When ABZU, developed by Giant Squid Studios, was released in 2016, I was immediately drawn to it. As a lover of the ocean, as a lover of games like Journey and Flower, I couldn’t wait to jump into another game that provided the same kind of relaxed gameplay that still provided an interested story, conveyed almost entirely through the mechanics.
Upon its release, it was compared, often favorably, to games like Journey, which only increased my interest in it. On the rare occasion that I read something unfavorable about the game, the review was almost entirely negative, excluding the art style. The dichotomy of feelings toward this one ocean game fascinated me, to be honest.
So which is it? Is it a masterpiece in its own right, or is it doomed to always be the game that’s “like Journey, but…”?
At a first glance, it might seem like the latter, but ABZU, like the ocean itself, might be deeper than it appears.
Unmarked spoilers below, so proceed at your own risk.
ABZU presents very minimal directions, much like similar games of this type, and immediately drops you, the Diver, into an ocean. With nothing else to do, the Diver does what Divers do, and dives (say that five times fast). From there, the world is your oyster (pun intended) and you are on your adventure.
On the surface (Pun Counter: 2), ABZU’s gameplay is rather simple: solve a few very simple puzzles and return wildlife to the oceans. In between levels are ethereal areas , in which the Diver appears to swim through the ocean while simultaneously swimming through the sky.
This is where we have our first point of depth (Pun Counter: 3). The idea of a “cosmic ocean” or “celestial river” is religious imagery that pops up in myriad mythologies, and can include a world-covering ocean, or even an ocean that encompasses the entire universe.
In the religions that came out of the Middle East, we see the creation of the world, during which the Earth is comprised of nothing but a vast ocean on the first day, over which God hovers (Genesis 1:2) before creating terrestrial lands to separate the oceans (Genesis 1:6). In the greater “cosmic ocean” mythos, an “Earth diver” is sent from a creator to dive to the depths of the ocean and bring up the land to separate to oceans from each other.
And so here we are, a lone diver, sent to the depths of the ocean, for the purpose of returning life to the oceans after an unnamed calamity occurs.
The controls are intuitive enough, and can be switched between inverted an typical, depending on your personal preferences. I never figured out which one worked best for me, because sometimes I thought of swimming like using flying controls, and other times not, but there is rarely anything in the game that requires precise navigation to the point that a little slipping and twirling in the water is going to cause the Diver harm.
After that, the game is fairly formulaic: enter area, solve basic puzzle, be treated to beautiful art, save animals, swim with animals, twirl in water with animals. Rinse and repeat.
But, we’ve barely dipped beneath the surface.
…(Pun Counter: 4)
Let the Orinoco Flow
What ABZU does well is give players a beautiful world to explore and experience. It is a game that doesn’t strain its players with “enemies,” and even during parts when I fumbled the controls and accidentally caused my Diver to become injured, there was never time when I felt like the Diver was in true danger (unless the plot demanded it).
It was a pleasant game to play, and had gorgeous graphics. There were a few moments that visually took my breath away, like swimming through a jet stream with dolphins or, the one that sticks in my memory even more, the indescribable sequences of swimming with humpback whales. Even from the comfort of my chair, even far away from the ocean and actual whales, the magnitude and majesty of these creatures were captured beautifully. If I could repeat one section of the game over and over, it would be that section. My grin couldn’t have been wider, and it was the first time in the game that I finally felt like there was something bigger to what the Diver was doing.
There were other moments that were unexpectedly emotional. Early in the game, the Diver is alone, but soon discovers and electronic fish friend – and then a second fish friend! These fish friends interact with the Diver through musical chirps – and they mimic the Diver’s chirps right back, as if communicating. It was adorable, and for those of you who read about RiME and checked out the gallery and know my love of the little fox friend, I was caught, hook, line, and sinker (Pun #5) with my new electronic fish friends.
I became unexpectedly protective of my fish friend after one of them met an untimely end, but unfortunately these high stakes were not followed up on.
However, I will say that I never thought I could feel sad for a shark that had killed one of my little electronic fish friends (again something that wasn’t explained), but the game managed that, too.
(Trying to) Find Meaning
To pull back for a moment, I will say that my initial reaction to ABZU was not glowingly positive. Perhaps the worst thing I did was actively try to compare it to games like Journey and RiME, both of which I love.
When I first played Journey, I felt like I had had a spiritual experience, and sat with the ending credits lost in thought about the experience I had just had. That feeling was compounded after having the chance to play online with another gamer. It was a profoundly moving experience, and my heart still swells when I think about it.
Years after playing Journey, I played RiME. RiME swept me up into the story and had me crying by the end of the game. It was the first time in a long, long time that I had actually felt dread for a character, and found myself pleading “no no no” as I realized what was really happening with the plot.
Unfortunately, when I finished playing ABZU, my reaction was, “Oh. Well that was neat.”
At first blush, the plot is straightforward and almost cliché: a technological calamity happened, and somehow trapped all the sea animals, and now it’s time to Fix It. There was perhaps another civilization that used to live beneath the waves, but unlike in Journey, this was not really explored, or at least I did not come across any explanations and, after about two hours of play, didn’t feel invested enough to swim around aimlessly in the hopes that I tripped over something “deeper” to the plot. The focus of the game seemed to be on the beautiful graphics and the immersive ocean experience (which is valid! It was merely a pitfall of my expectations not aligning with what the game intended).
When I compared RiME to Journey, I said it payed homage to it, to Shadow of the Colossus, and to other games, rather than trying to recreate the magic of one (or all) of these games. Comparing ABZU to Journey, it seemed like ABZU was trying to be the underwater copy Journey. At first glance, I found nothing novel about the game, and as someone who is drawn in by stories, I was left feeling cold. I felt like I was on a straightforward mission to save animals, level after level, and my experience was boiled down to appreciating the scenery, rather than glean something deeper from it.
This isn’t necessarily bad, but, as I mentioned, it wasn’t what I expected after games like Journey, RiME, and even Flower. I admit that part of my initial blasé feeling toward ABZU could be because of my expectations, and is not a demerit for the game itself.
As I said above, ABZU is a beautiful game, and there were plenty of moments were “just” exploring the ocean was a very awesome (in the sense of inspiring awe) experience.
ABZU and Non-Duality
Toward the end of the game (and possibly before, but I didn’t find it before I was close to the conclusion), the game introduces statues that allow the diver to meditate. Upon assuming a modified lotus position, the Diver enters into a meditative state (presumably) and the player is then able to “jump” perspectives, and follow around fish as it swims about its day. The player can even “jump” from fish to fish, following their meandering progress around the area. There is no “time” limit on this, and a player could presumably follow any manner of available sea life as it goes about its day, for as long as the player wished.
This struck me, especially after playing a game like SOMA, which dove us into our own minds about who we are, and where the line between “us” and “other” truly is. In this meditative experience in ABZU, we as players are able to lightly experience the idea of non-duality – a sense of being, during which the “I-other” barrier is transcended. Another way of saying this is that the sense of being an individual entity in the universe fades to the point of feeling an interconnectedness with other entities in the universe.
Please note that there are many different definitions of non-dualism, and this is only one interpretation of it. Here, in the ABZU example, while the Diver remains himself, seated upon the meditation statue, he bridges the gap between his awareness/existence and that of the living creatures swimming around the meditation area. This transcendence is so profound that the Diver experiences – but does not control – another entity’s life as they are experiencing it.
Non-duality is a concept found in many religions, so while it is tempting to wax poetic about one religion or another, in this case the answer to “which religion inspired this?” is moot. The transcendence of one’s existence to that of something so much larger is, I believe, what ABZU was trying to evoke with its oceanic themes and soothing gameplay. Adding a meditation experience was thus a nice touch, as meditation is believed to weaken the barrier between “I” and the greater universe around us.
Just as it broke down the barrier between the players’ experiences of the Diver, versus their experiences of the ocean’s vibrant existence
ABZU is an experience more than what I might consider a game, but it is well-suited for someone wanting a few hours to enjoy lush scenery, beautiful music, and gameplay that doesn’t demand much of the player. It’s a gorgeous game with plenty to look at, and doesn’t put an emotional load on the player, despite a few surprising moments.
Its puzzles are fairly straightforward, and it seems to be more concerned with making sure the player can progress through the game with minimal stress, and was a good game with which I could unwind at the end of very longs days. Indeed, I played it in the middle of the night after some very hectic days at work, and didn’t find myself wanting to avoid it because I knew I could do it without much brain effort.
While it had a few moments of interesting concepts that hinted at deeper experiences, ABZU didn’t scratch my particularly insatiable itch for stories and symbolism and profundity, but as I’ve mentioned, that might not have been the game’s purpose. It might not have been trying to capture Journey’s magic, but rather provide the player with a few hours of peace.
If providing peace was its goal, it was successful, and beyond that, I enjoyed my time with it.
Have you played ABZU? What did you think of it? Did I miss something profound about the game? Let me know in the comments?
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
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