Written by Stephen Patterson
I often write about dialogue, characterisation and critiquing the writing of video games. I generally attempt to analyse them, as described very well by one of my friends, ‘as if they were literary texts’. My goal is to hold video game writing to account as if it were literature because, in my view, that is the only way we can expect the medium to become more socially conscious and to enable it to become more intellectually challenging in the same way great books and articles are. What then, am I to do about games which have no dialogue and no developed characters? Today I’d like to take a look at one of the most engaging environmental exploration games of 2016 – ABZÛ.
If you have not played ABZÛ but intend to do so soon, you should play it before you read the rest of this article. If not, I hope this piece encourages you to experience it.
ABZÛ is a game about swimming – there is no context or exposition to justify why you are swimming, but it gives the whole experience a certain grace of movement, similar to that of a dolphin elegantly pushing through the resistance of the water. Throughout what is at most a two hour experience from end to end, you dive through sunken ruins, schools of fish and alongside gargantuan whales as they dive far down into the depths of the ocean world you explore. There is nothing to comprehend or analyse on a surface level – no overt commentary, conversations or text to read – everything is metaphorically layered and hidden behind a game which is fundamentally relaxing and meditative. Many of your discoveries in the game are accompanied by a sweeping camera pan and an associated sense of wonder as you gaze upon things that will not be explained or expounded upon.
That’s one of the elements that made me appreciate ABZÛ: ultimately it is an experience free to interpretation. As you flow through the game world naturally, the music ebbs and flows, creating what feels like a ballet or dance performance. Moving is graceful and measured, each individual fish, reed and plant moving to make way as you investigate hidden corners. It’s a complete package in that way: the controls are tactile and responsive and the world around you reacts in kind; the music imbues feelings of wonder and foreboding in equal measure as and when they are required. The beginning of ABZÛ is truly meditative and verges on becoming transcendental: your surroundings are colourful, slow and unimposing. There is nothing which requires speed, strength or skill to navigate the early, near-surface parts of the game, encouraging you to actively explore, take in the experience and become removed from the world outside of the monitor. On occasion, I decided to float back to the surface, poking my head above the water’s surface for a moment – to be greeted by a warm and forgiving ray of sunlight and a stretch of land in the distance.
The game becomes more powerful and influential on your psyche as you dive deeper into the ocean you inhabit. In the middle of the game, you encounter strange pyramidal sea mines, which pulse quickly as you approach them and unleash an electrical charge if you linger nearby. They fill the surrounding water with a darkness and leave a worrying red hue wherever they float – often moving dangerously towards you in an attempt to intercept you. Being hit by one of these mines is not a fail-state however; ABZÛ has no death sequences or continue screens, nor checkpoints to be reset at. When they explode, they paralyse you momentarily, removing your ability to move as you have done so gracefully throughout the preceding thirty minutes of the game, but after this you are free to continue onwards. From a metaphorical perspective (a lense through which the entirety of ABZÛ must be viewed) these mines are our fears, anxieties and issues tied up into neatly cut pyramidal packages. When we continue to dive and explore ourselves, we must overcome these obstacles to reach conclusions and enact change.
The end of the game is where we see real and tangible changes. In the world itself, we learn that the character we control is a robot and not a human – enabling him to explore without being eaten by sharks and whales – revealed to us after being blasted back by a huge version of the pyramids earlier in the game. At the heart of the ocean, this device constructs more of the mines that occupy the water and seek to harm us. A brain, if you will, which despite achieving no material gain from doing so, manufactures reasons to keep us as the player controlled, caged, and weak. What follows is a final section in which we as players acquire the strength needed to remove these bombs, or, continuing my analogy, insecurities, and free the water of the tainting influence of darkness and doubt. What ABZÛ achieves consistently through it’s art and sound design is its transition from blank, defeatist shells – areas with no colour or wildlife – to bright, vibrant canvasses punctuated by flora and fauna reminiscent of the most beautiful reefs and seas of the world. Purples, greens, oranges, as well as the distinct yellow of your wet-suit, offset the endless blue of the water as you swim.
What is so engaging about ABZÛ as an experience is that it does not hold us to one interpretation of the story it tells. Without dialogue or fixed characters (one of the most involving is a shark you follow for a period) we are free to decide what the story means to us, if we want it to mean anything. To me, ABZÛ meant two hours in which I could tie the struggles of avoiding sea mines and purging the water of dark influences to a personal desire to change for the better. The inverted pyramids which at first seemed so threatening, shouting their relentless, warning din in my direction, ended up being wonderfully cathartic to destroy and wipe away so simply in the end. Giant Squid, the developers of the game, have produced a title which, without a single word being said, have created something which helped me to question my shortcomings, engage with them and help me relax and accept my surroundings. The game even has a main menu option simply titled ‘meditate’, which is one of the best ways I could explain how ABZÛ encourages you to play.