E3 2016 – ABZU Preview – An Underwater Journey (PS4)

Matt Nava wants to give players all the magic of scuba diving without the burdens that exist in reality.

“When you really dive, you have a lot of equipment to worry about,” he said. “But that’s not what you really want when you dive. You want to be free. You want to go on an adventure and have something meaningful happen.”

As creative director of ABZU, he and his team are pioneering a blend of exploration, surreal imagery and tranquility that’s pretty much unlike anything on PS4 right now.

Well, except this one thing. You might have heard of it.

If the weird emotions that creep up on you while watching ABZU feel familiar, that’s probably because two of the creatives behind it were also responsible for multiple Game of the Year award-winner Journey. Nava served as art director on that project, and composer Austin Wintory is responsible for scoring both games.


10,000 Fish Under the Sea

I had a brief chance to try out ABZU before sitting down to hear more about the game’s development, and was instantly reminded of that surprise 2012 indie smash. The ever-changing, whimsical score, combined with gameplay and visuals that brought out unexpected emotions in me, seemed oddly familiar and yet new at the same time.

Perhaps that’s partly because there’s just so much effort put into the little details. Nava said that the team has over 100 species of fish for divers to find in the massive explorable ocean — a particularly impressive fact when you consider that just 10 developers have been responsible for the art design and coding for all of them. By pressing the square button, your diver can send out a special “echo” that causes nearby fish to follow you for a little while — and with some areas containing schools of up to 10,000 fish, you can imagine the visual splendor that develops when a huge swarm of sea creatures of all different colors begin swirling behind you. Just don’t be too picky about ecological accuracy while you’re down there admiring the ocean life.

“We’re not aiming for realism,” said Nava. “This is a stylized version (of the ocean) where the fish are boiled down to their most iconic elements, which really speaks to our vision of ‘evoking the dream of scuba diving.’”


Visceral Visuals & Sound

That dreamlike feel is especially evident in the game’s surreal sections, where your diver can watch an entire biome spring to life from emptiness. It’s exactly the sort of thing that, like many of the moments in Journey, has the potential to a strange, visceral reaction from onlookers — I found myself incredibly moved by the combination of intense visuals and the sweeping score that accompanies them. Of course, it’s not only weepy dorks like me who’ll benefit from the game’s light touch — tech nerds will surely appreciate the complexity of the algorithms that drive the sea life’s behavior, which is all procedurally generated, according to Nava.

Don’t mistake ABZU for some sort of Journey successor, of course; I just think that, with so many familiar elements, those who enjoyed thatgamecompany’s project may well find plenty to love here as well. Take the commitment to environmental storytelling, for example. Rather than have any sort of narration or text, ABZU will see the story of its world played out via glyphs — not, incidentally, unlike those that depicted a tragic tale in Journey. And in his demonstration, Nava made sure to point out a completely dissonant technological door (complete with a blinking robotic “eye” in the center) sitting among all the natural life. Uncovering more clues to these mysteries will be a key part of the player’s enjoyment, said Nava.

Shark Tale

I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t mention the most important part of the whole thing: fellow shark lovers, vindication is here at last. Nava said that a great white shark — first seen mercilessly munching on smaller fish as you swim by — might just eventually reveal itself to be a more sympathetic predator than you’d imagine.

“The great white shark is a misunderstood creature,” he said. “As you go deeper, this particular shark becomes a much more important ‘character’ in the story.”

If this really does end up like Journey, you heard it from me first: I can’t wait to shed tears for a shark.