Philosophers and media personalities love to debate whether videogames are “art” or just ways to pass the time (why not both? Why does music get to be both but not videogames?)
I would like to think that anyone who finds their way to this blog is of the firm belief that videogames are not only art, but the most efficacious artistic medium of the modern day.
I defy anyone to say that ABZÛ isn’t art.
ABZÛ is an exploration game directed by Matt Nava and composed by Austin Wintory who worked together previously to develop the multi-award-winning Journey in 2012. ABZÛ’s deep ocean environments might juxtapose the deserts of Journey, but the music and visuals are just as captivating, coming together to create something truly mesmerising – worthy of the term “masterpiece.”
I spent a lot of time trying to find media for this article, but none of the screenshots or images I saw really did justice to how ABZÛ feels to play – you’ve got to see it to believe it.
Vivid colours, gorgeous light effects, ABZÛ’s surrealist graphical style is simply breath-taking. Even on the lowest graphical settings the levels are vibrant, teeming with life and brimming with character.
Intuitive physics and animation – no seasickness in sight
Swimming animations and water physics are something that game developers very rarely get right, either having sprites float effortlessly through the water like they’re in zero gravity or giving them all the grace and aerodynamics of a plastic bag.
Mastering an ocean environment – where up is down, down is up and physics doesn’t work like it should – can be a huge challenge. Underwater levels in games are often despised because of confusing camera angles and poorly implemented, cumbersome controls.
ABZÛ has no such issues. Movement in the water feels realistic and intuitive, with natural animations that perfectly reflect how we would expect our character to behave in water. The controls give you all the freedom you need to control your speed and trajectory, allowing you to dive, twirl, spiral and somersault to your heart’s content, all whilst still feeling believable and grounded in reality. It’s a the perfect recipe for maximum immersion.
It’s the little details that make ABZÛ so special – something as simple as swimming past a seaweed tendril and having it waft out of the way, or swimming on the ocean floor and disturbing the sand as you do so, brings the ocean to life in a way few other ocean exploration games have managed to do so.
The soundtrack. Just… the soundtrack.
Did you ever see the Disney film Fantasia as a kid? The one from the 1940s where there was no dialogue or sound effects, and it was essentially a feature-length animated music video for various orchestral suites? ABZÛ reminds me a lot of Fantasia.
There isn’t much sound in ABZÛ aside from the familiar deep rumbling sounds of the ocean, but it does have a wonderfully rich orchestral soundtrack.
As in Fantasia, the music one of ABZÛ’s most important narrative instruments – with no dialogue to listen to or facial expression to follow, we connect to the character’s thoughts and feelings through the swell of the music. Almost like the ocean itself is speaking to us, telling us a story.
ABZÛ must be played with headphones on, volume turned up and with no distractions. No excuses.
Very demanding on your PC
I can’t speak for how ABZÛ performs on consoles, but I can say that my PC couldn’t tolerate the game on anything higher than the lowest graphical settings – a rare thing especially for an indie game.
Thankfully, the game still looks incredible on the lowest settings and I didn’t notice much of a difference between the highest and lowest graphical settings, although that may be because playing at the highest settings slowed my framerate to a pathetic splutter.
Other PC players seemed to suggest it was the “fish” setting that caused the framerate to tank. I have to say though, that even on low, there were still a hell of a lot of fish.
For a game like ABZÛ I would always recommend that getting the optimal framerate takes priority over having all the extra settings turned up to high, otherwise that lovely, buttery animation will be totally wasted.
Videogames Make Me Happy concludes… that one day exploration games will rule the world
You don’t even have to like videogames to love ABZÛ. If you love magical, immersive environments, subtle storytelling and relaxing gameplay, then ABZÛ might captivated you just as it captivated me.
Exploration games have been undermined and overlooked for far too long, so it’s great to see them finally getting the recognition them deserve: ABZÛ, Journey, Subnautica, the Outer Wilds, A Short Hike, Firewatch and No Man’s Sky, the list goes on.
Just because a game doesn’t feature you conquering your enemies, doesn’t mean they can’t conquer our hearts.