When Thatgamecompany released Journey back in 2012, it created a massive shift within the gaming industry. It was an unforgettable adventure with fantastic storytelling, a stunning art style, and a powerful soundtrack. It took the player through various ancient caverns, crumbling cities, dangerous underground lairs, and managed to create a constant sense of wonder. Two of Journey’s key creators — art director Matt Nava and musician Austin Wintory — have gone on to create a new game, leaving Journey’s dry deserts and delving deep into the cool waters of ABZÛ.
In ABZÛ, you play as a diver who is exploring the beautiful and vibrant depths of the ocean. As she dives deeper, certain areas are mysteriously decaying, and she helps to restore them back to their natural beauty. Journey and ABZÛ share many of the same concepts and characteristics, such as environmental storytelling and uncovering the secrets of an ancient civilization.
In other video games, movement isn’t exactly a notable highlight. It gets you from A to B — from one story point to the next. But in Journey and ABZÛ, playful movement is a critical part of the game’s design. It’s fun to majestically glide through the air in Journey or gracefully twist and turn in ABZÛ. A vital part of what makes both games particularly unique is their ability to create joy in avatar movement.
Taking a closer look at ABZÛ, we can examine how the game places emphasis upon the concept of movement — using it as a basis to combine the player and avatar into one ‘virtual body,’ and how that body connects to the reactive underwater world.
In early video game academia, ideas of the role of the avatar revolved around seeing it as a tool or vehicle to experience the game world. However, the nature of the avatar is far more complex than just seeing it as a puppet to control. More often than not, it’s a simple case of role-playing a character and completing their narrative. But what if you play a game where the character doesn’t have … well, character? This is the key when analyzing the silent diver in ABZÛ.
It’s unfair to suggest that because there is no verbal communication, the diver in ABZÛ has no character whatsoever. She cares for the ocean and is inquisitive about her history, and these motivations drive the story. However, we don’t know anything about her personality or character. So how does the player make a meaningful connection to her? A large part of the diver’s character is created through her movements, and that comes directly from the player. We place a part of ourselves into the diver in the only way the player can connect with the avatar — through moving her.
But the interaction in ABZÛ isn’t only between player and avatar. The way you interact with the world of ABZÛ is not talking to characters, smashing crates, and killing enemies, but solely through movement. The underwater world directly reacts to your actions; the under water physics and dynamic fish interaction is spectacular.
The fish and plant life follow the same procedural rules that they would in reality; it’s a completely reactive world. Schools of fish swim around you and seaweed sways when you swim close to it. Underwater worlds are in constant state of movement, and ABZÛ captures this completely. You really feel the connection between the gliding of the diver and the fish surrounding you, and it makes you feel more apart of that world.
When playing any video game, there is always an overlapping of worlds; the virtual world and the real world. There is a flow from the player’s movements, an input into the controller, a signal into the hardware, and then the audio-visual output on screen. It’s a kinetic conversation with the computer; you press a button, the game responds, and then you subsequently respond to the game’s output. It’s this back and forth communication that the physical turns into the virtual and the avatar is the link.
The joystick of the controller is perfect to capture the smooth movements of the diver, and this creates a combination of two bodies (physical and virtual) that both act upon each other. The smooth and graceful movements of the diver are your movements, and ABZÛ subsequently turns a kinetic conversation into a dance performance.
ABZÛ is an amazing game that’s unique and enjoyable in its approach to player and avatar movement. It’s a meaningful process between the player the hardware. The creation of the diver’s character is made through the capacities of the machine and the player’s physical input. The art director of ABZÛ, Matt Nava, said that he wants to game to create a unique connection between the player and sea-life (and successfully so), but what ABZÛ has also achieved is a unique and deep connection between the player, the avatar, and the virtual world exclusively through the joy of movement.