Preview: Abzu, a game of discovery, exploration, and changing the way we see the underwater world

Abzu has come a long way since I first played it at E3 2015. That's not to say that it felt particularly rough when I first checked it out, because that wasn't the case. But now that the team at Giant Squid, headed by Journey Art Director Matt Nava, has had more time to work on it, the project is starting to feel more complete. I recently went hands-on with an updated version of the game while visiting the Giant Squid offices, where Nava guided me through the demo while giving some insight on the game's development.

Lost at Sea

The story of Abzu is told in minimalist fashion. You're dropped into the vast ocean alongside the protagonist, which Nava referred to simply as “the diver,” with no real story beats to guide you initially. The diver, garbed in scuba gear, has no idea who she is. As explained by Nava, she's “just as lost as the player is at this moment.” From there, you must search along the underwater depths piecing together the character's story.

Nava didn't want to go for realism with Abzu, opting instead to create an almost surreal underwater adventure. You're not bogged down by an air gauge, and you can't die in the game. You're free to explore as much as you'd like. Yes, there's a story that unfolds as you play, but if you want to pace yourself and enjoy all of the sights that there are to see, you can do so. In fact, Nava stated that the “connection with nature” that one gets from scuba diving and being deep underwater is a major focus of Abzu.

The Dream of Scuba Diving

For the team at Giant Squid, incorporating controls that didn't get in the way of the gameplay experience was a key objective. That's why the camera doesn't stay fixed behind you. This allows the diver to make flips and turns without causing any disorientation to the player. “One of the first things you'll notice when you're playing Abzu is that the controls are very dissimilar to most swimming games that you've played,” explained Nava. “It's very free-form. You can turn over, you can full loop, which is something that not a lot of games do.”

Staying away from realism was a deliberate choice. This makes for an underwater game that's not restrictive in any way. It also makes for smoother movement along the deepest parts of the ocean. “It's so important to capture that underwater feeling, to be able to just move in any direction. Everything in the game is driven by this idea of creating a fluid motion, a ballet. So the diver can do all of these really cool moves and flips — it's really not anything like real scuba diving. It's like the dream of scuba diving.”

There are hundreds of species of fish for you to see to in Abzu, all of which are based on real underwater life. According to Nava, part of the game's authenticity lies in creating a world that actually utilizes a food chain, which isn't seen in underwater exploration games all that much, if at all. “We played a lot of ocean games — basically, all of them. One thing that we found that you almost never see is the food chain. You never see fish eating each other, which is like the core thing that fish do.”

The ocean is a majestic marvel, but unless you go scuba diving or do some lengthy research, you may not know how utterly insane it actually is. Part of the mission of Abzu as a concept is to break the stigma that surrounds not just the ocean itself, but the life that dwells within it as well. One such creature of special interest to Nava is the great white shark.

“The great white shark is this character that you keep running into in Abzu,” explained Nava. “One thing about the great white shark and sharks in general is that they're completely misunderstood. They're these fascinating, super important creatures, and they're terrifying at the same time, but they are really multifaceted. They have a lot of different aspects to them that people forget. Going along with that theme of representing all the facets of the ocean, we felt there was an interesting opportunity to show all the facets of him. As you go further in the game, you'll learn more about him.”

You'll also be able to do a bit of sight-seeing in Abzu by triggering Meditation mode. At certain points, you can sit back and follow specific fish as they swim about the ocean. While playing the game, I did this with sharks and smaller fish, and it was interesting seeing them swimming with schools of fish and, in some cases, eating smaller creatures.

More Than Just Blue

You might think that the color scheme in Abzu consists primarily of blues, but that's not the case. There are greens, pinks, and yellows, too. Depending on the environments around the diver, you'll see bolder or softer hues. Nava referred to the art direction, which is highly dynamic, as “stylized realism.” So while it's certainly rooted in reality, there's a lot of artistry poured into the rich underwater world.

Decorating that world further are the beautiful multicolored fish you'll come across. Seeing schools of bright yellow fish swimming along a blue or pink backdrop is stunning to look at. And if you care at all about aesthetics in games, it can be downright breathtaking.

As has been previously mentioned, you'll be listening to an original soundtrack from Austin Wintory as you travel through the water. If Wintory's work on Journey is any indication, players are in store for a lovely musical score that seamlessly evolves as the game unfolds.

Creating a New Type of Underwater Game

For Nava, the idea of Abzu didn't come overnight. Instead, it's the final result of years worth of experiences that range from scuba diving to art creation. “I've been drawing sharks my whole life,” he said, indicating a lifelong fascination with the subject matter. “It's hard to pinpoint exactly where the idea formed, but it really started coming together after I did the Art of Journey book. It was like, 'What do I do next?'”

Nava lists Endless Ocean and Echo the Dolphin as just two games the dev team played for research. In addition to these, they also played a lot of airplane games. All of this helped Nava decide that Abzu wouldn't be a game filled with fish facts, text screens, and jumbled UI, but rather an underwater game where you get to revel in the serenity of the ocean. “Abzu is definitely the ocean game that I would want to play,” he said.

After spending some time with Abzu, I'd have to say it's the ocean game I never knew I wanted. Thankfully, the wait won't be too long, as the project's slated for an end-of-summer release. Aside from the fact that it's such an interesting concept and a reflection on the massive shift in video games we've been experiencing the past few years, I'm excited to play more because it's such an ambitious game. And part of that ambition comes from Nava's love of the ocean, which is totally awe-inspiring.

Like Nava said of the impressive sea: “That thing is really out there — it's insane.”

Here's our interview with Matt Nava for more on Abzu: