There’s a funny thing about interviewing game developers: a lot of them are afraid or unwilling to talk about video games other than the ones they’re currently working on, like if they divulge their influences all their own work will seem less original or important (or someone at the publisher will yell at them, more likely). ABZÛ creator Matt Nava doesn’t have that problem.
Nava’s past work includes, among others, the video game Journey, which is probably one of the most artistically successful games ever. Journey has players exploring the ruins and canyons of a metaphor-rich desert, while Nava’s new game, ABZÛ, features a scuba diver-like humanoid creature exploring a metaphor-rich ocean teeming with life. The differences between the two games are clear, but the similarities are even sharper; ABZÛ has been called “underwater Journey” so many times I don’t even feel a need to cite that. And Nava, refreshingly, isn’t shy about the comparison, despite the fact that he exited Journey developer thatgamecompany after Journey shipped (the whole studio apparently dispersed, in fact) and formed his own studio, Giant Squid, to make ABZÛ.
“You know, it’s funny, because when we were starting this project and pitching it around, people were like, ‘Are you going to mention Journey?’ And I was like 'Why not?’ Like, it’s a pretty cool game,” Nava chuckled to me and another journalist during a recent visit to Giant Squid’s cozy Santa Monica, Calif. headquarters. We sat in a conference room trading the controller back and forth playing ABZÛ, chatting about the three-year process of making this beautiful game.
Nava served as art director on the critically lauded Journey, but his work at thatgamecompany started even earlier with the game Flower. Together with Giant Squid’s ABZÛ, these games collectively form their own subgenre of meditative, thoughtful, expressive, minimalist adventures. Flower sent players tumbling and careening on breezes from the perspective of flower petals, while Journey cast them as silent desert seers on a dramatic but easygoing quest to reach a mysterious mountaintop; ABZÛ’s story isn’t yet clear, but based on the ruins and peculiar, alien machinery I spotted in the game there’s definitely more than fish under the surface of this ocean.
“When you sit down to do a game after Journey you have to think like, 'OK, what did I learn from that and how can we take that further and make something that’s stepping off from that starting point, but introducing new things?’” Nava said. “Journey is a desert, this very barren landscape—for good reason in the design of that—and after working on that desert for three years I wanted to make a game that was just super vibrant and full of life.”
The influences didn’t stop at Journey of course. “We played basically every swimming game there is,” Nava said. “Ecco the Dolphin was one of our favorites, and some more obscure ones like Aquanaut’s Holiday, a super weird Japanese game—but also fascinating—and yeah, Zora Link swimming [in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask] was definitely something we saw and we were like, that’s kind of cool, but underutilized, really.”
We played ABZÛ’s first hour or so, beginning with a glimpse at something menacing in the deep ocean, then zooming out all the way to the surface where the journey begins. You spend large swathes of the game simply swimming around, brushing past artfully designed seaweed and ferns, chirping and schooling with fish, speeding on ocean currents, and repairing adorable little drones that follow you around and open new paths.
The sheer amount of unique marine life present—all modeled after real fish/creatures, their behaviors meticulously programmed and mimicked in-game—is incredible, especially considering Giant Squid’s small size as a studio. Those schools and sharks are going to be a big talking point for a lot of players, especially as they get farther into the game—Nava briefly jumped us ahead to a later section where he hitched a ride with a pod of whales to the ocean’s deeper reaches.
“It’s not a scuba simulation game; it’s more about evoking the dream of scuba diving—what you wish you could do when you scuba dive,” Nava said. “The reason why you scuba dive is not to think about your air gauge—it’s to have an amazing experience going into this foreign world and encountering these very majestic creatures. It’s really an experience that changes you.”
Nava and his fellow developers have gone diving together, but his experiences with scuba go back farther. He described an experience he had in high school that’s still influencing him today. “I was swimming through this kelp and all of a sudden this sea lion appears,” he said, “and sea lions are kind of like dogs, you know? super playful and happy. And they can bark underwater, which a seal can't…something to do with the way its nose works or something, I don’t know. So you hear this barking and you’re like 'Is there a dog swimming around?’ and you just see something go like woosh, like this huge thing, super fast, and you’re like 'What was that!?’ and this sea lion that’s like bigger than me, 7 foot guy, super playful, swimming around us in circles super fast, and he comes up and just puts his nose on my mask. It’s like playing with a dog. It was insane. It was like—it was amazing.”
One of the things people loved about Journey, besides its gorgeous visuals and music (by Austin Wintory, who has composed an incredible-sounding score for ABZÛ as well), was the way it managed to express so much with relatively little. So many games are loud and explosive, messes of gratuitous violence or endless gauntlets of punishing challenge—but not Journey.
I love those games, but I loved Journey for being the opposite in almost every way: quiet, contemplative, fun, playful, solitary, collaborative, and a million other things that games don’t normally even try at. It looks like ABZÛ is on track to be the next step in the evolution of this unique type of experience.
“It’s very different and I think really refreshing and fun to work on something so unique, but also super hard,” Nava said, laughing.
“It’s really fun to [bend and break the established rules of game design]—to play with games as a medium,” he continued. “And I think that is something that’s happening now because the generation of developers making games now are kind of the first generation that also grew up playing games. So we have this kind of history of understanding the [medium] and it affecting us very personally, and wanting to take it to new places…It’s really fascinating to see games be explored as a medium for saying a message—saying something meaningful, which is really I think the most—the thing that drew me to doing art in general.”
To Nava, gaming’s past should be the jumping off point for the future—not something to flush and forget, letting the games that came before sink forgotten to the bottom of the ocean of history. No wonder he’s not afraid to talk about other games besides ABZÛ.
ABZÛ launches this summer on PlayStation 4 and PCs through Steam.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. He wanted to be a marine biologist until he realized how much work science is. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
RELATED: Gamer Next Door Asks the Tough Questions at the Cannabis Cup