Have You Played…ABZU?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

I fell hard for languid, gorgeous diving adventure ABZU at the time, but replaying it recently with my three-year-old daughter, it’s become something else entirely. Not simply delightful – also strangely harrowing.

She knows a lot more about manatees and blue whales now, is the main positive. The second is her simple delight at the wild colours or the appearance of a brand new type of fish – wanting to know what everything is, wanting to know that everything is a friend, wanting the vibrancy to be restored to an area when the humanoid player-character activates one of the underwater spirit-palace-thingies. She is regularly fascinated and celebratory.

The downside is that this is a game full of minor tragedies – the regular loss of small robot ‘friends’, as she calls them, who follow the player-character, offer sing-song sounds in response to his/her calls, and help him/her to open coral doors. Some are destroyed by predators, but most are simply lost when progressing through one of the titanic, ominous doors that gate progress to a new area.

Young Connie becomes so anxious when she realises a Friend has gone missing, and I have to reassure her that we will find another soon, while privately worrying that perhaps we will not, or that it it will take too long and she will become terrified and tearful during the wait. These events are simple, brief and wordless, but powerful – even to me. I too miss my Friends when they’re not there. Proof that a game does not need a cutscene, or even a any dialogue, to achieve its intended effect.

Perhaps I shouldn’t protect her so much. Perhaps I should let her experience and begin to understand loss. I would rather she was cheerfully cooing at manatees, though.


  1. Metalfish says:

    Manic cries of “fishies!” from the niece when I booted this one up at Christmas. Held her attention for literally minutes, which was pretty impressive.

  2. Ghostwise says:

    If the developers of ABZU were not heartless fiends crushing the feelings of little girls like a tank rolling over a crate of Hello Kitty smartphone covers, then they’d have added a console code to summon the drone thingies.

    But they didn’t. The fiends !

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    Drib says:

    The description of your kid just happily looking at the fish is adorable. It’s just such a nice picture of a child enjoying a pleasant, colorful virtual world. Reminds me of being a kid.

    … Don’t let her play Subnautica.

  4. TheDreamlord says:

    Beautifully said Alec :-)
    And ABZU is superb indeed.

  5. Shazbut says:

    It was the test game for me to see if my computer can handle current technology. It can’t. So it’s sat in my Steam library as a future gift to myself for when I get a new laptop, whilst I just keep playing games like Stardew Valley and Devil Daggers.

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    subdog says:

    Wonderful game and one of the best HYP’s this site has done.

  7. Vandelay says:

    I have played Abzu, just this weekend! It was the first game in my foolish endeavour to play all the games on my Steam account in alphabetical order (along with writing about them, possibly for a blog. I fully expect neither of these tasks to be fulfilled.)

    Found it to be a lovely experience, even though it is clear that it borrows heavily from Journey. I think I probably preferred it to thatgamecompany’s game though, just as the setting was absolutely gorgeous.

  8. fray_bentos says:

    I fired this up for the first time last weekend. It is beautiful in 3D vision (though it pushes my GTX 1070 pretty hard). I can imagine that it would be even better in VR, should they ever venture that way!

  9. stuw23 says:

    I played this over Xmas, and was absolutely smitten with it. The wordless storytelling was superb, but the sense of tragedy and sadness was there for me right up until the very end, which was one of the most life-affirming and cathartic I’ve had in gaming. For how short a game it is, it left a big impression on me.

  10. engion3 says:

    First game I played on my Asus MG279Q monitor. Absolutely gorgeous.

  11. Hawke says:

    I hardly can criticize a game, I’ve got all achievements for, but ABZU is as entertaining as staring at fish for 2 hours (occasionally, dolphins, whales and 1 white bear). Graphics and soundtrack are great, though. The story and gameplay are too linear and simple.

  12. itsbenderingtime says:

    I’ve been wanting to play this for some time now, but as someone who is borderline-phobic about sea monsters (giant squid and the like), I’m hesitant. Does Abzu have any of those? Does it go to the dark, deep parts of the ocean at all, or does it stay up where it is bright, colorful and happy?

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      subdog says:

      There are definitely those things, yes. But they’re never presented as a threat*. If you wanted to ever come to terms with that phobia, this is probably one of the gentlest ways to do it.

      * Except for the great white shark, who starts out as a threat but actually has a really nice character arc.

  13. jeppic says:

    Without getting into spoilers specifics can anyone give me a feel for how dark Abzu gets?

    I was just playing it with my kids (who were loving it) this past week. We were rotating controllers having a blast just discovering sea life, and soaking in the general zen-ness of the game, and then it kept getting darker and darker. To the point where they just handed me the controller so I could speed run through the darker bits. After that playthrough, they requested that I play the game without them to get past those parts. Is it hurtling towards a dark ending, in which case I’ll enjoy getting there myself, or does it lighten up again and it’s worth experiencing that turn-around jointly?

    Also, why not sub-nautica? One of my kids first reactions to the game was, “this is where I’m going to build my base”. So I was actually thinking of looking into it.

    • Squirrelfanatic says:

      It’s getting a bit darker until it gets brighter lateron again. Without knowing at which chapter you’re currently at, there is a pretty sad moment towards the end. After some of the darker parts (do you mean the bits with the whales?) there comes a pretty beautiful bit again before it goes fullout omg-so-bright-colours-everywhere-so-shiny. :)

    • Hawke says:

      The 5th (looks like an old factory with mines) and the 6th chapters are pretty dark in terms of design and plot both. The last chapter is either depressing or optimistic, depending on interpretation, but the picture is bright and there’s a shark pet.

    • jeppic says:

      Both helpful comments. Thanks.

  14. iRaphi says:

    I accidentally mistook it for subnautica and redeemed my key from the freedom bundle, now I have subnautica in my library and will probably never install it :,(
    I want ABZU

    • ButteringSundays says:

      Although very different games they both capture the whole under the sea exploring thing really well. I’d highly recommend both, and one can’t replace the other, but you should definitely go have a swim about in subnautica – even if you don’t care for the grinding survival aspects.

      And yes Abzu is a lovely game. More of an interactive experience than a ‘game’ (and the better for it).

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    This game is a joy. My favourite moment was when I realized that when tagging along with other creatures you can actually steer them (!) and twirl your manatee or other fish or sea mammal at will… this never gets old.

    • Darth Gangrel says:

      Who needs mustache twirling when there’s manatee twirling.