The first thirty seconds of Abzû, an exploration game by the aptly named Giant Squid, are pacey and remarkable. Beginning above the water, the screen fills with blue sky and white clouds, and the camera suddenly tilts forward and dives beneath the surface. It’s a brilliant reveal—your view bursts with life and color, the stillness of the previous shot shattered entirely. It’s the moment every underwater film aims for—the reveal of the reef, the reveal of Rapture, and in this sense it’d be somewhat predictable were it not for what the camera does next. It doesn’t linger. It continues to dive, the colors becoming darker and the light fading. Deeper still and the life around you grows stranger, the blue sky a memory. In thirty seconds you travel from the surface to the very depths of the ocean and then, in a deliberately jarring cut, you find yourself back on the surface again.
Another game might have treated this like a preview; an opportunity to tease players with the journey they’re about to take, a whistle stop tour of vistas yet to come. Not Abzû. This is a game of such color and variety that it begins by showing you an entire ocean and then proceeds to show you an entirely different one.
It’s hard to know what to say. I don’t want to take away from the game’s moments of discovery, when great curtains of seaweed part to reveal something on the other side, when creatures glide onto the screen, when the music swells. Please bear with me. I’m trying to describe a game without describing it at all.
How about this? Abzû is a game about swimming beautifully. You control a black-and-yellow suited diver who, rather than having a mask obscuring their face, has a pair of large expressive eyes. Played in third person you’ll rarely catch a glimpse of their face but whenever you do they’re casting their eyes about at the ocean around them. And so you guide the diver through a series of wide, semi-open levels, each one focusing on a different aspect of the ocean. As you travel, a wider mystery begins to become apparent and the creatures around you become a little stranger, behave slightly differently. You perform slow somersaults in the water.
Did you ever see tide pools as a kid? Little bowls of salt water trapped in the rocks? I’d step carefully so as to avoid cutting my feet on sharp stones or stinging anemones and look down into the water. If you asked me, here’s what I’d say I was looking for: crabs, little fish, colorful seaweed, shrimps, sea cucumbers, anemones. All too often what I got was a tepid basin of cloudy water, perhaps a single crab claw, one or two shrimps picked clean. Tide pools never really delivered. Abzû is the tide pool that does.
The game is exactly as long as it needs to be, by which I mean that it’s about two hours. It exists for long enough to show you a parade of beautiful things, and then recognizes when it’s time to go. This is extremely valuable. It results in a game which so rarely loses control of its pacing, often literally sweeping you forward through the water, as well as a game that all but guarantees that just around the next corner there will be something new and surprising. We so often see games that sell themselves on their scale and their variety; an infinite universe of planets to explore, an entire archipelago filled with adventures. There is a place for these games, but there is just as much of a place for a game that focuses instead on depth rather than breadth. Everything in Abzû is hand-placed, every sequence considered, and while this inevitably results in a much shorter game, it leads to one filled with moments designed to amaze and surprise.
There is a wider story, and it’s told wordlessly and with the sort of careful obscurity that results in any plot summaries being a series of educated guesses. As the pieces fall into place and things are revealed, aspects of the ocean take on a new light and are changed, somehow, by the smallest discoveries. At no point does the game’s obscurity come across as an impediment or as frustrating, and whether or not the plot makes itself apparent to you, the end result is consistently beautiful.
Sometimes you can kick your flippers with a little more energy and burst, briefly, from the water. The sky is very blue. At one point a pod of dolphins joined me as I did this and the music swelled and I grinned at the television.
I should mention the music more specifically. The game is scored by Austin Wintory, who has, as usual, brought an entire orchestra and made them do a variety of things that sound impossible and brilliant. The music shimmers with the sound of the ocean and while, for the most part, none of his characteristic memorable themes are included, the soundtrack conjures fish and water and lightness so comprehensively. To play this game with the sound off would rob it of so much of its magic. I very much recommend playing it with headphones.
I’ve said Abzû’s pacing is mostly excellent, but I’m afraid that it doesn’t entirely stick the landing. The last act of the game is comprised of a sequence of increasingly beautiful images, each surpassing the last, until the game reaches a memorable visual and musical climax. And then it just sort of keeps going? Not for long, but for just long enough that its actual final resting point feels less, slightly, than what came before. The final sequence is beautiful, certainly, but I hung on the final image hoping that there’d be something more.
It’s hard when an ending doesn’t quite work. It’s your last impression of the game and it sticks with you, reflecting back on what you’ve seen. It’s the case, though, that the vast majority of Abzû is so beautiful, so well put together, that the fact the ending is a little disappointing doesn’t diminish my view of it as whole. When I think back on the game it’s not the final image I remember but the turquoise shallows, the pattern of the sun falling on the sand, the great vaulted ceilings of blue water.
Abzû was developed by Giant Squid and published by 505 Games. It is also available for Playstation 4 and PC.
Jack de Quidt is a writer and a composer who designs games at The Tall Trees and talks over videogames as part of the Streamfriends. You can find him on twitter at @notquitereal.