Matt Nava, creative director of Abzû, clearly doesn’t want to make a game about the limitations that usually accompany swimming in video games. Much like an underwater Journey – which Nava worked on as art director before leaving ThatGameCompany to start his own studio the thrill of exploring a living, thriving undersea landscape appears to be the main idea. It’s one that comes from personal experience.
“Once you get into the water, all the [diving] equipment and instruments and everything just disappear,” Nava told Venturebeat in an interview last year. “You’re just lost in the world. All of it is there only so you can be there.”
Games, on the other hand, have a somewhat more prickly relationship with swimming, and developers have struggled for years with figuring out how to make it work for players when they’re submerged. If what’s been shown of Abzû is any indication, players should be in for an evocative underwater experience. With that in mind, here are a few examples (by no means exhaustive) of when aquatic movement in gaming wasn’t so bad.
Ecco the Dolphin
It might feel like a little bit of a cheat to start with a game where you’re not human – one of the prime challenges in designing interesting or fun gameplay around water – but Ecco was really something special when it made its 1992 debut on the Seaga Genesis. A beautiful and hostile ocean world and cryptic puzzles gave this one a real sense of adventure, and, despite its high difficulty there was little else that could compare to gliding high speed through the water to break the surface with an acrobatic flip. To this day I’ve never finished it, but Ecco is still a classic.
Donkey Kong Country
If you’ve played Donkey Kong Country, you know what I’m talking about: thanks to the Kongs inexplicably being able to breathe underwater, what could have been a tortuous ordeal is instead a peaceful passage through the reefs. Between David Wise’s immortal track “Aquatic Ambience”, colorful visuals and just the right amount of movement up with each of Donkey or Diddy’s strokes, this is about as good as it gets for 2D swimming.
Banjo-Tooie wasn’t the first N64 game, let alone the first 3D platformer, to take a stab at swimming, but its one of the better earlier examples of it in the genre. As with the original game, Kazooie helps Banjo navigate sunken spaces by propelling the both forward with her wings – only in Tooie you’re eventually given the ability to swim faster, with Banjo kicking his legs as well. It made all the difference.
Tomb Raider II
I wouldn’t classify Tomb Raider’s swimming as fun, per se. Though for an early foray into third-person adventure, it got the job done. Tomb Raider II, however, introduced an underwater 180 degree flip that made exploring the game’s lengthier and more expansive waterlogged sections easier to deal with. It deserves some recognition for that.
Metal Gear Solid 2
At the time of its release in late 2001, MGS2 had graphics that felt unbelievable for the era, whatever the setting. A late-game rescue mission propelling rookie FOXHOUND agent Raiden through a flooded section of an oil contamination facility was a surprise, as much for its inclusion as its presentation. The attention-to-detail in the hazy, distorted screen effects to simulate water was stunning to behold, if a little disorienting; luckily Raiden could shoot through the water like a torpedo.
Endless Ocean series
Both Endless Ocean and its sequel, Blue World, are pretty unique in that they’re more about discovering ocean life (despite Blue World’s more heavy emphasis on narrative elements) than you’d typically find in a game, trading weapons for diving equipment and a camera. As a result, they’re also games whose worlds you can get lost in, just soaking in the atmosphere.
After dipping their toe in with Uncharted 3’s jaw-dropping water physics (and rendering flooded spaces in The Last Of Us, Naughty Dog has created probably the best swimming ever seen in a game. The ocean lagoons in Uncharted 4 pop with vibrant color and detail, painting almost CG-grade seascapes; Nate Drake’s animations and controller response are effortless. I’m not sure if Nolan North actually mo-capped this stuff underwater – knowing Naughty Dog’s pedigree for realism, it wouldn’t surprise me – but even without a supply of oxygen, the feeling you get pushing through the shallows is second to none. If Abzû can top this, it’ll be a game to remember.