Preview events offer only brief glimpses at very big games. Who knows how any given game will pan out in its final form? The most we can say is This Could Be Good.
Developer: Giant Squid
Publisher: 505 Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC
Release date: 2016
City dwellers flock to the ocean as a peaceful alternative to the stresses of modern life. There’s a zen-like calm in the slow rhythm of the waves lapping to the shore, or in the feeling of weightlessness as you dive beneath the surface and let the water’s currents nudge you.
In video games, however, the sea is not your friend. Most game creators plop players underwater as a way to increase, not decrease, anxiety. You may suddenly suffer slower movement or disorienting gravity that forces you to relearn the controls. Some games also toss in the additional threat of suffocation, represented by an oxygen bar that rapidly ticks away until you swim your way to fresh air. And if the bends don’t get you, some sort of subaquatic creature will finish you off—a shark, a giant squid, an especially unfriendly krill.
That’s what makes the warm waters of the undersea exploration game Abzû so refreshing. The devlopers, who have formed a new, appropriately named studio called Giant Squid, describe it as an “adventure.” But it’s not an adventure in the Indiana Jones sense—running around in strange places, avoiding bullets and spike traps. Adventure here evokes the tradition of marine explorer Jacques Cousteau. The great wide ocean of Abzû is a place of meditation and mystery instead of ever-present danger.
In Abzû, you inhabit the wetsuit of an deep sea diver who explores the depths at her own leisurely pace. There’s no rapidly tapping buttons to stay afloat, and you won’t have to desperately seek out air bubbles. As for those frightening finned or tentacled creatures that want to eat you: “We wanted you to have respectful, non-violent interactions with animals,” said Matt Nava, the game’s art director. “Most games have you kill animals for upgrades. We wanted something different.”
“Something different” means that you drift with schools of fish in Abzû instead of farming them for food. You ride the back of a manta ray rather than sending a harpoon through its oddly shaped mouth. Even the great white shark isn’t the bloodthirsty beast it would normally be in a video game. “Sharks are misrepresented in media,” Nava noted. “They’re not just mindless killers. We try to feature them as a multifaceted creature. Your relationship with the shark is an important part of the narrative.”
There’s a loose story embedded in Abzû, but like Nava’s previous game, Journey (for which he also served as art director), the point is to experience wonder over purpose. I only got to sit down with Abzû for 15 minutes, but in that small window of time, it was a lagoon of calm in E3’s ocean of simulated violence and ear-shattering noise.