When I first came to college and met my roommate and a few of his friends, I tried to explain to them the point of indie exploration games. It was a challenge because to these hardened button mashers, games meant killing aliens, zombies, capturing flags or nailing the neat little three-pointer at the last second to clinch the game.
Released for Microsoft Windows and PlayStation 4 Aug. 2, “Abzu” is a prime example of the kind of video game that divides consumers. One group will argue adamantly that it is not a game; it lacks any definite goal and only contains the bare minimum in terms of interaction. The other group will insist on the opposite: that however simple, the interactive experience is engrossing and awe-inspiring. Despite lacking a do-or-die goal, it still pulls in the player and thus can reasonably be described as a video game.
“Abzu,” which publisher 505 Games suggests is from the Sumerian words “ab” meaning ocean and “zu” meaning wisdom, is a game that deposits the player in the body of a silent, unnamed deep sea diver. Only able to communicate via series of sonic signals, this little diver is going to embark on the journey of a lifetime under the sea, or swim around in circles doing backflips. Or save the ocean. Or meditate …?
Developer Giant Squid Studios is adamant in its insistence that the player has complete control of the character. His actions, his behavior, his progression through the world and his experiences are all up to you. Which means that while there is a vague plot line meandering through this game, it’s presented as a choice to you. Would you like to race through what is a rather small game or take your time and enjoy the sights, possibly forever?
For this is a mesmerizing world. With art directed by Matt Nava, also known for work on ThatGameCompany’s “Journey” and “Flower” , the world of “Abzu” will take your breath away. Rendered in pseudo-cel-shaded graphics, the deep blue sea is absolutely beautiful. From the graceful seaweed to the fast undercurrents that sometimes sweep you along, deep sea diving has never looked so good. And with this amazing art direction come the beautiful game mechanics. Our little diver can’t do much but what he can do is enough to keep you busy for quite some time. With intuitively mapped game controls (game controller recommended) you’ll soon have your character pulling off dizzying loops and twists and turns. The controls are deceptively simple, a few presses of a button and our diver is zooming away or floating sanguinely under a blue whale. Speaking of whales and marine life, here’s a neat trick. Our diver is very eco-friendly. So eco-friendly, in fact, that he can hitch rides on passing fish. Grab a fin and you can ride manatees, manta rays, sea turtles, killer whales and yes, even dolphins.
But “Abzu” is far from perfect. The game costs a hefty buck for such short gameplay value. It has no campaign to speak of. The vague backstory that is presented as murals in the underwater ruins are confusing at best and so far, not even the most dedicated “Abzu” fan has come close to deciphering the history of our little diver. Yes, the graphics are beautiful and the ever-inspiring soundtrack by Austin Wintory (who also composed the score for “Journey”) only submerges you deeper in this spectacle, but the game’s vague campaign can be finished in roughly four hours. It’s frankly a letdown.
Games like “Abzu” are constantly pushing the boundaries for video games. Indie video games have been around for quite some time, challenging old-school, big-time video game tropes and archetypes in favor of telling unique stories or in the case of “Abzu,” creating unique experiences and worlds.
As a strict, archetypal video game, “Abzu” lacks what makes popular adventure and action games tick. While some easily compare it to ThatGameCompany’s “Journey,” a gorgeous exploration game in its own right, “Journey” had a very real, visible goal. “Abzu,” on the other hand, puts you in charge in the middle of a mesmerizing world and leaves it at that. Even so, as fast as I managed to finish its semblance of a campaign, I have not yet stopped exploring the wondrous depths of the game’s world. It’s a beautiful game and as such, deserves all the praise it gets.