An Open Letter Series
Welcome to Game Club, where Joanna Price and myself exchange letters about a game we’ve jointly played. This month, we’re discussing Abzu, the debut game from developer Giant Squid. Unlike previous months, all the letters are published in a single post, so you don’t need to jump between websites!
I expected Abzu to be a straightforwardly pleasant experience, but I instead found myself with mixed feelings (of the volatile, arguing-with-myself variety, as opposed to “meh.”) Before I untangle those, I want to give the game its obvious but deserved props. It’s really, really pretty.
There’s an enormous amount of color; textures manage to be both simple and high-res. The level design, while necessarily open (it’s an underwater game!) is detailed, with nooks and crannies to poke into as you explore the larger world. The character animations are pitch-perfect. The species variety is much greater than is really necessary, and one of the game’s great pleasures.This is embellished by a pleasant soundtrack by Austin Wintory (who, in the last few years, has become THE name in game composition) which is a little more ambient/generic-orchestral than some of his more daring work (The Banner Saga, Sunset), but perfectly fits the game.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, since the game loudly advertises itself as “from the art director of Journey.” Even if I hadn’t know that, the comparisons between Abzu, Journey, and Flower are inevitable—and the source of much of my criticism.
All three games cast the player as a nameless protagonist moving through colorful worlds, with minimalist exploratory gameplay/puzzle solving as the only mechanic. Each game is unusually overt about manifesting a “games-as-art” aesthetic, and both Flower and Journey were pushed by Sony as a contrast to other games (published by Sony or made for Sony platforms—this was part of the whole “it only does everything” mantra of the PS3). Flower received an inordinate amount of attention primarily because most console gamers had never seen indie sensibilities embodied in a ‘modern’ game before (insofar as they were used to it, it was intentionally retro microbudget games, ala Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved), and the fact that Sony published it made it both prominent and ‘safe.’ Flower is a lovely game, and has a unity of design and theme that is a lot harder to pull off than it seems, but it’s also slight; I think it could only really achieve greatness in its time and place.
The same is not true of Journey, which took a similar framework and added a brilliant, invisible multiplayer component, where you would encounter other travelers in your journey, played by other players, who you silently interacted with. I played through Journey in one setting, and still remember many of these social experiences; working with one player to try to reach a hard-to-find collectible, ultimately failing but satisfied with the effort; of encountering a traveler whose extraordinarily long scarf marked them as a veteran, and being guided through the game’s most dangerous area by them. Next to these unscripted moments, the threadbare quest narrative was hardly notable.
I mention all of this to explain my confused reaction to Abzu, which structurally is simply Journey underwater. You access a new area, interact with a few hotspots, maybe find a hidden collectible, and access the new area. The equivalence isn’t just at a high level; there are entire segments that are more or less lifted straight from Journey; the moments in Abzu where you race along with the current play identically to Journey’s sand-surfing segments.
Yet Abzu is an entirely solitary experience; it’s Journey without its defining feature, and so it can’t help but feel like a step back. And if it seems like I’m overthinking it, it’s worth noting that there just isn’t much to *do* in Abzu; at its best it’s a meditative experience, an opportunity to explore an improbably rich and diverse underwater ecosystem and escape into it. But there’s no way to interact with any of the sea life, except by catching a ride on the larger creatures.* There are some nautilus shells to find, but there’s no indication what, if anything, they do; there are a few geysers in the seafloor that somehow spawn new species of fish, but these are just little dopamine rushes to keep you occupied. And in seeking to be accessible and forgiving of mistakes, there are no fail conditions, which makes any attempts at tension fall flat (this may have just been me metagaming too much, but when there was an “OH NO, SHARK” moment, I was like “I am swimming right out into the shark-infested waters because there is no way this game is going to kill me.”)
The game’s story is similarly unremarkable. The game restricts its cutscenes to scenes of underwater beauty, meaning that what plot or context there is is discovered by reading the murals of an ancient, extinct civilization. In 2017, the two gaming tropes I am most tired of are audio logs and “ancient mystical civilizations;” while I give the artist points for using murals rather than inexplicable underwater diaries, I was so tired of the subject matter that, for one of the first times in my gaming life, I didn’t even try to puzzle together the plot. As it is, the game is mostly a dude swimming forward, activating Ancient Switches, and forming an unearned relationship with a spectacularly stupid shark.
And yet I spent at least half the time enjoying myself. When I could silence the critical discourse in my head and just appreciate the setting, it was lovely. As soon as I exited this immersive state, or as soon as I started thinking about writing this blog entry, I was frustrated and disappointed. But I think that wasn’t “just me”—at the end of the day, it’s not clear what experience Abzu is trying to give the player and who its target audience is, and I’m honestly not sure the lead designer knew either; so we’re left with a game that is both beautiful and empty.
Let me know if your reactions jived with mine, and how you found navigating underwater!
* I actually didn’t figure out, until right before the end, that you could *steer* the creatures you were riding, which probably would have made this feature more fun.
I had two very similar experiences to yours, so I’ll get those out of the way first:
Yes, the game is beautiful. I’m not sure much more needs to be said about this except possibly that the mechanics have an aesthetic as well. The in-game world becomes pressure based through the use of the controller and that’s interesting—pushing through the world. And like you, I was also disappointed by the “hotspots,” and I was even a little resistant to the area separations. In a game that seemed to be primarily about open exploration, the division between one area and another seemed like an artificial way of mimicking some kind of “progress.”
Unlike you, I didn’t mind the alienation of being the only living thing in an apparently living world, even though I also recognized it. Games-as-Pure-Meditation don’t really bother me, in part because I spend a non-zero amount of time staring at my ceiling and spacing out as a form of entertaining myself. In fact, the attaching to creatures rather bothered me because it seemed, like the faux progress to be about faux connecting. I was comfortable with the weird dissonance of not connecting, but less excited about the pretense.
But there is another layer to Abzu that I feel has to be noted here, even if it—like the faux progress and the faux connection to other life—is ultimately artificial. The murals on the walls in Abzu tell a story that is strikingly similar to that of environmental struggles as we know them in the all-too-real world. They depict the misuse of technology to overuse natural resources. I am with you that the “mystical zomg” of the diver is obnoxious, but not because of its tropiness so much as because if you’re going to make a political commentary, I think it’s pretty cheap to offer up a “mystical zomg” solution. (And yes, “mystical zomg” is not a real phrase outside of my usage, lol)
I will say this on behalf of Abzu, outside of its beauty and meditative qualities, after I finished the game, I watched some YouTubers play through it and it was very sweet, watching them have what I would call a genuinely playful experience, in the vein of child’s exploratory play. That doesn’t happen very often in a video game. For whatever reason, video games tend to carry a certain level of innate awareness to them that precludes that sort of innocent play. It was kind of endearing to see.
I played Journey for a while, but ultimately, I shied away from it because it was multiplayer and I feel very hesitant about most multiplayer games to begin with. I’m glad I played Abzu, but mostly because it was relaxing and pretty, and less because of any artistic or political transcendence.
While I don’t want to hijack this discussion to just be about Journey, I do want to respond to your last point. What made Journey so great was that its multiplayer was invisible—I imagine a portion of players *didn’t realize* the game was multiplayer, and thought they were just interacting with strange AI companions. Most of the negative aspects of multiplayer stem from the negative aspects of interacting with other human beings—but because Journey fundamentally restricts the actions available, these don’t come into play. It is genuinely impossible to be a dick to somebody in Journey. So I’d encourage you to give it another shot!
I don’t watch Let’s Plays, but I’m not surprised to hear that you witnessed that. One of the better aspects of LP culture is that streamers are encouraged to seek out games that will surprise them, because (outside of esports/speedrunning) it’s much more interesting for the audience to see a streamer react to the unexpected rather than just do what they always do. This means you have a lot of people poking their head into indie games who have only played conventional titles, and when you have a console-focused game like Abzu, it’s that much more likely to happen. It is definitely nice to see, and I think it illustrates that most of my issues with Abzu stem not really from the game itself, but from me having played many similar titles, and so Abzu suffers simply because I’ve played better or more interesting ones.
And I think at the end of the day, that’s my main issue. Abzu, for its many charms, isn’t very interesting. I enjoyed much of my time for it, and would even wish for more games that occupy this space, but I didn’t form any attachments, don’t have any fond memories, and have honestly struggled to produce thoughtful criticism in response to it. It’s a game that is both very competent and largely unambitious. I think we run into the problem of the small studio again; they had to focus limited resources, and in Abzu the vast majority was spent on art and animation, with sound as a second and everything else as a distant third (you can tell by the credits, in which the art team dwarfs the others). Abzu wants to deliver a pleasant experience that anyone can access—but that accessibility comes not simply at the cost of depth (no pun intended), but at why I might call “stakes.” This is the anti-roguelike; there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose. There is something admirable about the purity of this, and for this reason I found the achievements obnoxious—Journey wisely did not have them, realizing they’d pollute the self-guided exploration with external goals. One of the problems with console-focused titles is that both Microsoft and Sony now mandate achievements; even if it’s not in the game’s best interests, you have to include them if you want to release on their platforms. Unsurprisingly, I think this sort of meddling in game design is terrible for the medium, and calls to mind the famous restrictions of other industries (Hays Code, CCA).
I will take your word that the murals were thoughtful, though. As I said, at a different time I would have tried to puzzle them out, but I’m not a visual learner at the best of times, and didn’t have enough faith that the effort required would produce something worthwhile. Perhaps I was wrong!
P.S. I do love the squids, though.
While Journey does not indicate upfront that it is multiplayer, it would be very hard for most players of the game to not know it was multiplayer in this spoilerverse. Indeed, your own reference to your own experiences of Journey premised much of their worth on the silent multiplayer interaction, not on the single player experience.
I think simply not engaging with the murals at all in Abzu changes the game because you (the diver) feature heavily in the murals, so they are attempting to inform your experience of playing a character. This character has some political culpability and is seeking to rectify a mistake. The player is thus not playing herself in Abzu within the context of the murals, but is more or less playing herself in an Abzu where the murals aren’t there. But as I said in my previous letter, that doesn’t mean they’ve done a bang up job of it, simply that it was an intentional aspect of the world building and character structure. I’m not saying there is a “right” way to play the game. I’m also not a visual learner, my preferred parts of the game also did not involve decoding the political message of the murals.
I agree the achievements were obnoxious. I think the collectibles would have been more interesting if instead of pre-designating what they were, you could collect a multitude of things but you are constrained by what you can carry, allowing you to “curate” a collection. I also kind of chafed at the animal riding and the area delineating, as I mentioned. The less open the world, the more it tainted that admirable purity you speak of.
I didn’t know achievements were mandated, man is that a sign of the times, or what?