Abzû is intent on rebirth. Only through light and fresh water will new life bloom and the ocean be reborn in its most vibrant form. In a way, it’s Journey flipped on its head ; deserts are now submerged, silky pilgrims have given way to automatons and though the game was made by some of the same people – most notably former thatgamecompany Art Director Matt Nava, taking the role of creative lead for Abzû – the Mountain is gone, in both shape and spirit. But the thing that most clearly cuts it from its ancestor – beside the oceanographic streak – is also one of the reasons as to why its structural similarities take on a new meaning here : Abzû moves very differently. Whereas Journey‘s winds and dunes acted as tangential slides for the movement system – a simple proposition built around the ability to float, just long enough for you to feel the momentum without ever quite grasping it -, swimming around Abzû feels like an extension of the former’s final moments ; the momentary god-mode ability to fly through the environments, perpetually extended. It’s a 360° safe kind of affair, where the most interesting act of flux is to synchronize your movements with the fauna around you. And that’s because the main joy of the game lies not in the body you control but rather in all those you get to witness around you. The sharks, squids and other fishes – all beautifully animated – are the real stars of the show. Their salvation is the stake of Abzû.
The deeper you sink, the more apparent it becomes that the game dreams of a new Pangea. Dolphins begin to mix with coelacanths and ancient species among the ruins of a civilization shut down by ominous mechanical shapes. The player’s presence here is not an intrusion but rather the opportunity to add a touch of synergy. A body to make amend, allowing biomes and species to resurface as we chase the rot away with classical music. Of course there’s more to this – there always is – ; vague tales of ecological sentiment and cute symbolisms wrapped in Fantasia vision. But at the core of Abzû lies an essential refusal to ever cut its body of water and allow it to spill. The price for the ride is fixation, a virtual rendering of the seas as deathless states.
To play Abzû is to remove oneself from the tension that underlines our experience of the ocean as humans. Its unknowable mass and mysterious beings become quantifiable, a series of vignettes in which nothing ever really lives or dies beyond the flight of our android. At times like these I am reminded of the underwater sections of Sons of Liberty, a game that doesn’t just recapture the urgency of water – the visual turmoil of it, full of blur and shapelessness – but also just the sheer joy of using your body to navigate it. Raiden’s eel-like movements always struck me as an unreliable proposition in the sense that they were both an act of expressiveness and terrorizing kinesthesia. Swimming through Big Shell’s waters was never a challenge per se, yet to control the – admittedly awkward – body of Raiden is to feel as though you might dilute within the seams of the screen at any moment if you’re not careful to guide him to the surface in the time imparted by the oxygen meter. And still death wishes surface. The first thing you crave for once on dry land is to sink back down. This is the risk you encounter in situating your entire story underwater. Abzû cannot really benefit from this tension of contrasts – though the game does feature one late on-land section ; its waters are eternal and, in a sense, absent from themselves. Your digital body is meant to graze and not labour in the rugged aspects of touch, to effortlessly glide along the stream as control is taken away from you. Multiples times throughout the game our little android engages in dazzling races with the rest of the fauna to get the player from one area of exploration to the next, moments during which Abzû basically plays itself, letting you bounce from left to right or cast glancing looks with the camera as large whales dance in the background. The further I went, the more frustrating those sequences became in their revelry ; so much so that when, late into the game, you’re made to navigate a field of underwater mines, I deliberately sent my little avatar flying in, just to see the ricochets its body would produce as it bounced off each blow. But to do so feels like an annoyance on the game’s part – our player-character is quietly resilient, if nothing else. When the mines explode, we lose control of our body for a few seconds as our avatar takes in the shock before eventually shrugging it off. But it’s easy to be thrown around by the mines’s erratic trajectories and end up as the unlucky shot of an aquatic pinball game. The whole sequence feels like fatigue in a game that seemingly objects to anything that could harm the sense of flow it so preciously cultivates at all times. Past this field you seemingly die at the hands of the great machine responsible for all this corruption, only to rise again at the bottom of the sea a few moments later. There you find a dying shark drawing its last breath. It’s the only instance I can think of where the game casts its gaze on dead things, just for an instant, and seemingly loves the thing regardless. I wished the game stayed there forever, dwelling in the rubble and creatures of the deep.
But eventually the shark, like everything else, comes back to life. It has to.
In a way, Abzû loves to imagine the sea as a place beyond the traces of history – and consequently human touch. The extinct is pushed into the present, the futuristic mixed with stone mysticism. Yet the lost cities and metallic wastes it contains merely equate with the cleansing produced by their eventual disappearence from the scene. Point A to B, great whites to plesiosaurus ; the only solace is to move forward through the game’s impressionistic canvases. Residing in them too long runs the risk of stretching the simulation thin and your interactions with the fauna are limited to basic functions anyway – using it as a vehicle or directly embodying the fishes through a meditation mechanic that basically acts as an interactive museum to observe each species from up close. Look and do touch, you’ve been here before ; safe in the knowledge that nothing can truly undercut the tale, that the ocean will be saved, all that’s left to do is to embrace the current.
Abzû cares about the environment. The game knows it and secretly, you know it too. I’ve now played through it three times – it’s short enough that you don’t have to commit to the experience past an evening or two – and every session invited me to partake in the same uncanny symmetry. A perfect space for monologue and vibes. Games have a right to be just that, of course ; there’s beauty in blind alleys. But then again they never really are. Journey‘s claim to spiritualy might have been dull, but its physical incarnation never gets old. Here it’s rebirth and fresh water, always. This is the space where Abzû happens :
That nameless spell where you throw yourself in the stygian abyss hoping to find answers, only to see a pressure that should crush your bones and instead turns them to pretty jelly.
A salvation that doesn’t feel like anything.