explore, some of the answers to the game’s initial questions become apparent. You begin to find ancient ruins and murals filled with texts and pictographs. These tell the story of a civilization that once shared a symbiotic existence with the ocean. But energy is being harvested from the ocean by large, technologically-advanced pyramids, killing vast areas and bringing ruin to the civilization. It is your job to defeat these pyramids and bring life back to the ocean. The game pulls heavily from Sumerian mythology, exploring the myth of Tiamat, the ocean goddess, and the game’s namesake, the freshwater god Abzû. In the myth, the two unite to form all life.
Given the recent news about climate change and what humans are doing to the ocean, the game’s message is particularly relevant. And, while no individual can restore the ocean on their own, we must all do our part to stop corporate greed from continuing to place Earth’s last great, largely unexplored frontier at risk.
You can play through Abzû‘s storyline in about three hours – though I don’t know why you’d want to. The game compels you to stop, slow down, and simply take in the beauty of its world. It’s an excellent stress reliever, a game to play when you just need to slow down and enjoy a few hours behind the controller. It’s certainly a game that I plan to enjoy again.
I’m a Gamer Girl is the admin of the Facebook page by the same name. She’s been playing video games since the Super Nintendo days and has spent far more hours than she likes to admit with a mouse, keyboard, or controller in her hand.