From my earliest days spent enraptured by Jacques Cousteau and the crew of the Calypso, the oceans have always held endless fascination for me. And for good reason: Take all the best sci-fi writers and artists and ask them to populate the most fantastical world imaginable, and the result would surely have nothing on the amazing underwater realm right here on Earth. (Indeed, chances are that many of the fictional designs would be inspired by our own seafaring creatures.) We look to the stars for any sign of life, and yet we haven’t finished identifying all our own incredible aquatic wonders by looking to the ocean depths. Needless to say, when the opportunity arose to play Giant Squid’s ABZÛ, I eagerly dove headlong – both literally (or at least virtually) and figuratively – into the underseas exploration game, and was never once sorry that I did.
ABZÛ will be one of those titles destined to fall under the “is it a game or isn’t it?” debate, to which the only correct answer, of course, is “who cares?” It’s silly to insist that a free-roaming exploration of the vast ocean expanse must confine itself to artificial genre walls. That said, it’s certainly true that ABZÛ is hardly a game in the traditional sense. There are no puzzles to solve or enemies to combat, and other than throwing the odd switch and activating the occasional portal, there are really no objectives to complete beyond finding your way from one picturesque ecosystem to another. So if you’re the sort of person who would find snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef boring without having sunken pirate treasure chests to find, don’t hold your breath for anything like that here. For those who would value such an excursion simply for its beauty and the joys of discovering the unknown, you’d better hold your breath, because ABZÛ is going to take you for an incredible swim.
Actually, you don’t really need to hold your breath at all. Worrying about breathable air would be too game-like, after all. It’s not really clear what race the playable protagonist belongs to, but although bedecked in a black diving suit with long flippers and a headlamp, it’s obvious you’re not exactly human. For one thing, you never run out of oxygen, and for another, you’re never subject to the vice-like ocean pressure no matter how deep you go. Nor are you vulnerable to most of the game’s dangers, though your own mortality does eventually come into play. ABZÛ offers no introduction to explain who you are, what you are, or why you’re here, dropping you straight into the action to let you find your own way.
Much like the absence of conventional gameplay, there is no dialogue and no overt plot to follow as you progress, only cryptic clues to discover along the way. The word ABZÛ is a combination of the ancient words AB, meaning ocean, and ZÛ, meaning to know, making ABZÛ the ocean of wisdom. But this is an ocean that guards its secrets protectively, teasing only with vague hints instead of answers. For much of the game, WTFZÛ is probably a more accurate description, if not quite having the same ring to it. But the further you go, the more you’ll begin to understand – or at the very least, the more you’ll feel empowered to draw your own conclusions.
At predetermined points you’ll encounter crumbling ancient ruins adorned with hieroglyph-style frescoes, and at others you’ll be confronted by imposing mechanical obstructions, while in between you’ll return periodically to a central hub made of pillars of light for some surreal moments of mystical splendour. I’ll leave it to you to form your own interpretations, but it’s not a spoiler to say that I found it a lovely tale of creation, destruction, redemption and rebirth. I was even moved by it; while I typically prefer straight exposition over pretentious obscurity, Giant Squid has struck just the right artistic storytelling balance here.
But all this high-concept stuff isn’t really what ABZÛ is “about”. Really you could bypass the philosophical underpinnings entirely and still have a blast, because the main attraction here is delving through one gorgeous seascape after another and interacting with myriad creatures as you go. The various settings are jaw-dropping, ranging from vibrant, brightly-lit shallows to the murkiest of ominous depths. One minute you’ll be kicking up white sand around pink choral and turquoise rocky outcroppings, and the next you’ll be easing your way through giant kelp growing from floor to surface in water tinted heavily with rich greens or vivid burnt amber, making it feel like the seasons are changing underwater. You can even surface in places for a topside view that is pretty enough, but the real attraction of the ocean lies beneath, so you’ll soon re-submerge to continue on your way.
As stunning as it is just to look at, it’s the denizens of the deep, rather than its décor, that really make the experience come alive. There are literally hundreds of species of marine life to encounter, coming in all shapes, sizes, and colours. The roster is impressive: creepy anglerfish illuminate a massive whale skeleton on the dark ocean bottom; giant clams snap shut in sensing your approach; the aptly-named eagle rays glide gracefully through the water as if in flight. And the deeper you go, the more bizarre the dwellers, as here even prehistoric species have been preserved. What a treat to swim with the bulgy-eyed ichthyosaurus and marvel at the Nessie-like elasmosaur. Some fish dart about nervously in tightly-packed schools, while others patrol the waters alone, including various kinds of sharks. And yet, despite the predatory nature of the seas, ABZÛ is a peaceful adventure for the most part, the only real danger being posed by the remnants of mankind (or whatever poses for humanity in this world).
The artwork itself is realistic enough but with a gentle painterly quality not unlike an underwater version of Journey. ABZÛ comes by that influence honestly, as its Creative Director is Matt Nava, former Art Director at thatgamecompany. The visuals aren’t the only similarity to Journey either, as Austin Wintory reprises his role as composer, and has once again created a masterful backdrop. I’m not one to generally enjoy listening to full orchestral music on its own, but as an accompaniment this is precisely how I find it most impactful. Never once overwhelming the visual experience, the score subtly enhances the atmosphere and emotion of each scene, whether a carefree playfulness, serene earnestness, or even more melancholic and menacing moods when necessary. If the music ever looped, I wasn’t aware of it, and indeed I felt like the music itself was telling the story of ABZÛ. I simply cannot pay a higher compliment to a soundtrack than that.Continued on the next page...