Why Abzû is the Most Important Game of the Year

2016 has seen a fairly stellar line-up of games.

With the dust settling from the Game Awards earlier this month, there’s one title in particular that I’d like to draw some more attention to. Its swimming controls are possibly some of the best I’ve experienced in a game; its soundtrack is without doubt the best of any game I’ve heard in recent years; and it was nominated for best art design. From an overall point of view I wouldn’t say that it’s the game of the year, but I believe that Abzû’s message makes it the single most important game of 2016.

Not many games have had the guts to deal with the topic of climate change or pollution, but Abzû does so without any trace of fear. Giant Squid, the developer behind Abzû, is made up of many team members from Thatgamecompany, who released Journey and Flower. This makes their lack of fear in this matter unsurprising; Flower was a beautiful game about pollution on land and what industrialisation does to our natural world.

Abzû, however, is significantly more poignant in this regard. This game’s somewhat ambiguous message is extremely powerful if you pay attention to it, and how it didn’t get Abzû even a nomination for a “games for impact” award is beyond me. I for one believe that environmental issues are the biggest ones we have to deal with, so having a video game supporting change is extremely important. Having revealing or shocking documentaries is one thing, but no form of media can send a message like this better than a game.

Abzû is a game all about life, and how we as a human race are destroying the life around us. Whilst global climate levels rise, coral reefs begin to disappear. Stunningly, if global temperatures rise more than three or four degrees, we will lose coral reefs entirely. The majority of life and beauty you have encountered if you’ve played Abzû will be gone. Whilst swimming through the oceans of the world in Abzû, you can meditate. This gives you the chance to discover a huge range of species. The game specifically gives you name cards of all the fish you can observe to educate you on the ecosystems we’re actually destroying.

The game surrounds you in this life from the very beginning. You can swim through clouds of fish, playfully dancing around with them as they dart around the ocean. Whilst this can be a very therapeutic experience, there’s an element of fear here, too. Many of the plants and smaller life forms you meet often dart away from you or collapse in on themselves to avoid you. This is, of course accurate to how they’d act toward a real human figure in their ecosystem, however when you’re put in the position of the nameless swimmer in Abzû, you can’t help but feel you’ve done something wrong when a fish won’t have anything to do with you. When I woke up in this underwater realm, I couldn’t help but feel a duty of care to the harmless creatures I met. To emphasise my point, the only thing that can do damage to your character are machines you see later in the game. This takes the element of fear of the fish away. In fact, this was a strong piece of message delivery for me, as it emphasised the duty of care we have over these creatures, and all life on earth. When you start to feel that way, it’s hard not to feel responsible for the destruction of their ecosystems later on.

Abzu 1

Abzû is so emphatic at showing the player the difference between having life in the oceans and subsequently having no life at all. From the off, Abzû shows you a hospitable, beautiful place where life is plentiful. Colours are bright; plants are green and vibrant. After swimming to the next stage suddenly the ocean is a completely different place. You no longer feel welcome, or warm. All of a sudden you find yourself alone, and that matters. When Abzû‘s life, soundtrack and warmth melt away, it becomes a very different game entirely. There’s an element of fear and foreshadowing. Will this baron, cold wasteland eventually consume the seven seas? Then, snap! You’re back to warmth and life again.

It’s a harrowing change, and one that Abzû makes on a regular basis. Brilliantly, the game only gets better at showing you the effects of climate change. Whilst the start of the game can show you a cold, ominous place without life, the middle and end sections show you the cruel reality. For those who are unaware, the oceans and rainforests are natural sponges for greenhouse gases. Plants and coral are brilliant at soaking up carbon dioxide and the like. However, when we destroy so much of the earth’s natural forests, more and more of the onus falls to the plants under the ocean that aren’t as effective as the large trees and plant life above sea level. At most points in the game, you can surface. When you do this toward the end of the game, you are disgusted to see that the water is black and oily. Not only is this worlds apart from the beginning of the game where you can really see the beauty of the “ocean blue,” but it also shows the effects of the oil we dump back into the water, subsequently killing plants, life and yet another natural greenhouse gas sponge.

One important way Abzû delivers part of its message is by showing you the strength of the life underwater. Toward the beginning, a shark is made out to be your enemy. This is telling of the way humans are brought up to fear creatures such as these. The more of the game you swim through, the more you realise that this shark is actually harmless. Moreover, this shark needs you to survive. As dangerous as they can be, that duty of care strikes again. After saving the shark’s skin a few times, and from following it around, you grow attached to it, much like you do with all life in Abzû. Helping this shark is so vital to humans understanding what must be done. Even the life we fear, and we perceive as dangerous to us, we have to try to protect. The life in the oceans is helpless to what we do. Fish can’t become the next refugee problem, so as much as we can ignore the problem, life in the ocean looks to us for help. They do not have the power to survive the onslaught of pollution we are currently throwing at them. There will always be life in the water, whether it’s the smallest plankton or the most seemingly insignificant creature. But we’d be dammed if we let it get that far.

For me, the most significant story tellers in this game are the murals you discover along the way. Moreover, they’re some of the biggest guilt-trippers I’ve experienced this year. At first, they show you humans caring and arguably worshiping the life in the oceans. The next one you discover shows you humans discovering fossil fuels, and worshiping them before dumping the waste back in the water. These murals then get even more disturbing when they show that even you, the player is at fault. These murals are so effective in delivering a guilty conscience to the gamer. The mural images you see are an episodic tale, told throughout your journey. When you become invested in the story they show you, you look forward to seeing the next one. This makes it all the more frightening when you see a mural of your own character polluting like the humans you’ve seen before.

The natural world is suffering right now. Although climate change is something that’s been scientifically proven, apparently it’s still up for debate. Abzû is the most important game to come out this year because it doesn’t allow for graphs, projections and especially not debate. It doesn’t make an inconvenience of the truth that is so real and so present today all over the world. If the message of scientific fact doesn’t get to you, perhaps your sentimental side will kick in when you begin to care for the beautiful fish you can observe, or the shark you meet on you journey. If the thought of a world without that life can scare you, then Abzû has done its job.

The word Abzû means many things, but one translation slates it as “Distant Water.” After playing, I’d hope you’d want to keep the healthy, vibrant waters Abzû depicts as close to reality as possible.