The debate about whether or not narrative experiences are in effect, “real games” is an argument that I never took too much stock in. Gaming as a media has changed enormously in the past 10 years. With the inception of indie titles into our marketplaces and libraries, developers, now more than ever, can use this medium to express whatever creative desires they have. Whether it’s exploring a house in Gone Home or controlling a petal billowing in the wind in Flower, games are coming out in todays landscape that don’t abide by the traditional mold, and alter the way we view what a video game should be.
This is what makes Giant Squid Studios’ ABZÛ breathtaking. The emotions it elicits and the story that it tells are just another great example in what is becoming a long list of games, who’s creators aren’t afraid to think outside the box and do things in the medium that haven’t been done before.
The name ABZÛ stands for ocean of wisdom. It’s this simple yet important concept that helps get things started in the game. Thrown into the depths of the ocean you, the player character, aren’t ever told what to do or what objective your setting out to accomplish. You simply exist in an ocean filled with life as you make your way deeper and deeper down, and the ocean’s history makes itself more known.
Never once does ABZÛ get in your face with what it wants you to do. Outside of a of a few button prompt instructions in the beginning of the game, there are no words or dialogue in the entire three hour experience. Instead it tells it’s narrative in other ways. Whether it be in the connections you make with with the wildlife deep beneath the sea or magically scripted moments that the game brings you through. ABZÛ, without a word, creates a world and fills it with a incredible amount of nuanced moments, to make your journey magical.
The gameplay in ABZÛ is very minimal. Most of what it amounts to is swimming about and riding on as many fish as you can see. Floating through tall grass while the tranquil waters wave back and forth it’s a relaxing experience, even if sometimes the controls are a little wonky and not precise at all times. However, ABZÛ is not a game about it’s rigorous gameplay, it’s merely there to serve as a means to an end to tell it’s overarching tale of aquarian adventure.
From a purely visual perspective, ABZÛ is incredibly beautiful. It’s vibrant colors make each open area fill distinct and ready to be explored. From the vast caverns to shallow sunlit coves, the game has a wide color palette that encompasses all expects of ocean life. Fish move seamlessly through coral reefs as their scales shimmer radiantly in the sun making what is an already a brilliant looking game breathtaking.
Though it’s setting is diverse and enchanting, ABZÛ still isn’t without it’s shortcomings, most of which are technical. Load times between open stages are far too long, and take you out of a world that the creators at Giant Squid worked so hard to cultivate. The performance also suffered when in an area with more sea life than the game can handle. Large schools of fish bring the frame rate down significantly, which is a shame seeing as how aside from a few technical hiccups, ABZÛ is an immensely satisfying game to play and a captivating world to exist in.
Creators, now in this era of imaginative indie gaming, have more opportunities than ever to create weird and abstract narratives that illicit emotions and themes that games have never thought to touch since the birth of the medium. ABZÛ is certainly one of these titles. It’s artistry isn’t matched by very many and it’s lack of adherence to a traditional video game narrative makes it’s story extra compelling. While it’s easy to see why ABZÛ isn’t a game for everyone, if you’re looking for an experience that can prove a lasting emotional resonance, ABZÛ is your underwater ticket there.
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