I recently finished Abzu, and I’m sodden with emotion.
Although Playdead’s dark, brooding, 3D side-scroller INSIDE offered a brief portrayal of a young child getting obliterated at every impasse, it captured a certain something. There was a surprisingly delicate poignancy to the final sequence, almost as if, in the closing moments, the soul of the game lay bare for us to see amongst the shattered pieces of the whirlwind that came just before. It effectively slides you a cryptic note before the screen fades to black. I felt like I’d played through an artistic vision of importance, even if its message was murky in its ambiguity. Abzu wasn’t quite as mysterious, or dark or horrifying. In fact, it was in stark contrast to everything but the very core: bright, colourful, relaxing. You might think it strange that I’ve opened with a nod to one of this year’s gloomiest surprises, but I believe they’re oddly similar: not aesthetically, not in tone, not in what you do, but in how they appeal to us.
Yes, other major titles have messages. Often they’ll be overtly concrete: “That bit of dialogue you chose where you lied? It made something bad happen later down the line didn’t it? Lying is therefore bad.” Taking a look at tons of AAA games, most of the time they’re concerned with telling their own narrative; whether it be wiping out a horde with a bomb, or eliminating that crafty guy who back-stabbed you in order to prevent the evil bloke pressing the nuclear launch button. Embroiled in their own bubble, they might evoke fear, joy and controller-flinging rage, but rarely (I say rarely, because some gems do) touch us on a close, personal level. They might throw us into moral dilemmas and dip our toes in shallow social commentary, but first and foremost they’re a maddeningly complicated jumble of code designed to entertain and sweep us away from the stresses of the real world for a bit; they hardly reach out and grab us.
As a young kid, I used to head out into the garden and potter about the assorted foliage looking for random wildlife. I’d settle down on my haunches and watch a shape shifting, swirling black mass of ants diligently carry out their tasks, a fascinating division of labour that kept their insect society ticking over. On wet days I’d quietly creep into a damp little corner among the stones, brushes and puddles. Keeping my eyes peeled for tiny frogs, I’d watch them bounce about with their bulbous eyes and cold, slimy coats. Sometimes I’d reach out a finger and one particularly brave amphibian would hop on and I could marvel at his adorableness, and we’d be buddies for a brief moment. While this is heavily romanticised (I remember stumbling across, and burying a stinking frog carcass in the dirt once) I rarely experience this youthful joy of discovery any more. That eye-widening feeling of excitement when soaking up every frame of Walking With Dinosaurs; that calm wonder of letting David Attenborough’s soothing voice wash over me for the first time as he masterfully documents a remarkable natural phenomenon. Oh those were the days when Calpol was the shit.
Playing Abzu brought these memories flooding back; those of pure, unbridled happiness at just being able to observe a creature going about its life, and forgetting the silliness of humankind for a minute or two. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. Gripping a sailfish as it circles an undulating, silvery shoal of fish before it darts at its prey. Suddenly joining a jet-stream as the stunning soundtrack rises and soars. Bursting out of the water with a blue whale and catching a glimpse of the shimmering, starry night sky. Zooming in on a gang of sparkling jellyfish.
Every second is enchanting, and you’ll be torn between staying in an area or moving on. Why? Because you’re waiting with bated breath, constantly preparing yourself for the next magical chapter in the wordless, watery adventure. As you progress there’s a hint at an underlying theme, until this hint manifests itself as something even more prevalent later down the line. Without spoiling anything, the finale is eye-wateringly dazzling and swimming alongside the enthralling sense of pace and riotous colour is a stirring sense of renewal and fulfilment.
INSIDE was a slender framework built around a linear path; an atmospheric, dangerous road which plunges you into a shadowy facility filled with secrets, those of which I can’t reveal. Abzu, on the other hand, is the ocean. It captures the very spirit of the sea, and it reminds us that we have a duty to take care of the planet we’re on. But also, to peel ourselves away from the trivialities of our lives and immerse ourselves in the natural world. To some, clinging onto a basking shark as it hoovers up plankton doesn’t get them going, or they might pass it off as rubbish. And that’s fine, because it’s not overly concerned with action-combat, mechanics or challenges.
Ultimately, I see it, and games similar to it (Journey I’m also looking at you), as an experience or intricate work of art. You don’t say to your mates, “Play this because the match-making system is great, the shooting feels fabulous and the mini-map is spectacular. Oh and so much verticality.” You say, “Play this because… well you should. You might not like it, but you should just play it, you know?”.
It’s shareable; it evokes something – or nothing – from everyone and its message transcends the screen. Once you’ve played it, you join a band of people touched by a game that’s confident in its own unique identity. You take away more from playing it than it gives you, and in the end a connection is established: it means something to you.
I’d love to see more of these short games spring out of nowhere, developed by innovative independent developers who aren’t afraid to go against the grain and create something that everyone simply needs to experience.
Honestly, they’re games for everybody; even people who don’t like games. In the future I want to be able to slap a controller in someone’s reluctant hands, instruct them to play a selection of titles and watch them set it down with a big shimmer in their eyes once they’ve marveled at just how powerful this funny old digital medium is.