I shouldn’t expect Aquanaut’s Holiday, but I can’t help myself. Drop me into a virtual ocean and I’m going to remember that game’s open-world wonder from a time before open-world was even a thing. It was 1995. It was a Playstation. And not a Playstation One, because there was no such thing. The Playstation 2, 3, and 4 didn’t exist yet. Just a Playstation. It was Japanese, which might explain why it didn’t feel the need to be an actual game. It was instead a virtual ocean released at a time when you couldn’t go online and Google search a forum to start a thread called “uh, what am i supposed to be doing in here anyway?” So I spent most of my time in Aquanaut’s Holiday wondering what was going to happen, if anything, and not particularly minding that nothing was happening because it was so weirdly hypnotic. Relaxing. Sometimes eerie. Years later I would discover you could build a reef to attract fish or something. I suppose that’s gameplay, but it’s nothing I ever figured out.
After the jump, what game are we talking about again?
Abzu — sorry, but I refuse to write the name in all capital letters and I have no idea how to put that ridiculous caret over the U — isn’t Aquanaut’s Holiday. They both take place underwater, but that’s where the similarities end. There is nothing aimless about Abzu. It’s not an exploration game. Abzu isn’t open. It’s a series of lagoons, connected by tunnels and loading screens. Some of the lagoons are supposed to be open ocean, so they’re bounded by invisible walls instead of land. But what Abzu sacrifices in openness it makes up in detail. It’s crammed with colorful fish, distinct palettes, gratuitous kelp. A lovely set of aquariums are arranged in sequence as a guided tour, with some sort of message at the end about how sharks are misunderstood. At least I think that’s the message. When it tries to be something beyond an aquarium, Abzu is as inscrutably intricate as a black light poster from your neighborhood head shop. That’s not necessarily a criticism. Besides, sharks really are misunderstood.
While Abzu will intrigue the average landlocked gamer, it also accomplishes something only scuba divers can appreciate. When many people dive, they measure the quality of their dive by the specific creatures they saw. Did you get to see a reef shark? Just a big ol’ lobster or two? Or did you actually score a dolphin or a seal? An octopus trumps everything else, especially during a night dive. But if you just saw a bunch of garibaldi, sheephead, and urchins, too bad, maybe next time, at least you’ve padded your diving log with a forgettable entry. Abzu certainly gets this and it’s determined to show you the biggest and best of the sea, even if it has to hold your head to point it in the right direction. Abzu is the sea’s greatest hits.
But for me, the magic of being underwater goes well beyond whether I saw an octopus. The appeal of diving is related to two things that have nothing to do with the wondrous creatures down there: movement and light. The way you move when you dive is more like flying than swimming. You don’t use your arms. You can tell an inexperienced diver by how much his arms flail around. Arms are useless for underwater movement. You can do far more with a kick of your flippers and a twist of your torso than anything your arms can manage. Fish don’t have arms for a reason.
An important part of diving is the fine art of buoyancy control. If you’re lying in the sand, or if you’re fighting to keep from floating to the surface, you’re not doing it right. Buoyancy management is one of the most difficult parts of scuba diving, which is otherwise a matter of not freaking out because you’re in another world. Balancing that fine line between sinking and ascending is a skill you have to develop. Once you manage it, diving really does feel like flying. Movement is a matter of applying delicate degrees of force to control surfaces. It’s not swimming. You don’t use your arms to pull you through the water. Abzu gets this, of course. The motion of your character, the easy gliding, the dynamics of twisting to steer, the lazy weightlessness, the long graceful flippers doing all the work. Since this is a videogame, Abzu’s camera enforces a rigid up/down situation. Real diving is zero-G. It’s more like playing Descent than Abzu. But the fluid grace and animation of Abzu’s character and how you control him nicely captures the feel of being underwater.
The other magical part of being underwater that Abzu understands is the quality of light. A dive around kelp is different than a dive around coral. The water in Cozumel, southern California, and a rock quarry in Arkansas filters the light differently. The open ocean is starkly different from the shore. 40 feet down is different than 20 feet down. 100 feet down is like nothing you’ve ever seen. A night dive is even more like nothing you’ve ever seen. And it’s never just degrees of brightness or visibility distance. There’s something more than that, something ineffable, sometimes terrifying, sometimes rapturous. The interaction of light and water is the foundation of life itself. Being underwater, a place we’ve long since left as organisms and where we no longer belong, is primeval. God rays through a forest of kelp can be similar to god rays through storm clouds, but they’re also different in ways that words cannot describe. Abzu tries mightily to show this and for the most part, it succeeds as well as a videogame built from the Unreal engine can hope to succeed.
So long as you’re willing to come to Abzu on its own terms — not everyone will carry the baggage I brought back from my Aquanaut’s Holiday — you’re in for a lovely and occasionally thrilling guided tour. It’s Flower underwater. It’s Journey with more to look at. It’s a celebration of light, color, and the languid motion or resplendent flocking of things that live in the sea. It’s a collection of set pieces, some of them worthy of virtual awe. I wish developer Giant Squid had trusted the majesty of their lighting, animation, and creature models to emerge naturally. Because the ones that do emerge naturally, the ones that you find of your own accord, are almost magical. But most of these set pieces aren’t discovered so much as staged, complete with locked camera control and off limits areas for scripted behavior.
And you might not want to linger too long or peer too closely. During an iconic underwater pairing — arguably the single most iconic meeting of two undersea creatures — I expected something was going to happen. Nope. The creatures just ignored each other. I waited. They still ignored each other. Then they clipped through each other. I could see the strings. The curtain fell away. The magician fumbled. Okay, maybe Abzu isn’t quite ready to go off script. It even resorts to some eleventh hour Tomb Raidering.
But when you let go of any expectations of emergent behavior, open-world exploration, meaningful narrative, or gameplay, Abzu is still a thrilling once-and-done guided tour full of light, color, and sound (sometimes too much sound; that orchestral soundtrack can be, um, a bit much). It might not appreciate the vastness of the sea, but it appreciates the magic and the majesty.
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