If you’ve ever gone swimming in a video game, you’re familiar with the air gauge: that rapidly dwindling visualization of your oxygen supply, urging you to return to the surface before you drown. Abzû, a meditative new game from 505 Games and Giant Squid, takes the bold step of eliminating the air gauge altogether. You play a diver who explores the ocean’s depths with an infinite supply of the exhaustion — and the result is a deeply calming, meditative journey across the ocean’s floor.
A nonviolent game that lets you explore at your own pace
Abzû’s art director is Matt Nava, who previously did the art on the critically acclaimed Journey. Like Abzû, Journey was a simple, nonviolent game focused on exploring a beautiful world at your own pace. And on my third day at E3 this year, Abzû was exactly what I needed — a beautiful respite from gunfire and neck stabbings, with a mystery at its core that will still have me intrigued when it goes on sale as a digital download for PC and PlayStation 4 in the first half of next year.
As the game begins, you’re floating in the ocean without any idea who you are or what you’re supposed to do. As you make your first dive, you see that Giant Squid has imagined the ocean’s floor in gorgeous detail. Abzû simulates tens of thousands of fish and other ocean wildlife; in a 15-minute demo, I saw more than 20 species represented, including dolphins, goliath groupers, manta rays, and a great white shark. "We wanted to focus on the sense of majesty and awe you have when you explore the underwater environments," Nava says.
"Sharks aren't just mindless killers."
While the shark’s presence is legitimately dread-inducing — it makes its first appearance in a jump scare, when it eats a helpful drone that had been guiding your path — you can relax a bit: there’s no dying in Abzû. "A lot of games create monsters out of sharks," Nava says. "One thing that’s really interesting about these creatures is that they are multifaceted. They aren’t just mindless killers. They have lots of interesting personality traits."
Nava told me the game’s tension comes in part from its story: unraveling the mystery of the diver’s identify, and what her purpose is. The great white has a connection to the diver, he says, and their relationship evolves over the course of a game that should take 3 to 4 hours — roughly double the length of Journey.
But while there’s some tension in the game, the emphasis is on exploring at your own pace. Playing Abzû, you may find yourself — as I did — turning a series of somersaults for no reason. Or joining up with a school of fish to get a speed boost. Or taking a ride on a manta ray.
I’m looking forward to seeing more art from Abzû — the first 15 minutes have some beautiful ocean life, but it lacked the awe-inspiring grandeur of Journey. What it shares with that game, though, is a beautiful sense of calm — and in the middle of the E3 maelstrom, I’ll take it.