Interview: Abzu Creative Director Matt Nava on why their scuba diving game is super fishy

In the new exploration game Abzû, players get to swim underwater in a mysterious ocean. Though it'll be far less mysterious to Ichthyologists — i.e., scientists who study fish — because the good people at Giant Squid actually put some research into the fish you encounter during your virtual swim, adding a tinge of reality to an otherwise dream-like atmosphere. The game even identifies some of the fishies you run into on your journey.

With Abzû out now for PlayStation 4 and PC, I chatted with Matt Nava, the game's Creative Director — who was previously the Art Director on the games Journey and Flower — about why they went au natural with the sea life, and how it’s impacting this not-always-realistic game.

GameCrate: For people unfamiliar with it, what is Abzû?

Matt Nava: It's an underwater exploration game. We tried to create a game that evokes the dream of scuba diving, rather than simulating it. By which I mean that you can do all the things you wish you could do while scuba diving: you can stay underwater as long as you want, you're acrobatic and fast, and you have an adventure.

GC: At what point in the making of Abzû did you decide that the fish should be realistic?

MN: Very early on we were talking about how we were going to do fish. After all, they're everywhere in the ocean. And we weren't sure if we would do realistic fish or invented fish, but when we started researching them, we realized that real fish are cooler than anything we could make up. But it's a stylized realism. Meaning that when we depict a fish, we wanted to choose its most iconic traits and accentuate them, as opposed to make them completely realistic.

GC: Did you hire a real Ichthyologist to help you?

MN: I wish! No, we kind of became amateur Ichthyologists while making this game. We learned a ton about the ocean and went scuba diving, took various aquarium trips, went whale watching, and just did all these various things to broaden our knowledge of these creatures so we could better depict them in the game. And we learned a whole lot about them, though we didn't have a professional on the team. Unfortunately. That would've been really cool.

GC: Or a pain in the butt. They might've been like, "No, starfish don't do that."

MN: Yeah, that would've been a pain in the butt.

GC: Were there any particular books that were especially helpful? Or just fun to read?

MN: We actually watched a lot of documentaries. A lot of BBC ocean documentaries. Sir David Attenborough was one of our great inspirations.

But my brother actually works at a bookstore in Ojai, California that has a lot of cool, old books. And he would, every once in a while, bring me some odd, old seafaring books, like scuba manuals and fishing guides. They were usually outdated, but they were still interesting because you could see how information about the ocean has progressed.

GC: Are there any concrete ways in which depicting the fish somewhat realistically had an impact on the gameplay?

MN: The most interesting thing about depicting them somewhat realistically was the scale of the fish. People don't realize how big, and how small, fish really are. We tried to be really accurate with the size of the fish in the game. We have this goliath grouper in the beginning moments of the game, and people always ask us, "Is that fish really that big?" "Yes, yes it is." It really effects the atmosphere, which is a big part of the game.

GC: One mechanic you have in the game is that you can grab some of the larger fish and they'll pull you along, though you can't steer them. Is this a real thing?

MN: Actually, we've now made it that you can steer the larger fish. We decided early on that we wouldn't make the player follow all the rules.

But grabbing big fish and going for a ride is a thing that people really do. We've seen these videos where adventurous divers would catch rides on the backs of Great White sharks. Which is very scary, but also deeply emotionally moving. Now, as a diver, you're discouraged from touching and interacting with the fish to avoid disturbing them, but I think everyone has that desire, to have that connection with those creatures.

GC: Right, but you can't grab a real shark and steer it. Wait, can you?

MN: I don't know. I don't think so. But that, again, is one of the ways we didn't want to make the whole game realistic.

GC: So you're kind of like Aquaman, then? Because that makes me want to ask what kind of research you did into how Aquaman really behaves.

MN: Ha!

GC: Along with fish and fish-controlling superheroes, oceans also have lots of interesting plant life. Did you do as much research into that, or did you not bother?

MN: We decided to put most of our efforts into the fish. Though in researching the fish, we did learn that there are actually a lot of different kinds of environments in the oceans, and they all have their own kinds of fish and plant life. So we did try to get the right kind of environments for the fish in the game, though we did take some liberties. For instance, we have the right kind of fish that would live in a kelp forest, but we mix together fish that live in kelp forests all over the world, when in reality certain fish only live in kelp forests in one part of the world.

GC: Gotcha. So aside from Aquaman, the most famous fish guy I know is Jacques Cousteau. How often during the making of Abzû did someone do a bad French accent and talk about "strange, strange jellyfish"?

MN: Ha! Oh man. We made a lot of bad ocean puns over the course of developing this game.

As for Jacques Cousteau, he was a great inspiration, and is included in our "Special Thanks" list along with David Attenborough and Dr. Sylvia Earle. They were all big inspirations for this game.

Abzû is out now for PlayStation 4 and PC.