Riding the Current in “ABZU”

Going into ABZU, I knew it was going to be a meditative game. People have been comparing it to Journey, in part because the games share a designer in Matt Nava. In fact, after working on Flower and Journey with thatgamecompany, Nava went on to found developer studio Giant Squid to create ABZU.

Journey is one of my favorite video games, and while I agree that ABZU has a few similarities, I felt very differently about this one than thatgamecompany’s masterpiece. ABZU is similarly quiet and unrushed, but rather than feeling like an explorer whose emotions wandered as I did in Journey, playing ABZU I felt like I was being guided somewhere. The destination didn’t matter, of course — only the experience of pushing forward.

Set in the sea, ABZU has no weapons or elaborate puzzles. You are a swimmer exploring the ocean. But in a video game very much about atmosphere, I felt as though the game was ushering me along a current (sometimes literally). This made me feel less like an underwater pioneer and more like a curious child being shown a new world. It was not an adventure. It was an act of reflection.

I believe it’s a great testament to ABZU’s design that I never felt lost. Rather than having a vast open world, ABZU creates what feels like a series of rooms. As you enter each new area, you need to find your robot companion and, maybe, pull a lever to open a door to the next place. In some areas, swimming too far to the edges of the designed world sparks the swimmer’s radar; your swimmer then turns around to follow the radar, so you know to return to the central area and continue exploring there. It’s a gentle nudge in the right direction, and it’s very obvious where you can’t go — the outer edges of those areas are all murky blue, with no points of interest in the distance.

ABZU screenBy about the third area I entered, I knew instinctively what to do. I swam to the ocean floor, found my swimmer’s robot, and then went to turn levers, which pulled chains to open the doors on the far side of the room. These situations are hardly puzzles — they are more like invitations to continue your explorations. The game is beckoning you to see what’s through the next whirlpool.

abzu screen 2
Your swimmer can stop in certain spots to meditate, which lets you focus in on sea creatures passing by. You can stay as long as you like.

As you go, you can sit on a stone and meditate or swim around to explore every nook and cranny along the ocean floor. There are beacons you can locate with your radar. Currents also exist, and joining a school of fish can sometimes rush you forward faster. These are the most exciting parts of the game, as you feel one with the living ocean that’s moving you along. This is just one more way that the sense of forward momentum — so important to video games today — is always present in ABZU.

Journey has a similar design, but because the world feels made up of abandoned architecture and long stretches of desert, I felt more like a lone warrior. Even without combat, I was brave, because I was alone. Seeing another player in the world — you only ever see one, if any, and interaction is limited to one button press, one sound — is like the flicker of a flame in the darkness. But it also reminds you of how alone you are in the game. I really enjoyed that aspect of Journey. I felt I had to forge a path through this forgotten world, and it was an emotional experience on my own.

abzu screen 1ABZU is different. While there are structures that seem abandoned, with walls covered in pictures reminiscent of what you’d see in an ancient Egyptian tomb, most of the time you’re in the open sea. You’re constantly surrounded by fish, sharks, rays, and whales — there’s even the robot that tags along with you. You’re not a lone traveler or adventurer; you’re entering someone else’s world. It almost feels like the ocean is welcoming you in, and its inhabitants are showing you around. You can even grab a sea creature’s fin to hitch a ride. You may not be a native in this place, but you definitely don’t feel like a stranger.

That’s not to say that ABZU doesn’t have real moments of tension, too. There are dark areas where the music fades to leave just the low hum of the ocean. Narrow corridors that are hard to swim through. Places strewn with mines that glow, the thrum of an ominous musical beat speeding up as you stray too close. Set off a mine, and your character glows and spasms but doesn’t die. Despite the fact that you can keep going in these scenarios, you feel the impulse to avoid them.

At one point, I tried to make contact with a squid. He just inked on me, perhaps in fear, and darted away. Another time, electric eels seemed to be following me. Maybe it was just in my mind that they were chasing me.

ABZU heiroglyphicsIt’s amazing to me that despite this minimalistic gameplay and freedom, ABZU feels like such a complete experience. You don’t have to worry about spending too much time exploring somewhere with nothing to show for it — though you can spend as much time as you want, wherever you want. You don’t have to stress over what to do next, even though the game doesn’t pressure you to rush on. You don’t have to wonder about the game’s story or meaning, because ABZU is what you make of it. The occasional story beat — such as swimming with massive whales or saving a shark caught in a trap — keeps you feeling like you’re making progress, too.

abzu screen 3You enjoy the beauty of your surroundings, which are teeming with life. You become an inhabitant of the sea, explore everything there is to see, and set down your controller with a sense of satisfaction. There’s not much to it, but it’s rewarding.

I guess that’s what I really enjoyed about ABZU: the sense that you’re always going somewhere. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy exploration when I’m totally free to go wherever I want, but in a video game, that can lead to feeling lost and confused. ABZU’s design keeps you moving forward. Even with no real end goal in mind or sight, the current is clear. Just take all the time you like as you enjoy the journey.

— Ashley

4 thoughts on “Riding the Current in “ABZU””

  1. Thank you for your game writeups. It bums me out that I have no time to game anymore, really, so I love reading your articles. It’s almost like playing the game (okay, I’m being a bit too generous, we both know playing the game is like playing the game in almost every situation.)

    Thanks for the coverage. I’ve heard of Journey, but not of ABZU

    1. Aw thanks, I’m glad you enjoy my gaming posts! I know, it’s hard to find time to game. I used to want games that would take me 40+ hours, I felt like those were worth my money — now those are the games that take me YEARS to play. Still working through Rise of the Tomb Raider which I started last December. The nice thing about Journey and ABZU are that they are only three hours, tops. :)

  2. It’s interesting considering a game like ABZU in the wake of the current No Man’s Sky debacle. Because both games offer up the same kind of aimless-but-not-aimless exploration, and yet, no one’s tearing down the Internet over ABZU. Maybe because it came with less hype? Ah, the gaming world is a strange place.

    In any event, really nice write-up here — I may have to get the game after all! I had thought about getting it but was worried that it would be too directionless. Having a meditative game on hand like this sounds great for when you want to game but don’t want the stress that sometimes comes with it.

    1. Yeah I know what you mean about not really wanting to play a game that is to directionless. ABZU is really not like that, I was surprised. I only got stuck once toward the end, but never lost! Hope you enjoy it if you get it!

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