Abzû [official site] is a beautiful underwater game which is, by turns, delightful and then very good at getting in its own way. I’ve played it twice now so follow me beneath the waves as I tell you Wot I Think:
Abzû lets you guide a diver through a submarine wonderland, moving through cave systems and currents, sort of following a shark and aided in your explorations and interactions by various drones you can activate as you find them.
In terms of what you’re actually *doing* in Abzû, the game shows its shared DNA with creative director Matt Nava’s previous projects Flower and Journey (he was art director on both). It’s a game about moving through environments and moments of wonder. You come into these spaces and part of the joy is in swimming around them, seeing how your diver’s fins push away strands of kelp, and spotting new shoals of fish. Your interaction is of various kinds but most are limited to one button press.
I was using an Xbox controller on my PC because it felt far more natural and pressing left trigger when swimming near a big fish allows you to hold onto it, letting it pull you around or guiding it as it swims (some are happier with this than others). There are also little holes in the ground which you can interact with by pressing X in order to bring new species to the area. Sometimes there will be basic puzzles to solve in order to open up the next area so you interact with those, also with X, and your diver will oblige. You can also find statues which act as meditation points (I’ll explain that in a moment) and collectibles in the form of glowing nautilus shells.
Other interactions are of a slightly more otherworldly nature and tie in with the plot so I won’t go into detail. Speaking of which, I think plot is probably the wrong word. There is a kind of story but it’s probably more helpful to think of Abzû as having an emotional trajectory peppered with some narrative that you can stitch together if you want.
That might sound unhelpful at first, so what I mean is that Abzû is about moving you through a story that is less about specific events and characters and more about the emotions you would associate with that story. It’s closer to a ballet or a piece of classical music where there are peaks and troughs, ascendances and threats rather than a definite, voiced explanation of what you’re seeing.
The thing is, as Abzû creates some moments of wonder – of immersion in the environment – it also obscures others and pulls you back out of the experience.
The easiest way I can think to explain this is via the meditation function. When you see a sort of shark-dog statue you can interact with it to start meditating. Meditation, in this context, means you leave the third-person diver view and switch to a camera which locks on to particular fish or groups of fish, allowing you to leave your body and get an unobstructed view of the game’s other inhabitants.
I had a really lovely moment setting the camera to follow an anchovy (I was captivated by how derpy they look) and getting a moment which took me by surprise as a black bass suddenly appeared and gobbled it up. The camera then followed the black bass for a while as it chomped on other fish. For that span of time I was excited and completely lost in the game, watching the animations play out.
Beforehand I’d been frustrated. The PC version of the game seems to detect controller use but the controller instructions are for the PS4 pad. Meditation is triggered by pressing the touch pad, says the game, so I stared at my Xbox pad and tried to figure out which one was going to be the stand-in for a touch pad and there’s no option in the menu to show you key bindings. The thing is, if you press the wrong button you leave the statue and have to start the meditation process again. It turns out you need to press “back”. Stuff like that is an irritant because it feels like one experience has been prioritised over another. [I’ve just checked in on the game and it looks like that’s now been fixed!]
Once you do start the meditation part, you’re able to switch viewpoint from one fish to another by moving the left stick. Thing is, there’s no indication of which fish are “viewable” in meditation mode and no indication of where the camera will actually move. That means that you might spot a cool turtle to the left, but moving the stick to the left will take you zooming across the whole cavernous space and plop you in front of an angelfish you don’t much care for.
This is a video of me following a barracuda. I try to switch to the turtle which catches my eye and end up at a bicolor parrotfish. I then try to go to another passing barracuda and end up at a different bicolor parrotfish:
You can sort of try to force the camera to keep going or pursue a particular direction but it’s like having a shove-fight with an angry supermarket trolley. Perhaps this is a statement on meditation and how you need to cede control, but in this instance I am being encouraged to look at the fish and thus I am not interested in ceding control and careening around an area, feeling progressively more nauseous as I try to take a look at a puffer fish that the camera may or may not be able to acknowledge exists.
The camera also seems unable to lock onto the creatures which live on the ground, like starfish, lobsters or the odd octopus which feels like a shame. Oh, and sometimes for me it glitched through the ocean floor and followed an eel which was merrily swimming through rock.
Another example is that you’ll be swimming around and the game will suddenly want to show you something or force you to look at a scene from a particular angle. Sometimes it works and you get a phenomenal scene spreading out in front of you as Austin Wintory’s lovely soundtrack swells or fades in the exact right way. Sometimes it kind of feels like the developers are taking the controls out of your hands and making you experience the world their way whether you want to or not.
There’s a part where the game changes from a 3D exploration to a 2D segment where you move without needing to press the move button and all you can do is go higher or lower if you fancy as a scripted moment plays out. It’s a strong moment, but on one playthrough I was ready for it and pleased with the effect and on another it felt more like an interactive teaser trailer and didn’t work for me.
Other moments where “oooh” would get interspersed with “argh!” are the movement of the diver – the swooping motions are utterly wonderful but can leave you turned around, facing the wrong direction and wrestling your way back to where you were heading – and the audio cues, which I confess I never quite got the hang of. I don’t mean the soundtrack, but you can press a button to make a noise and the drones that follow you will make a noise in response.
I could never quite work out if these were supposed to be helping me locate secrets or not as I couldn’t establish a logic in the pitch of the noises. I feel like it might just be intended as a cute call and response thing with your companions but there was enough ambiguity that it felt frustrating in case I was missing something. I’d also sometimes hear a high-pitched sound, kind of like the chiming noise nirnroot would make in Skyrim. I couldn’t tell what it was supposed to signify, if anything, and that irresolution created a similar tension to the drone noise.
What I’m getting at here is that I’ve had conflicting experiences with Abzû. There are stretches of time when it has absolutely worked and you can see what it wants to be, but they always get interrupted as I run into a mismatch between what I want to do and what the developer wants me to do. That said, my second playthrough was a more rewarding and exploration-heavy experience, partly because I knew where the limits of my own agency lay so I could mentally budget for them.
I would say that Flower worked better for me in terms of creating similar moments but not nearly so many tensions. That’s because it’s a pared down version of this, I think. There was less to look at and there was a joy to the movement – particularly in the earlier levels – so you kept moving even if you meandered a little as you followed the paths. I remember Journey less clearly but I think there was a similar economy in terms of environment and that push to keep making progress. In Abzu there’s a mixture of exploration in one spot and movement to another. It can lead to differences in how you and the developers interpret the game’s pace so you might get hurried along unexpectedly or want to skip over some of the exploration to keep the momentum going.
Abzû is a beautiful game. It’s a game stuffed with fish and colour and movement and music. I love those things. Sometimes you feel like you’re actually inside an episode of Blue Planet (I recorded the video above during one such moment). But I don’t love wrestling for control of an experience which feels expansive one moment and restrictive or unpredictable the next.
ABZU is out today, for Windows. The publisher strongly recommends use of a controller.