Like most Brits, I have a deep and abiding love of David Attenborough’s nature documentaries that stretches back to my earliest memories of watching lions and tigers padding around the savannah on TV with my family. More recently, the Planet Earth, Frozen Planet and Life series have provided a quiet backdrop to everything from uneventful days working at home to weed-smoke-wreathed student parties. I find deep tranquility in both Attenborough’s voice and my own enduring wonder at the creatures that live on Earth.
This piece originally appeared 8/8/2016 on Kotaku UK.
I won’t ever see most of these animals in real life. If I do, it will not be in their natural habitats, environments that are shrinking by the day. (I still get furious now and then that Frozen Planet was broadcast in the US and other countries without its final, vital episode on climate change and the effect that it is having on the animals it documents.) I live in a city, I work on a website, and though I fantasise about spending weeks trekking through a jungle or braving the Arctic, instead I spend most of my time with other members of my own species (and my cat, who definitely thinks of herself as a leopard despite her teensy stature). Nature documentaries are a way to connect with a world outside the human sphere.
Video games, like most of the technology we use in our everyday lives, often distance us from the natural world. If there are animals in games, we are usually supposed to hunt and kill them (Tomb Raider, Far Cry) or ride around on them. Rarely are we supposed to just watch them, be with them, marvel at them. Abzu, by contrast – a game about ocean exploration that I played and finished in one four-hour stretch on Friday – is a game about being in nature.
Like space, the deep ocean is a metaphor for the unknown. We don’t know what’s down there, and unless we spend a great deal of money and time training to dive down with oxygen tanks strapped to our backs and water pressure compressing our fragile lungs and vessels, we will never get to see it up close. Abzu conjures a fantastical, colourful series of ocean environments rendered in pinks and yellows and deep, calm blues and fills them, mostly, with the real creatures: orca, barracuda, clownfish, sharks and dolphins of different genera, turtles, massed shoals of flitting, silver fish. It reserves the most majestic of these creatures – blue whales and humpbacks with their sentient eyes, great white sharks – for breath-stealing set-piece moments, but most of the time, you are free to float and dive with all kinds of sea life, and just watch them be.
Abzu embraces freedom and ease of movement underwater; swimming is effortless. It is the closest sensation humans can get to flying. There are places underwater where your diver can sit, cross-legged, and you can simply flit between the different species surrounding you, watching barracuda snap up smaller fish, or manatees glide with surprising grace. There is no point to this, as such. Abzu has a story, and gives you some mysteries to think about, but for me it was a game about presence and appreciation. Or, less grandly, a game about watching fish.
The art and animation are both genuinely astounding. The fish – large and small – move so convincingly that I had to keep reminding myself that someone had to program them to do so. But there is another small element of genius in Abzu: if a creature is big enough, you can grasp its flipper or flank and swim alongside it. When you do so, you have a little influence over the creature’s direction, but not much. You’re along for the ride, but you can’t force it to go where you want. This tactile element reinforced the growing sense of connection with Abzu’s sea life. Being able to touch is even better – and even further removed from possibility, for a land-bound human – than being able to watch.
Abzu has drawn inevitable comparisons to Journey, and the two games share several team members. Though Journey’s ultimate destination was more impactful for me than Abzu’s, the process of getting there was much more enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Technology is a malevolent force in Abzu, but technology – whether it is Attenborough’s crew’s cameras or, more rarely, video games – has allowed me a connection to the creatures we share the Earth with that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. It has made me wonder how games, rather than removing us from the physical reality of our planet, might enable us to forge a greater connection with it, and better approach the imminent threats that it faces.