As a lonely diver, you swim through colourful, lush eco-utopias teeming with thousands of fishes, sea mammals, algae, and more. The creatures do not threaten you, not even the sharks, and you’d be almost forgiven for thinking that you are one of them.
The shadow of Journey by Thatgamecompany looms large over Abzû, and it is difficult to adequately critique the latter without discussing the former. Matt Nava, founder of Abzû developer Giant Squid, was art director for Journey, and Austin Wintory wrote the soundtrack for both games. Journey, in case you haven’t played it (please do), has you perform a sort of pilgrimage through a lifeless desert and the ruins of a lost civilisation. The pilgrim can free herself from the deep sands and glide unhindered through the air for a few moments (depending on the length of your scarf).
Journey communicates a lot through the pilgrim’s (in)ability to glide. Finding runes will make your scarf longer and extend your ‘air time’, while getting touched by enemies will shorten it. Coming into contact with friendly spirits or even another player (crossing your path at random) causes your energy to recover much more quickly, allowing you to perform extended, intricate air manoeuvres as long as you stay close, and to traverse the otherwise difficult terrain with grace. The carefully timed sections which restrict or even take away the player’s gliding ability hit home and convey the pilgrim’s struggle and place in this world extremely efficiently.
Abzû inherits many things from Journey, such as a stylised aesthetics of the sublime, a soundtrack that is both energetic and elegiac, and a celebration of free, expressive movement. But while Journey’s pilgrim struggles and is repeatedly hampered by sand, storms, enemies, the cold – or simply gravity – Abzû’s diver is completely in her element; she swims like a fish, and – with a little bit of practice and experimentation – shoots through the water like a torpedo, or leaps over the surface like a dolphin.
Of course, the diver isn’t the only creature that moves in these small ecosystems. There’s a dizzying number of creatures, both in terms of pure quantity and species diversity. You’ll encounter tortoises, seahorses, scallops, sharks, dolphins, manatees, whales and many, many more. The player dives through swirling swarms of fishes, observes hunting behaviour, and may even hold onto the larger varieties of creatures to be carried along for the aquatic ride. The player’s movement in Abzû may not be as communicative as in Journey, but what it lacks in significance, it makes up for in exuberance.
This overwhelming richness of life and movement is perhaps what distinguishes Abzû most from its quasi-predecessor. A lonely wasteland makes place for an eco-utopia brimming with life. But just as Journey’s desert is beautiful despite its loneliness, Abzû’s cornucopia has streaks of subtle melancholy. You may notice it first in Wintory’s soundtrack, but it will get more pronounced later on. Despite initial appearances, this flamboyant world is suffering, and threatened by ominous, surreal machinery.
Abzû evokes that too familiar narrative of untouched nature falling prey to sinister technology. The simplicity and triteness of that problematic dichotomy is easy to criticise, even if it is true that our use of technology often harms our environment. Eco-fairy-tales can be more differentiated, more eloquent than this, as films like Princess Mononoke illustrate. If we’re being reductionist, Journey has a very similar ‘plot’ as Abzû, thematising our tendency to exploit, to take too much from our environment. But Journey is far subtler about this eco-message, and the way it communicates the loneliness and sadness of its desolate world to the player may be conceptually simple, but emotionally sophisticated and coherent, whereas Abzû, taken as a whole, can feel disjointed, even a bit rambling.
That said, it’s hard to deny that Abzû manages to evoke empathy and respect for the beautiful diversity of the ocean’s life that is threatened both by our technology and our propensity to forget about it. At first glance, Abzû may seem like eco-kitsch with its uncritical celebration and idealisation of its underwater world, but its awareness of the endangerment of these species and the melancholy that accompanies that fact give it a resonance that exonerate it from this accusation for the most part.
In the end, despite its abundance of life, Abzû’s main theme may be loneliness after all. It foreshadows the emptiness of oceans deprived of their life; it hints at the isolation of a human player and their avatar that do not really belong in this underwater world, but desperately want to. But Abzû does not accept this loneliness. After all, the game’s ultimate goal – or utopian longing – is to preserve its ecosystems by discovering one’s kinship with the creatures that live within it.