“He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen… spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”
Almost one year ago, I had the opportunity to write about a work of art which has made a lasting impression on me: Journey. When I began the review, I said: “Sometimes art transcends its own medium.” I hold that the same is true of today’s game in question, one which already shares a lot in common with Journey, namely Abzû. It’s been said that Abzû is Journey’s spiritual successor.
At this point, I’ll hold off on any more comparisons between these two games until reaching the Uniqueness grading below. Abzû may have been informed largely by its predecessor but that doesn’t make it a poor game. Not by a long shot.
Abzû was not developed by thatgamecompany but by Giant Squid Studios, a new group with an appropriate name founded by an art director from thatgamecompany. It is difficult to properly classify Abzû. Is it a simulator? Is it an adventure game? I think questions like that speak to its nature as an art piece leaning toward the symbolic, the abstract, rather than merely a video game which neatly fits into a genre.
And yet Abzû somehow remains marketable. It attracted attention upon its release. Some of that of course was a current generated by the popularity of similar games before it, but this was a game many were excited to play. I was very excited to play it. It was one which generated a lot of discussion. It continues to do so, plainly because of the mysterious and mystifying story it tells.
There’s something to be said for the kind of striking impact such a small and peaceful game can have upon the industry. The world eagerly awaits the big name titles like Kingdom Hearts III, Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn and whatever flavor of Call of Duty comes out this year, yet in the midst of a sea of games vying for the attention of the media and gamers, Abzû comes like a soft breeze, a scent of fresh air. Perhaps we need more games like this. Perhaps beneath the hunger for gratuitous violence, frenetic multiplayer, new tech… what a lot of us really want is something which sets all of that aside.
There are no sniper scopes in Abzû, no monsters or zombies, no game overs, no high scores, no time limits, no online multiplayer, no DLC (thank God!), no hopelessness, no dialogue, no gritty realism, no need for headsets and microphones. In the place of those things isn’t nothing.
There is emotion. Abzû is moving. I never thought I would feel a lump in my throat for a fish. Beyond its capacity for evoking an emotional response, Abzû offers truly unique beauty and gameplay that is built on interaction and not primarily destruction. That alone sets it among an isolated group. It also contains some of the most impressive environments I’ve seen out of decades of gaming. Does the world really crave something so gentle, so benign, so emotional over all of the hype and noise of modern game marketing and merchandising? Only you can personally answer that question but it would seem that many of us do.
I believe that beneath the pining for the next sequel or the next wave of downloadable content lies a yearning to experience life. Maybe not every gamer would openly admit that but I’m convinced that this is one big reason why games like Abzû succeed. They reach the humanity in the player. Abzû causes us to feel emotions not generally engaged, and it does so in a powerful way. Abzû is entirely built on the premise of the beauty of the natural world, its solidarity, its loneliness, its unparalleled majesty, its scope and scale.
I felt the same way when I played Flower, another game by thatgamecompany and sorry to bring it up for the sake of returning back to comparisons, but here’s the thing: In our technologically advanced societies of computers and computer games, when was the last time we went beyond the urbana, the pavement, the asphalt, the sidewalks, and took a walk through a forest? Not to get exercise, not as a means to an end in other words, but just to be there among the trees? Have you gone to beach not to get a tan, not to party or hang out, not to see some event, but simply to be there, to experience the ocean and take in its awe-inspiring size?
Abzû serves as a kind of reminder that there is an entire world beyond the screen you are reading this on, beyond the screen you’ve experienced Abzû on. It reminds us that the world is wonderful, and you’ve got to go out to see it, maybe get away from other humans at this point in history, and just take in a meadow or a shoreline or a glade or a mountain for a few hours. Alone. In this sense, the unnaturally-stylized “natural” beauty in Abzû is merely a detour sign, one which serenely guides us to think of doing something as simple and enjoyable as swimming. I haven’t done that for years.
“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”
Abzû can’t be enough to fulfill anyone. It’s all too finite. In that vein it’s a self-contradiction. It points to a real world beyond its own digital one carefully crafted by its developers.
It is a world made by humans and it is beautiful, but it is a mere shadow of the real world made by inhuman hands. Deep down, you’re alive. Some of us may have forgotten. That life yearns to experience. Your soul longs to live and gaming is just a small, tiny shred of everything you can experience in life. That’s profound. That’s Abzû.
The name, which will be unfamiliar to almost everyone unless you’ve got a degree in ancient linguistics, is combination of two Sumerian words ab- which means “water” and –zû which means “deep”. The official website for Abzû defines the words as “ocean” and “to know”, equating to ocean of wisdom.
The difference in meaning was best explained to my mind when I read that the Abzu of ancient Sumerian texts was theoretically both a place and a state of being and mind. It is both deep water and ocean of wisdom.
Wisdom can be defined as the best, most prudent application of knowledge. Wisdom is making good use of facts. So what is Abzû about and what wisdom is it trying to demonstrate for us?
In Abzû, players take control of the Diver. The Diver has no name, though the developers have revealed the Diver is female. She suddenly appears to awaken (or revive) at the surface of a vast ocean. There is no dry land in sight. All that awaits is below, though there is no direction, no guide for your explorations. Where are you even headed?
There are lush underwater jungles of waving seaweed, stretches of brilliant sandbars, rocks encrusted with emerald algaes, vivid corals and crustaceans, brightly arrayed schools of fish of all kinds. It isn’t all placid waters, however, as the reefs and kelp give way to a murky, hellish abyss. Still there is one constant: the sea is teeming with life. We’re meant to see it this way because Abzû is about bringing life into this world of water.
Helpful little drones can be exhumed from the sand, which aid the Diver on her explorations. Along the way, the Diver encounters water beneath the water, a sub-layer of liquid, if you will. There are ancient towers which allow her to submerge into this special water. What this glowing substance is is unknown (or is it?), though it is depicted in murals and mosaics on the gilded walls of Atlantean ruins.
There is also a shark. A great white shark. We might’ve expected a game that draws upon the player’s emotions to play upon one of the most powerful emotions we can experience: fear. Since ancient times, well before Spielberg’s Bruce, human beings have feared sharks.
The ancient seafaring Hawaiians had a fearsome, ravenous shark god in their pantheon who was a false protector of one fueled by vengeance, before betraying him. The shark god ate all of the people of the man consumed by revenge and bathed the ocean red with their blood after flooding their land and washing them into the sea. Good luck having a good night’s sleep after that one.
I won’t say that Abzû is terrifying. Most of it is tranquil. Some of it is not. It’ll play on a lot of our innate galeophobia and thalassophobia, though, if that’s you. The ocean is beautiful and it is also terrifying. As a child, I was taught to always respect it.
There is a lot tying Abzû’s elements together, though the meaning of the connections are difficult to see. Abzû does not do a great job of explaining itself. The relationship between the drones, the water beneath the water, the Diver, and the shark is full of mystery but I think there are a few suitable lenses of interpretation, given the game’s use of ancient religious concepts. More on that below.
Abzû is an experience structured around the wonder of discovery. There’s a lot of mystery to uncover.
The 8-bit Review
This is easily one of the most visually beautiful games I have ever played. There are so many things which could’ve gone wrong, which could’ve thrown off the illusion of being underwater. But consider the many details in Abzû which work perfectly: the sense of weightlessness and simultaneous tangibility of the animals and the Diver. There is a constant ebb and flow in the water as currents and tide collide, making everything wave and bob gently. The surface of the ocean is unlike any water effect I’ve seen before in a video game, with the undulating, light-fragmenting appearance that looks so much like the real thing. I spent a lot of time diving as a youngster, so I know what I’m talking about!
Dappled sunlight playing on the ocean floor, clouds of sand kicked up by your flippers, specks of tiny plankton shifting aimlessly while suspended in the water, the portrayal of depth in the open sea. It is all breathtaking. The most impressive video game graphics ever belong to Abzû, in my book, because of the shoal of giant trevally. Never seen anything like it. Not even remotely. This is not one object that looks like many little objects. It is dozens and dozens of little objects which change their direction to avoid the Diver and predators, a constantly shifting cloud of individual fish. Mindblowing.
One of the coolest features in Abzû is meditation. The Diver can swim up to submerged statues and sit cross-legged on top of them, which switches the camera over to any of the varied marine life swimming around. The game even tells you the names of each animal. Seeing whales, marlin, giant squid, manta rays, jellyfish, anglerfish, and sharks are all wonderful, but you can even ride most of the larger animals.
It’s a screenshotter’s paradise.
Grammy Award nominee Austin Wintory, who scored flOw, Flower, and Journey, returns to gaming composition with an orchestral soundtrack as powerful as a tsunami and as complex as the spiral shell of a nautilus. This is his most complicated and broadest work yet, and it makes even the soundtrack from Journey sound minimal by comparison. As the oceans of Abzû are overflowing with life so is Wintory’s score overflowing with complexity, at times even turning dissonant.
Wintory said Abzû is “about the dream of scuba-diving more than the realities of scuba diving.” As such, the score is ambient and in characteristic Wintory style each track melds and flows into the next as the game progresses from area to area, emotion to emotion. Swelling strings and the antiphonies of choirs overlay so much against each other that at times there is no harmony or even a melody to be picked out.
Many of the tracks are so moving and magnificent, they take on a spiritual quality befitting much of Abzû’s content. One of the last areas in the game takes a resplendent leap and the music roars into a glorious crescendo of voices. It hardly matters that you can’t understand their language (Latin?) since the impact of the music is in the sensation of the monumental and the divine, touching the hand of Michelangelo’s God, rather than in the details of the lyrics. Wintory creates through Abzû such an indescribably lively listening experience, it is difficult to pin down exactly what it is in the music which reached out to grasp your heart. You won’t be able to tell whether the music in the game was built around the visuals, or if the visuals were formed by the music.
In some ways, music in Abzû even seems experimental. At times it sways between music and noise, not clamor or something unpleasant like that, but something more along the lines of Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna”, an ancient, numinous sound. It is music where sensation is more important than melody. Seriously, Google that and make a comparison.
Water levels. Most people hate ’em. Generally it’s because water levels take all of the gameplay you’ve learned in the platformer or what have you and throws it in the garbage. Water levels, pretentious, pretentious water levels have their own sense of physics and sluggishness which sticks a wrench in the whole game. Well, guess what? Abzû is one gigantic water level. Truth’s out.
However, these are definitely the most enjoyable controls for any underwater video game environment. They are simplified to perfection. They’re smooth and fluid and elegant. The Diver can swim at various different speeds and the player can utilize different patterns of swimming, even triggering a somewhat tricky boost that thrusts the Diver through the water at tremendous but limited pace.
While exploring under the sea, the Diver will come across hidden pools of light. Interacting with these pools will trigger the appearance of new marine life, animals which seem to materialize out of raw energy, who then swim off to become predators or prey. Yeah, you can literally watch a whole ecosystem happening around you with fish chasing each other and eating each other. Swimming alongside humpback whales and extinct animals is a delight.
There are also spiral shells which can be picked up. This is the closest thing to an inventory item in Abzû. If you collect all 19 sea shells, you unlock a special secret (spoiler: highlight to reveal) suit which makes you able to travel even faster underwater by boosting infinitely.
However, these discoveries are few, if not entirely far between. There are only a few areas in Abzû and the game is short. The biggest complaint that has reached my ears about Abzû concerns just how short it really is. Each of the areas (which I noticed follow a spring, summer, autumn, winter progression) ends with unlocking a ruined tower and accessing the water beneath the water to revive life. The areas themselves are not very expansive, though they have the illusion of being huge. That coupled with the game being linear and there isn’t in actuality too much to explore.
Less is more, as they sometimes say. In this case, I’ve finished Abzû almost a dozen times now but its controls and gameplay are so relaxing and enjoyable and downright gorgeous that I just want to play it without accomplishing anything, without beating the game. I’d call that a design success.
If you’d like to avoid SPOILERS for this game, please Ctrl+f Accessibility to skip the Narrative and Themes portion of this review.
After progressing to the first tower, you get an idea of the general linear structure of Abzû. The Diver proceeds through the summit of the tower down into a hidden realm: the water beneath the water. It’s an ethereal world of ghosts and spirits, at least I assume that’s what all of the translucent architecture represents. There, the Diver places a sphere inside of a globule, triggering a resurgence of natural life in the area outside of the tower as the vale in which the tower sits fills up with water underwater like a shimmering pool.
With the towers secured and revitalized, the Diver proceeds on to the Machine, a gigantic triangular structure dominating the ocean floor. Remember there’s no dialogue in Abzû to explain things but the Machine is clearly some kind of self-replicating device. Inside of it, we see that it mass-produces drones, the same ones that you’ve already unearthed, and floating mines which are the same triangular shape. In a central room, a lit up display shows that the drones, the mines and the Diver herself all share the same central power source, a glowing blue sphere, which is the same sphere that the Diver earlier deposited into the towers to revive the local flora and fauna.
The Machine appears to be self-aware, with a single eye that tracks everything moving nearby. The great white shark leads the Diver to its core and attempts to destroy it. Unfortunately, the resulting explosion kills the shark and shreds the skin from the Diver, revealing her to be an automaton. This is a surprisingly tragic moment. I share my wife’s sentiments when she said “I never thought I’d feel so sad to see a shark die!” That’s a true testament to Abzû’s reach.
The Diver leaves behind the corpse of the shark, who it turns out had been an ally all this time, and passes into a secret world of cobalt and gold ruins. It’s a lost world where primeval lifeforms still exist. This was a fun opportunity for me to show off all the stuff I thought I forgot I learned from Zoobooks. “Look! An Ichthyosaur!”
Through the ancient ruins, the Diver reaches the center of the water underwater and passes on into the strange spirit realm, reviving the spirit of the dead great white. Together, they swim even deeper into some kind of afterlife scene of glory. They destroy the remaining machines and at last confront the central Machine again, effectively shutting it down. The final image is of the shark, now alive again, and the Diver swimming idly and playfully among the other sea life on a new ecosystem growing from the shell of the Machine.
The narrative is deceptively simple. Sure we were lied to about the nature of the great white, but progressing area by area to confront the epitomy of industrialized evil and then restore the natural world is something we’ve seen plenty of times before. “The balance of nature” and the opposition of human technology against nature is nothing new to storytelling. Fern Gully to Avatar to Jurassic Park… Dr. Malcom said “rape of the natural world”, right? Life finds a way.
But beneath this environmental message warning against the threat of exponentially advancing technology is a thematic web which is more open to interpretation. I’ll say right off the bat that I don’t think Abzû intends to answer every question. I don’t believe there is an explanation for the Diver’s identity or what she was doing the whole time the Machine she seems to have introduced ran amok.
Any framework at all is seen in the murals of the ruins. This is what I can piece together. The ancient people, Atlanteans perhaps, discovered an energy source beneath the sea represented by a blue sphere, shining like the sun. They harvested this energy and carried it in jars but they always returned some of the energy back to the sea in a picture of sustainability of natural resources. They also associated the blue energy with the great white shark, which is a recurring image throughout the murals. Sometimes the shark is depicted as bright in color and sometimes as dark in color, which might differentiate between the spirit shark at the end of the game and the living breathing one. At this point in time, I believe the shark is some kind of primal god, a guardian of the undersea energy reincarnating in every generation, which would explain its reappearance throughout the murals.
At some point in the Atlanteans’ history, the Diver appeared with the Machine. Both the Diver and the Machine were capable of harvesting the blue energy like never before. The ancients are depicted as prostrating themselves before the technological marvel. Where did the Diver and the Machine come from? The Diver is depicted as separate from the people, an individual. Perhaps the Diver too is a god, a visitor from another world. The revelation that she is a robot confirms she is unlike the ancients, who we have no reason to believe were robots as well.
There is the barest hint at the possibility of her origins. At the surface, you can tilt the camera up and sometimes catch a glimpse in the distant sky of a shattered triangular shape, somewhat like the shape of the Machine. Was this another Machine but in the sky? Was this a spaceship? Are we talking aliens? Is it a moon? Don’t know, but perhaps the Diver came from the sky, as most pagan gods did.
In the murals, the Machine the Diver brought eventually harvested too much of the blue energy which devastated the lifeforms growing in the ocean. What happened to the Diver while this went on? Maybe she left. Maybe she simply didn’t care. Maybe she deactivated if there wasn’t enough blue energy left to power her (at the beginning of the game, the water underwater shines and seems to call the Diver to wake). The ancients fled their cities and carried off their treasures (I thought of the stone relief on the Arch of Titus depicting the treasures of Jerusalem being carried away, the end of an era).
This explains the current state of things in Abzû. The cities are abandoned, now ruins. The lifeforms which appear from the blue energy are those which perished from the Machine’s unchecked tyranny. Interestingly, it is the Diver who must restore them to life. She is the one who brought the Machine. It is her responsibility. What an allegory for the human race.
Now to some ulterior interpretations. One of the most convincing that I’ve read was a theory which postulates that the entire game is about the journey of a woman trying to get pregnant, where the Diver represents the woman, the shark represents the male, and the triangular Machine represents the uterus. Both the shark and the Diver must travel to the triangle together to make the delivery and create life, and so on. Interesting, but I don’t think you could say the game is about getting pregnant. That’s merely an interpretation, though it’s a good one.
I believe the best interpretation is one which the game makes itself through its title. Abzû as we’ve seen means ocean of wisdom but it also refers to the ancient belief of a primeval sea in Mesopotamian religion. Additionally, Abzû is the name of a deity in the Enûma Elish, Babylonian creation myth.
In the myth, Abzû (or Apsû) is a male deity of subterranean fresh water in love with Tiamat, female deity of salt water. Abzû is said to have existed before the heavens or the earth, along with Tiamat and from them sprung life through the mixing of their waters. Abzû and Tiamat bear the lesser gods who eventually rise up and usurp Abzû. Tiamat is also killed and the heavens and earth are formed from her remains.
I think the developers cleverly drew from this myth for their game. The title, Abzû, refers both to the underwater water blue energy and to the masculine shark partner-figure who incarnates it. If the Diver has a name, it must be Tiamat, the deity of the primal salt water who loved Abzû. In the game, they both fall and only the Diver (Tiamat) survives to go on to destroy her own Machine (her descendants), though the game ends more happily for the male and female figures than it does in the Babylonian myth.
The audio tracks “Their Waters Were Mingled Together” and “Then Were Created The Gods In The Midst Of Heaven” both seem to tie into the Sumerian roots.
Water being compared to life and the origin of life is not unique to Abzû but utilizing the Sumerian beliefs is. Abzû is the shark and the blue energy, the lifeforce of the planet, if you will, while the Diver is the creation goddess Tiamat, the one who brings this life forth through… cooperation… with the shark.
And that’s my interpretation! One last interesting thing to note is abzû was also a term used for containers of holy water in Babylonian temples, much like the ancient people in the murals carrying the blue energy in their jars.
Abzû is capable of teaching you how to play with just a few images of a controller appearing on the screen. It’ll take less than a minute and there’s nothing to master since there’s so little demanded of you in the game. To prove my point, I handed the controller over to my stepdad one night when he visited and just said “here, have fun.” And he did. He got into exploring for a little bit and managed to get around after getting his bearings. We’re talking about a guy whose last video game was probably something like Pong.
Emulating Journey as closely as it does is perhaps Abzû’s biggest flaw. Playing through it, there were many times when I felt it was exactly the same just in a different setting. Though if it had to mirror any game, Journey is an excellent choice. Consider this: emphasis on minimalism, waking up in the middle of nowhere without explanation, exploring a ruined civilization, fighting off rogue tech, cultivating and freeing lifeforms, progressing linearly, examining murals and mosaics, experiencing spiritual reveries and trances are all very much Journey. Spiritual successor, indeed. I won’t complain, though, since I enjoyed the heck out of both works of art. Still, Abzû’s inherent familiarity causes me to feel less of what I did with its predecessor. It’s not as impactful.
The inclusion of spiritual and religious concepts from ancient times in Abzû does set it apart from many other games, and considering the vast majority of games out there, Abzû is still very unique. I just don’t think it will be as enduring as Journey.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Abzû is everything I’ve ever wanted in a diving game, except for maybe including spear-fishing though that’d clearly be antithetical to the game’s direction. I spent a lot of time in and around the ocean growing up and it has always been a source of fear and awe for me. I’ve had dreams of swimming with tropical fish and nightmares of being lost in the water after dark with unknown giants beneath me. Abzû captures the wonder of nature.
I can fully appreciate that Abzû is not for everyone. It may be too tranquil, too serene for some and come to be interpreted as boring. If that’s you, I’m reminded of an anecdote about the late visionary director Stanley Kubrick, who filled almost half an hour of his film 2001: a Space Odyssey with images of satellites and space stations turning slowly through space. When asked why he would spend so much time on shots of space stations, he simply said: “Because they’re beautiful.”
Aggregated Score: 8.3
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Categories: Game Review