Let's get one thing out of the way right now. Yes, at first glance, Abzu looks and plays and feels kinda like Journey underwater.
Abzu creator Matt Nava was the lead artist on the extraordinary Journey leading up to its release in 2012. After finishing his work there, Nava set up a Santa Monica-based developer called Giant Squid. Abzu is its first game.
Players take first-person control of the game's central character — a polygonal, distinctive diver — and begin to explore the oceanic environment. This is not unlike the beginning of Journey, though that game begins in a desert.
Nava laughs at the obvious comparison when I somewhat sheepishly mention it at the beginning of an interview. "Well, yes." he says. "They are both from the same hand." He adds that the comparisons are "totally OK" because "Abzu is more than that and people will realize that when they play it."
In a demo I find that I am being asked to wander off in search of ... who knows? I plunge into the deep.
Even just a few moments into the game, it's obvious that Nava has managed to give this place a sense of wonder. He has created a place where I want to be, and I want to stay.
Of all the games I played at a recent week-long pre-E3 media blitz, this was the one that excited me the most. Abzu, on the evidence we've seen so far, is environmental storytelling at its absolute best.
"During my time at thatgamecompany [Journey's developer] I really learned about what a game can do for the player as an experience, rather than as a pastime," says Nava. "It can really be something meaningful. We want to take that further. To advance that by taking the player on this emotional descent into the ocean, which is really a metaphor for diving into yourself."
In the first few seconds of the game, I dived underwater and looked around at a fairly murky and nondescript ocean bed. The diver has no concerns about oxygen. I am free to explore. I am also able to execute lovely little loops and underwater gymnastics, so it's easy to get around.
Nava has pulled off that trick of creating pathways for the player without making them obvious. I see something that I want to look at more closely than any other thing, and so I head towards it.
Soon, the diver is swishing through underwater vegetation and that's when the real stars of this game appear: the sea life.
Shoals of fish mooch around, displaying collective fish-like behavior. Then larger forms appear like turtles and stingrays. I manage to clamber aboard a few of these gorgeous creatures and am taken on a magical ride.
Nava is a scuba diver with a keen interest in natural history. "I had an amazing experience with a sea lion in a kelp forest near Anacapa Island," he says. "He put his nose on my mask and then swam away and jumped over us on the surface. It was an amazing connection with this creature. That experience stayed with me, so when I moved on from Journey, this was the game I wanted to make."
Abzu isn't just about exploring a virtual sea park. There is a story. There are creatures that are not so friendly. There are human artifacts buried in the sand. In the demo I played, all this added up to plenty of moments when I gasped with delight and surprise.
At this point it's difficult to gauge how long the game will be. A representative of publisher 505 Games said "sub-five hours." This is likely going to be a game for people who enjoy short, emotionally punchy stories without much in the way of player violence.
Part of the game's longevity (or otherwise) comes from the spare use of progress signals and from the desire to just hang around in each area and take a look at everything, not merely in order to resolve the puzzle of advancement, but just because this is a place of beauty.
"The diver is lost and she is finding herself and she is finding her direction at the same time," says Nava. "So that is reflected in the mechanics. We let you linger and find your own way."
Unlike in Journey, there is no online connectivity with other players. "This game is about a personal story. It's about discovering the self. But you'll also find lots of secrets in the deep and see hidden artifacts and cool secrets."
Abzu is scheduled to be released on PlayStation 4 and Windows PC in the first half of 2016.