Abzû, a Reminder That Games Don't Need to Be Totally Original to Feel Fresh

Abzû, a Reminder That Games Don't Need to Be Totally Original to Feel Fresh

While it borrows from half a dozen classic games, 505's underwater adventure could be the most revelatory work of E3 2015.

I don't understand why more musicians don't incorporate oboes into their work. It's such a distinct, powerful instrument, able to lend a profound sense of wistfulness and longing to any work.

I'm no musician myself; even my once-good singing voice has degraded to pretty lousy thanks to the ravages of time and introversion. So maybe there's a good reason for the oboe's relative scarcity in music that, as an outsider, I simply don't know about.

Maybe using oboes is considered easy mode. Like Steven Spielberg refusing to direct the early Harry Potter movies because he saw no challenge in making an entertaining film from such solid source material, perhaps composers feel that oboes would be cheating their way to emotional resonance.

Whatever the case, the scarcity of mournful reeds in popular music, especially video game music, ensures that they stand out and make you take notice when they do appear.

Certainly that's the case with Abzû, a majestic underwater adventure game by Giant Squid: It begins with a beautiful attract mode featuring a view of aquatic creatures darting about to a melancholic oboe tune, and this simple but evocative tableau sets the scene for the rest of the game. Abzû's intro reminds me at once of Chrono Cross' attract mode...

...and the title screen to Tomb Raider...

Skip to the 2:22 mark!

...both of which strike me as completely fitting. With its high-res but low-poly visuals and no-frills play, Abzû evokes the moods and emotions of the best games the PlayStation era had to offer.

I don't think my mental associations are a matter of chance, either. Abzû's creative team seems quite open about their inspirations; they freely admit to building on games like Aquanaut's Holiday and Endless Ocean (both of which recently went under the microscope on the slow-life games episode of Retronauts), with the intention of smoothing over some of those games' rough patches. The old-school influences extend beyond the simple fact that you're swimming to reed music through a blocky rendition of the ocean, too. Abzû has a story to tell — you begin the game bobbing at the surface of a vast, unending sea with no explanation of where you are, how you got there, or who this slender woman in the wetsuit might be — and the story plays out wordlessly. The game's creators affirmed their commitment to showing rather than telling as the narrative unfolds, hearkening back to 16-bit classics like Super Metroid and Out of This World.

In other words, Abzû aims for literal immersion, as you spend nearly all your time underwater, soaking up the vast and cavernous environments and puzzling your way to the next area of the game. It appears to be a linear experience, though not a guided one. In the 20 minutes I played, each undersea area led to the next, but I needed to determine the path forward and the means to clear it away on my own. Generally, that seemed to involve digging up and reactivating derelict mechanical drones that would follow me around and allow me to dig through obstructed corridors, shifting sand to reveal small tunnels from one area to the next.

There's really not much to the game, from what I've seen; it's really just about exploring and finding the way forward. But Abzû's strength comes in its execution. Despite their fundamental simplicity up close, they build utterly vast (and completely engrossing) underwater landscapes that vary wildly from on area to the next. Here you're in the shallows, where sunlight penetrates the surface and illuminates everything clearly; the next moment, you've descended into a murky kelp forest where the drifting plant life creates an almost claustrophobic sensation, or delved into deeper waters where everything beyond the tiny patch of your helmet's lamp appears as a dim outline.

Your only company in Abzû's vast ocean, besides the tiny drones that help you forge paths and reinforce your available lighting, are the teeming schools of fish that flutter through the water. Aside from a single incident in which a startled shark damaged one of my drones, the fish play no direct role in the game. And even sharks aren't meant to be a hazard here — Giant Squid wants to encourage players to cohabit with the wildlife rather than fight it. Your aquanaut's all-purpose action button allows you to merge with schools of tiny fish or press your hand against larger marine life and release the controller, swimming along with them automatically. There seems to be no purpose to this besides simply affording you a chance to marvel at the beauty of it all — but since that basically is the purpose of Abzû, it all works out.

Abzû offered a fascinating contrast to the other game it demoed alongside at 505 Games' pre-E3 event. Both Abzû and space survival game Adrift cast players as women alone in a gravity-free environment, exploring as they navigate space, but that's where the similarities end. Adrift is full of audio tapes and looms over players with the constant threat of limited air supplies, and its demo session involved being dumped into a situation where you were almost guaranteed to fail from running out of air as you struggled to master the controls, much to the obvious disdain of the representatives demoing the game. Abzû, on the other hand, doesn't concern itself with limitations and death and failure. It has more in common with "walking simulators" like Gone Home, though the simple fact that you're swimming rather than walking gives it a flavor all its own.

In short, Abzû demos beautifully; everyone I spoke to afterwards mentioned the game almost reverentially. Between the visuals, the unintrusive story, the beautiful music, and the ever-shifting sense of scale, it's like no other game I've played in years. Will its low-stress approach and minimal mechanics sustain a full-length game? Will Giant Squid be able to resist the impulse (or, perhaps, the publisher mandate) to throw in hectic chase sequences and more "video gamey" elements that undermine the evocative atmosphere of the adventure? That's hard to know from a brief demo. But I do know that of everything I've played in the run-up to E3, Abzû is the one game I'm most looking forward to revisiting in its final form. Maybe it's the oboes. I love those things.

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