Think of Abzu as the spiritual successor to Journey and Flower. It’s an arty, impressionistic, non-violent, sub-aquatic adventure helmed by the art director of those games, Matt Nava. Now creative director at Giant Squid Studios, I ask him the burning question: how many fish are in it?
“Our approach is to create all the fish as these instanced clones of each other and then create variations of those clones, and when you do that you have to animate them completely procedurally, you can't have internal skeletons, which is the kind of tech that's usually used to create fish. And by doing that we actually are able to render many more of them.”
My demo begins with a character, simply known as The Diver, bobbing gently on the glittery surface under an orange sky. Submerging, I’m met by the sight of 10,000 giant trevally - which I like to call ‘grumpyfish’ - moving in great schools. Your character can join them to boost her swimming speed and then leap from the ocean like a dolphin. She can even hitch rides on some of the bigger creatures such as manta rays, turtles, and goliath groupers.
Light on story, Abzu is essentially about discovering the sea’s increasingly magical wonders: turquoise caribbean shallows, jellyfish-filled caverns, and vast fields of swaying kelp. “It's kind of an open world game,” says Nava. “We have a big open space and there's going to be points of interest you can visit along the way...we encourage the player to take their own path through these different zones.”
So how do you go about guiding people in such an amorphous space? “We use all of our tools to guide the player as subtly as we can, from the colour of the water, the density of the water, the colour of the grass, the paths in the ground, where the fish congregate. They all are subtle clues that lead the player.” Journey’s composer, Austin Wintory, also weaves some musical cues into his delicate score. While you’re free to explore, you always know how to progress.
Indeed, there are objectives to complete. One tasks me with activating adorable little drones to help us clear sandy debris piles and access new areas, just as notorious sea bastard James Cameron would do. At one point a shark eats a drone and it screams like R2D2, making us feel bad.
Omitting game-over states, air gauges, or loading screens, Abzu is one continuous exploration. It’s fluid in several respects. Movement-wise, water is never a barrier, with players using the left stick to rotate and the trigger to swim. Soaring majestically under the waves, pulling loops and using X to flip - it’s like flying in slow motion.
As the demo ends and The Diver swims off into an epic pre-composed scene showing off the vast array of species, including killer whales, sword fish, barracuda, eels, dolphins, and hammerhead sharks, it’s clear there are plenty of secrets still to find and experience in Abzu.
“There's so much that we don't know about the ocean,” says Nava. “So many opportunities to create spaces that are magical and introduce people to sea life and creatures they've never seen before. And I think that the other thing that's amazing about it is that the concept of water is this symbol we all identify with. It's something we are all afraid of and all completely intrigued by. And diving deeper is a very apt metaphor for diving into yourself.”
And also, look at all those fish.
Abzu will launch on PC and PS4, and is scheduled for an early 2016 release.