Ocean life and strangeness are the intertwined themes of Abzu, a soulful submersion into a place of beauty, movement and color.
Abzu is also an illusion, offering the promise of free exploration while gently guiding players along a predestined path, lured along by music, light and flow.
Both games feature the enormous talents of artist Matt Nava and composer Austin Wintory. Both are third-person stories of an individual, searching for answers in a prettily organic world of shallow puzzles and deep mysteries. And both fix themselves on that part of you yearning for a sense of wonder and loveliness.
But whereas Journey told its story in mostly emotive hues, Abzu attempts a more traditional narrative of loss and discovery. Unlike Journey, there are no fellow travelers to encounter along the way, no sense of other people on a shared passage. This is about one woman and the sea.
In a pre-E3 demo, publisher 505 Games offered up about 20 minutes of the game, which is likely to come in at a few hours in length. Abzu begins with a diver at sea. There are no clues as to her identity or why she is alone in an ocean. A far-away kelp forest demands exploration, and so Abzu begins, the first chords of Wintory's score accompanying us as we learn the basic controls of swimming.
The diver swishes through underwater plant-life, while following all manner of fish, turtles, sharks and sea creatures. Schools of fish move in musical shoals, parting whenever a predator appears in their midst.
"You have this almost religious, beautiful experience."
According to Nava, his development team at Santa Monica-based Giant Squid — which includes enthusiastic divers — wanted to create a realistic environment in which different species are in a constant battle to eat or be eaten.
"We’ve added a cool food chain simulation, which lets all these predatory fish eat the little guys," he explains. "So you'll see goliath groupers chase after the little guys and eat them."
At first, the developers forgot to create a self-sustaining and ecology. "Very quickly, all the fish were just eaten," laughs Nava. "But now, whenever a fish gets eaten, we teleport them behind the camera and they keep swimming over there. The population of fish in any room remains basically constant all the time."
The swimmer has a few special moves, such as rolling and looping. She can also grab onto the back of larger sea creatures and follow them as they seek out lunch. These journeys take us through coral reefs, dappled with sunlight and contrast, great rays beaming through underwater foliage.
The diver is on a quest, which soon reveals itself in the form of an underwater drone, a machine that can ping out sonar waves and highlight progression and story clues. Seeking out the drones reveals basic puzzles that then open up new areas to explore.
"There are magical spaces. It becomes this surreal adventure."
"All the puzzles are encouraging players to explore," says Nava. "We want you to find the secrets in that space, and then you’ll be able to progress. There are no cut-scenes or narration. Every player should have their own interpretation of what happens and who the diver is."
These puzzles also lead the player to big story beats including ancient underwater structures as well as others that seem futuristic. In the early demo, there's also a mysterious underwater 'lake' that takes the player on a short mystical journey. Other special moments include joining a rapid stream teeming with a disorientating array of sea life.
"There are magical spaces in the game and it becomes this surreal adventure," adds Nava. "I think that's going to be surprising to people who might have perceived it so far is as kind of this serene, meditative underwater experience. But what’s exciting to me is that there are several moments in the game where you’ll have these unexpected areas to discover."
From time to time, a shadow of peril falls upon the player. A shark flits in and out of view. Undoubtedly, this is leading up to something scary. But even these early introductions are alarming, a hint of darkness in what is otherwise a panorama of shimmering light.
"We’ve had players play the game a couple of times, and every time they go through, they still jump when the shark appears, even though they know it’s coming," says Nava. "We have these deep, dark spaces. When you go into them, the diver will turn on her headlights. You discover shapes in the darkness. There are more clues in these off-the-beaten-path areas, to tell the player about what’s happened in this world."
Mystic symbolism, rather than language, help tell the story, as the diver discovers hieroglyphs etched into sunken buildings. Other discoveries give the diver new powers, though there are no clumsy upgrade trees. The player simply finds these new abilities, like extra speed, and plays with them.
There's fun to be had just by mooching around in each of the large areas. This is one of those games that you play once, then twice, and then you watch your friends play.
Abzu is based on Nava and his team's love of the ocean, and on their love of experiential games that are more about feeling than about challenge. The fun here is simply in inhabiting the space, wanting to progress but being okay with not being in any particular rush. It is another place.
"That’s one of the things that fascinates me about the ocean," he says. "You go there and you have this almost religious experience, this transformative, beautiful experience. At the same time, it’s extremely frightening and adventurous. There are so many different kinds of emotions together. Serenity and adventure. That was something we wanted to capture."