A word we hear to death in many video game press conferences and press releases is “experiences.” Our beloved medium employs the latest technology to craft interactive escapism. And when it comes to simplistic yet pretty, memorable experiences, indie developer thatgamecompany comes to mind and the art director on its hit games Journey and Flower, Matt Nava, left two years to start his own studio named Giant Squid. The aquatic adventure ABZÛ is the debut title of Nava’s team and is a beautiful nautical homage to the sea and to nature.
You assume the role of a female protagonist simply known as the Diver and she seems to know as little about herself as you do. The mystery of the Diver and the world she is from can be solved from small clues and hieroglyphic paintings the player comes across. With plot points that are not explicitly defined, much of ABZÛ is up to the player’s interpretation. Without spoiling anything, I will say one core theme permeating throughout is a return to nature. While the Diver’s adventure did not strongly hit any emotional beats for me, the game’s sense of wonder and cryptic storytelling begs for multiple playthroughs I gladly will partake in.
Controlling the Diver is simple enough with the left analog stick handling movement and right analog stick controlling the camera. At first, I found the inability to make sharper turns — you are swimming after all — to feel odd, but quickly figured out how to fluidly move through the water with ease. Tapping the X button provides a small swim sprint. Interacting with puzzles and objects rely on easy one-button presses. These are not glorious control mechanics, but they work for the voyage on hand.
Several of the game’s segments follow a basic event sequence. When you enter a new area, you will need to locate a downed drone and repair it so it can assist in clearing obstructions in your path. The main objective in these standard sections is to free a specific sea creature. First, you need to locate and touch a glowing portal to start off the animal’s liberation. Then you make your way through the zone, solving fairly easy puzzles along the way, until you discover a large portal, where you dive down into an otherworldly sea and activate a temple. Glowing water will fill up around the temple, indicating you have cleared the zone and set its sea animal free.
While the above may make ABZÛ sound robotic and linear, there is plenty of opportunities for you to explore and uncover more information about the story and world. The Diver is able to tag along and swim with the wildlife. The breadth of underwater fauna includes some secret species to discover. Specific meditation platforms you can sit on trigger creature-filled sequences. There are plenty of side activities like these to cater to completionists and add to the desire for repeat playthroughs.
Immersion is a key component that games are always trying to push the envelope on and, like thatgamecompany, Giant Squid takes a less-is-more approach with ABZÛ. Once the game begins, there is absolutely no spoken dialogue, text, map, or any heads-up display elements to clutter up the screen; and it’s liberating, really bringing the ocean and its wildlife to the forefront. Underwater plants sway with the current while fish interact with each other and the environment, and all this believable behavior is procedurally generated. This is a dynamic world which feels remarkably alive despite the minimalist art style Matt Nava is famous for. Even when I took a quick break to take a sip of water or bite of my bread, my eyes still were glued to the marine scenery before me.
"But, wait, how does the player explore yet stay on course without any kind of HUD or text?" you may be wondering. Therein lies another well-crafted aspect of ABZÛ’s visual design. Giant Squid employed a number of visual cues, some I did not immediately notice, to guide me and I never really got lost – a testament given how fairly frequently I do get lost in games. The route to the next objective may be subtly indicated with a clear water path surrounded by a light fog. Another example is the first time I saw a giant metal chain, my curiosity caused me to follow it, leading me to the next puzzle I needed to solve. When others would have fallen back to standard conventions like maps or HUD indicators, ABZÛ pulls it off skillfully without them and the reward is an uncompromising view of an elegant ocean world.
Last, but most definitely not least, is the absolutely gorgeous musical score composed by the award-winning Austin Wintory, another thatgamecompany alumni responsible for the music in Journey and Flow. In a game as quiet as ABZÛ, void of spoken words and very few loud sound effects, the music becomes important to fill the dead silence and keep the audile senses alive. Wintory employs an orchestra of strings, woodwinds, brass, and vocal choir and it shows, going above and beyond in enhancing the mystery, wonder, and beauty of ABZÛ. A joy to hear, the soundtrack shines brilliantly and is probably my favorite part of my time as the Diver.
ABZÛ is a short game – most will finish in a two to three hours (I clocked in right under two hours). But the beautiful execution and mystifying story should lure you back into the sea. I know I’ll be diving back in.
Travel accommodations for a review event and a digital download of ABZÛ were provided by 505 Games.