Underwater video game 'Abzû' aims for the dream of perfect scuba diving

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Video game "Abzû" wants to take you on an emotional journey into an underwater world. It's the first game to come from Santa Monica's Giant Squid Studios, which is being led by Matt Nava. Nava was previously the art director on the games "Flower" and "Journey" for thatgamecompany, creating games that broke from traditional game formats and creating gameplay that's more about a specific experience.

"I wanted to continue making games that spoke to players on an emotional level, and our first game, 'Abzû,' is this underwater swimming game. And our challenge was to build the team at the same time as building this project," Nava says.

The startup studio is trying to make an impact, so they set about making sure that what they do is unique.

"Every new studio really has a great challenge in the game industry now, and that challenge is really to just get your game out there, and have people see it. There's so many peopled making games, because it's become far simpler to do, which is fantastic, and really has broadened the kind of genre and demographics that the gaming medium can reach. But at the same time, there's just a lot of noise, and you have to cut through that somehow. And we've found that the thing that has worked for us is to really think of something new," Nava says.

Making the scuba diving experience better

Nava is a scuba diver himself. He set about creating an experience similar to real scuba diving, but with fewer logistical hurdles.

"What I realized in my experience of the ocean, is that when you dive, you don't want to have all this gear. You really need the gear to let you experience the ocean, but ideally, you wouldn't have it. You'd be free to stay underwater as long as you want, you'd be free to move quickly and interact with the creatures and life that you meet there. And when I started thinking about this game, it was like, how do I make a game that gets at that? That gets at this dream of scuba diving, rather than this simulation of it?" Nava says.

Their solutions included taking away the concept of an air gauge, allowing your character to not worry about drowning and just swim. You also get to interact with the creatures around you.

"It really was important to do that to really give the player kind of a direct connection to the ocean, and just let them directly experience the majesty and wonder that we have when we've gone diving," Nava says.

Abzu trailer

A lot of research went into making the game, from diving to whale watching and visiting aquariums. They also realized that the real world is tough to beat, basing all the game's fish on real ones from around the world.

"We studied how they school, and interact with each other, in order to model their behavior," Nava says. "We, in the beginning of the development, were wondering if we were going to invent fish or try to mimic real ones, and we started researching them and realized very quickly that the real thing is much cooler than anything that we could actually invent."

The game starts with giving you a peaceful, blissful experience — but Nava warns that it doesn't last throughout the game.

"You have this just amazing beauty and serenity, but there's also this danger [in the ocean]. And, you know, you have to respect what's down there, because it's not our world — we're visitors there," Nava says.

Still, you don't have to worry so much about being shark bait, as there's no Game Over in "Abzû."

"One thing as a designer that I really like to do is to eliminate the Game Over, because it lets you keep the timeline of the game intact, and it retains immersion, which was really important for us. But at the same time, 'Abzû' delivers an emotional narrative arc to the player, and it really takes you to some surprising places. There are some kind of tense moments and scary areas at the bottom of the ocean," Nava says.

The team behind the game

To put the world of "Abzû" together, the studio started by hiring about 10 developers — a relatively small team for a game as ambitious as "Abzû". It was also a new step for Nava, moving from being artistic director to creative director.

"As ['Journey'] was developed, I took on more and more roles of level designer, character animator, and did a lot of concept art as well for that game," Nava says.

Now he's taking on guiding and mentoring other developers, as well as providing them with direction.

"A lot of us came from bigger studios, working on games, and they were not really satisfied with the kind of things that they were making at those places. They wanted to make a game that spoke to players more deeply, and they wanted to be more close to the creative process," Nava says.

One of those developers was Derek Cornish, who had a wealth of experience at larger publishers, but that they wooed to their project, according to Nava.

Another senior developer who made an impact on the development of "Abzû": Jenova Chen, the creative director who Nava worked with before on "Journey." Chen discovered Nava out of art school, when at the time Nava had expected to be doing animation for TV or movies instead. Cut to the Giant Squid team having lots of players playtest the game — including Chen.

"He came and played 'Abzû,' and gave us a very harsh critique, but it was extremely helpful — and luckily we had time to fix things, and change things, and tweak things to make the game work better," Nava says.

The players who tested the game have played it in all different ways, Nava says. The game also remains open for interpretation.

"'Abzû' doesn't have any dialogue in the game, and people interpret it very differently. And it kind of gives the game a personal element, because people can insert their own self into the story. And I think that that's really what we're excited about, is how people take away unique interpretations from the game when they play it," Nava says.

They brought this project to a close, but now they're ramping up for their next game.

"As an artist and a developer, you feel like you could just keep working on the game forever. But at a certain point, you have a deadline, and you have to say, 'OK, let's wrap this thing up.' And at that point, you really have to make sure that every critical thing to make the experience for the player as great as possible is in there," Nava says. "We've managed to put a whole lot of stuff in there — way more than I thought we would be able to. We've gotten hundreds of fish species, and tons of effects, and simulated ocean lighting, and kelp swaying, and all these really cool things."

"Abzû" comes out Tuesday, Aug. 2 for PlayStation 4 and PC.

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