Steamed – Abzû

Abzû

This piece was written in January 2017

Welcome to Steamed, a regular feature in which I try to play through all the games in my Steam library, in alphabetical order.  First up is the journey through a water wonder, Abzû.

It seems rather apt that Abzû would be the place I start with this rather absurd attempt to play all of my Steam games in alphabetical order.  A game all about a journey through an “alien” landscape and the discovery of various creatures.  Playing as what could be a person in a wet suit, maybe an unknown creature or something else entirely, you embark on an epic journey into the depths of an ocean, journeying through stunning sights of underwater environments and seeing all kinds of different strange, but real life, creatures during your journey.  Journey.

Yes, this game is basically underwater Journey.  For those unfamiliar, Journey was a game created by thatgamecompany, and released on the Playstation 3 and 4.  Abzû shares an art director with that game, but it is clear that the whole team have been inspired by it, as well as the rest of the back catalogue of thatgamecompany.  If you have played any of their games before, you will recognise many of the ways it emulates them, from the tone and pacing, through the use of images on ancient walls to tell its tale, even down to the way that the sequences transition between each other.  This is far from a criticism, as what stands out is just how adeptly they take the structure used by Journey and exceed its power on so many levels.

Out into the big wide blue

The opening sequence sees the camera plummet into the depths of the water, descending further and further down until there is no light, besides a few pin pricks of light.  If this were the only shot you saw of this game, you could easily mistake it for being set in space.  It is a perfect setup for the game that follows, as it captures the sense of an alien environment right here on Earth, one that still has so much to explore and discover.  And exploring you will do, as you dive further and further down into the depths, finding new creatures and uncovering more about this world, as well as the character you control.  Following a rather linear path, Abzû does at times suffer from not allowing you greater freedom to do this exploration.  Each area is relatively self-contained and, although some are bigger than others, you will regularly find yourself banging into a wall, generally a physical one, but occasionally an invisible one too, baring your attempts to proceed further into the abyss.  But, Abzû has a curated path it wishes you to follow and I am a strong believer that this is not the lesser option compared to the more open path, just a different one.

These smaller areas don’t suffer from a lack of awe inspiring sights either.  This is one truly beautiful game, not simply from the way it looks, but also from every element of the aesthetics.  Music swells and enhances that sense of the wonder of the unknown, along with a subtle use of sound that captures the environment and the creatures you encounter, from a ball formed by a school of fish, to massive gentle giants that glide effortlessly through their watery home.  Then there are the visual spectacles that you encounter, either as you are gently swimming around the environments or through more choreographed sequences.  One such moment sees you descending deeper and deeper into the dark ocean alongside a group of whales.  A truly majestic moment, as your character is dwarfed by these huge creatures.

Tickling the belly of a big beast

I’ve not spoken much about the actual gameplay element of the game.  That is mainly because there is not too much to it.  There are a few puzzle elements involved, but this mostly boils down to just encouraging you to explore the environments.  Small mechanical robots can be found throughout the areas, which you can rescue and use to open up the next areas.  Occasionally there might be large gates blocking your path that you need to open by following the chains and operating the mechanism.  There is certainly nothing too taxing going on here, which did make me think that the game would have benefited from having more open spaces.  If you were to make a beeline for the finish, I could see this being completed not too far beyond the hour, but this would very much be missing the point of the experience.  Spending time in these areas, poking around in every little nook and cranny, is what this game is about.  Encouraging you to do more than just searching for the way to proceed are small little pools that you can interact with, unleashing new creatures into the area.  There are also meditation spots that you can stop and sit down on.  You can then use your analogue stick to switch between creatures in the environment and watch them for a while.  Lastly, and least interestingly there are collectible shells to find.  The other two could have also been improved upon.  The controls for meditation rarely let you switch to the creature you are actually trying to go to, whilst releasing new creatures from the pools doesn’t give you the best view of them to see what you have actually discovered.  Still, these elements fit in nicely with the relaxing tone of the game.

Getting schooled

There is another reason why I felt Abzû was the perfect starting place for this series.  One of the reasons I want to write about games here, is because I truly believe they are an art form that should stand shoulder to shoulder with other visual mediums.  Just like any other artistic medium, games have their own strengths and weaknesses, but they are able to offer far more potential than many people believe.  Be they critics from other forms of media, an average console owner that plays little more than the annual Call of Duty and FIFA or someone that plays Candy Crush on their phone every day, many people do not appreciate the power that adding interaction can achieve.  Abzû is a perfect example of a game that can achieve a sense of scale, of wonder, a thrill to explore an unknown environment and a tale that touches you more than characters telling it on a distant screen.  Abzû is a unique experience for anyone, but not only that, it can provide a fantastic introduction to this world of gaming and its many unique experiences.

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