If, back in the '90s when I was playing Jolly Roger Bay in Super Mario 64, you were to tell me that one day I would call an underwater game a masterpiece, I’d have said “there is no way in hell”. Yet here I am, calling meditative aquatic experience Abzu an artistic marvel. The first game from Journey art director Matt Nava's new studio, it's an utterly sublime experience from a developer that clearly understands and utilises the gaming medium like few have before.
Set entirely beneath the ocean, Abzu is an exploration game which wordlessly guides you throughout a long-lost underwater world. As you delve and dive deeper, your understanding of this world's former inhabitants and their relationship to its teeming sea life expands.
What truly elevates this game is its Stanley Kubrick-esque attention to detail. Every aspect of the game has intention and proves it throughout, from it’s gorgeous art, to the deliberate roll-out of its narrative – heck, even to the way it feels to move your character. I came away from my first two hour playthrough realising how rare it is to play a game so finely crafted, wherein almost every frame can have a payoff of some kind.
These payoffs are numerous and important not to spoil, however, a safe example to give is that of character movement. As I was exploring the world, enthralled by its beauty and charm, one of the only qualms I had early in my playthrough was how the boost you can do through the water occasionally wouldn’t respond to my input. This wasn’t a major issue, just the kind of niggly annoyance many games provoke when movement isn't as snappy as you'd ideally like.
As I do with other games, I just assumed that it was a piece of polishing the developers hadn’t had the time or resources to perfect. However, there came a moment in the game when this tiny aspect had a narrative and gameplay payoff which made me realise that it was purposeful all along. Just one of these revelations would have been rewarding, but many other aspects also culminated at this same juncture, creating the most incredible third act of gaming I have ever experienced.
Guiding the whole experience is a subtle narrative. The story is understated and frequently open to interpretation, told mostly through murals found throughout. What it does express clearly, however, is the intense spiritualism of this underwater city, and its ties to the aquatic life all around you. Without resorting to dialogue or cheap pantomime, the game communicates a personality in every creature and structure, which holds huge emotional effect despite its subtle development.
The scale and abundance of fish and larger sea creatures is inherently tied to the story, but has the larger effect of simply being wondrous to behold. Choreographed sequences with larger creatures, such as humpback whales, are breathtaking, but just as incredible are the un-choreographed moments of simply swimming amongst schools of fish and having them join your movements through the water. Diving, tumbling and bursting out of the water in sync with innumerable varieties of fish is an indescribable experience which has to be played to be understood.
Underpinning all of this is a full orchestral soundtrack from Journey composer Austin Wintory. This adds an additional sense of scale and grandeur to the whole preceding, with the composition fading and swelling at just the right moments to build tension and anticipation. It is also a beautiful arrangement which effortlessly echoes the wonder of the world around you.
Abzu is an important step forward for gaming as an art form. It builds on what titles like Journey managed before it, creating a game which is equally profound, yet advances the medium in other key ways. This advancement comes via purposeful design and execution, which prove that games can be guided by the same auteur vision that directors like Kubrick provided to film.