The Player: 'Abzu,' one of the year's best games, is more undersea 'Fantasia' than 'Grand Theft Auto'

There are peculiar stone structures in the shape of sharks throughout the game “Abzu.” They exist not to be investigated or warn of foreboding territory ahead. Instead, these objects are built for meditating.

Have a seat, they beckon, and take in marine life.

Play voyeur to a whale, a jellyfish, a shark or any number of undersea inhabitants. While “Abzu” is far from a documentary or a simulation, perhaps no other video game has ever been so singularly focused on re-creating the vast, majestic and mysterious nature of an aquatic universe.

It does this with no voice, no text and no conflict. Your character in “Abzu” cannot “die” in the traditional video-game sense. Instead, the game centers on postcard-worthy imagery — swarming, silver schools of fish or sparkling green leaves or warm, orange coral — and Austin Wintory’s thoughtful, patient score.

There are no evil fish.

Our hero, an enigmatic female diver, doesn’t have to worry about oxygen tanks or any other clunky inventory management. Just swim. It’s less “Finding Nemo” and more “Fantasia,” a video game where only symphony and wonder are the goals.

Developed by a tiny team at Santa Monica studio Giant Squid Studios, “Abzu” puts forth the notion that game-like activities such as objectives and missions are optional traits. “Abzu” often looks like it belongs on a gallery wall, only its slowly unraveling secrets are interactive.

Swim into tunnels where hieroglyphics hint at some ancient civilization in which fish were gods, and dive into caves that suddenly turn into rushing water, where prehistoric-looking whales join the player for a race — and a feeding session (don’t worry, you don’t get eaten). There is a story here, but it’s abstract.  Oceans give way to outer space, and certain found objects appear to have a magic ability.

But “Abzu” doesn’t get hung up on what it all means. It’s a moving picture book, open to audience interpretation.

“One way to define a story, I guess, is as an evolving curve of events and moods strung together,” says Matt Nava, Giant Squid’s 30-year-old founder and the game’s creator. “That’s a very abstract, poetic definition, but that's kind of what ‘Abzu’ is in terms of a video game. It's an abstract, poetic idea of what a video game can be.”

The “Fantasia” comparison is apt. It looks and behaves like a video game but has little in common with most. “Abzu” is closest to the indie sensations “Flower” and “Journey,” in a which a petal or a robed figure float through digital canvases on metaphorical excursions. No surprise — they were created by  the local studio Thatgamecompany, where Nava worked before starting Giant Squid.

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They’re all part of a wave of games where tone, mood and experience take precedence. Here, the pleasure in “Abzu” is partly in how musical the game feels — different reefs or odd, underwater temples trigger different melodies. These are sounds that never reoccur. A small, pensive string section bends into more surrealistic harps. The result is a game that’s constantly in motion, even if the end goal is never spelled out.

Stravinsky was an inspiration.

“Not to be a nerdy classical musician,” Wintory says, “but when you look at a piece like the ‘Rite of Spring’ by Stravinsky, that is a piece that is totally non-developmental, meaning there is no theme that we keep hearing over and over again that evolves and develops. Here’s a little idea that’s played with for a moment, and then it sets up a new idea that’s completely new and unrelated. It’s a very natural and organic train of thought and progression.”

“Abzu” was born from Nava’s love of scuba diving. The Ojai-native didn’t set out to be a video game designer — he studied 3-D animation at Otis College of Art & Design — but says a chance meeting with Thatgamecompany founder Jenova Chen forever altered his career ambitions. Chen tapped Nava to work on “Flower.” 

“It was such a simple idea,” Nava says, noting his favorite game as a child had been Nintendo’s “Super Mario 64.” 

“Flower,” he added, “was just this game that was very elegant, in a way. It didn't use a lot of the typical mechanics you see in games. It didn't have a lot text or elements that remind you that you’re in a video game. To me, the effect was that it was very transported. It allowed the player to put themselves in that world. That’s powerful. I had just taken it for granted that all games have ‘hit points’ and you'll have a ‘game over’ screen if you mess up, that you’re going to be running, jumping and shooting guns.”

“Abzu,” available for Sony’s PlayStation 4 and home computers, lets go too of the notion of puzzles. While abstract worlds themselves are nothing new to the still-growing medium (see “Myst”), games such as “Journey” and “Abzu” want to evoke an emotion rather than inspire  brainteasers. The joy of “Abzu” comes in forever wondering what’s around the corner, or getting caught in a current led by sharks and not knowing where it will lead. 

The story, as it exists within “Abzu’s” abstract tropes, is one that few if any players will probably ever decipher. Nava says his primary aim was allowing those playing the game on a couch to feel transported to the sensation of scuba diving.

“It allows you to enter this world that you aren't allowed access to any way,” Nava says. “Once you’re in the water, the weight of all that gear is nothing. You are completely absorbed by this adventure that you’re in. I wanted to capture that feeling of being completely struck by this fantastical world without having the kind of limitations you would have if you were trying to simulate all the gear.”

But, just for argument’s sake, what does it all mean? At times, “Abzu” will shift from an underwater scene to one in seemingly another galaxy. We’re no longer swimming, we’re floating among the stars. Other times, glowing spheres or triangular objects will case a parting of the sea, a rising of a temple or an opening of the coral.

Nava says he has a clearly defined back-story, but he isn’t sharing. At least not yet.

“We wanted it to be more of an abstract experience, where it’s up to the player to find the narrative elements and decipher the events that occur to put the story together,” he says. “What that does for us, is it lets us make the story more of a personal story. By letting the player piece together the elements, they inherently form a story themselves, one that requires their own interpretation. The idea is that even on a second or third play-through, you might find something you didn’t see the first time and your interpretation changes.”

Wintory, however, says the key to understanding “Abzu” isn’t all that difficult.

“It has a sense of overwhelming beauty about it that I very rarely encounter in games,” says the composer. “That’s the primary goal. ‘Abzu’ has a narrative, a perspective and a story to tell, but I think the take-away is going to be that this is just beautiful.”

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