Exploring the Hidden Depths of 'Abzû'

Matt Nava talks the environmental, and mythological, soul of Giant Squid's breathtaking undersea debut.

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Early in Abzû, after swimming through an architectural ruin painted with the vivid hieroglyphs of an ancient undersea civilization, you come to a sudden clearing. Before you, the sea opens out in a bewitching expanse, punctured by shafts of light from the water’s edge and dotted with sharks and marlin.

Ahead, at its apex, a coursing heart resembles an oblong sphere in fluid light blue — hundreds of giant trevally, innately driven to form an undulating defensive perimeter that scatters and binds intermittently as they’re stalked by snapping predators. You may recognize this “bait balling” from David Attenborough documentaries; as in nature, Abzû’s depiction is a breathtaking portrait of aquatic Darwinism that visually and thematically mirrors what inspired developer Giant Squid in the first place.

Released this summer on PS4 and Steam (with a physical edition for consoles rumored for a release later this year), Abzû is a parable about connecting to the natural world. The word itself belongs to Sumerian mythology, which tells of two great forces, the Abzu and the Tiamat — an idyllic freshwater lake and a tempestuous saltwater sea, respectively — which merged to form life itself.

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For Giant Squid’s creative director Matt Nava, this primeval tale was the perfect narrative analog for exploring the link between our own lives and one of the least understood — and most fascinating — places on the planet.

“What I loved about the word ‘Abzu,’ and the kind of mythology it came from, was using water as this metaphor,” Nava says. “It’s such a powerful symbol in our lives — you know, we can’t exist without it, it’s where we came from, we’re surrounded by it yet we don’t understand it.”

Abzû itself had a memorable phonetic introduction. When Giant Squid debuted the game during Sony’s E3 press conference in 2014, the trailer opened with a breakdown of the two parts of the word, “Ab” (water) and “Zû” (to know). Before it was clear what the game would eventually become, there was already something intriguing about it.

“Before I had even started Giant Squid, I was making this pitch for the game,” Nava says. “I had been watching a lot of documentaries and reading a lot about these ancient cultures, because I’m fascinated by their artwork and their history. And [the Abzu myth] is something that I came across and it just really stuck with me, as this really interesting concept. I [also] love the word, because it’s so unique.”

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The mark over the “u”, called a circumflex, actually caused some problems for the team due to the word having different spellings in Sumerian and Akkadian languages (it is spelled “apsû” in the latter). To put their own spin on the concept, Giant Squid merged the two words together.

“We’ve actually had a couple letters from historians saying ‘you didn’t spell it right!’” Nava says, laughing. “The circumflex has been super fun. I love that kind of stuff. But it’s also been a curse, because nobody knows how to type it, and all the computer programs are not expecting you to have one of those in the name of your files. So we’ve had some funny issues with it.”

In just this minute detail about the game, you get a real sense for Nava’s love of antiquity, one that’s pervasive throughout the game. It’s a notion that dates back to Nava’s days as art director on Journey, which, like Abzû, was steeped in a fictional culture that told its own story through its environment.

“It creates a kind of logic to the space. And it’s something I often think about when I play video games — what kind of architecture you’re running around on,” Nava says. “Why does this platform exist? Is it purely just there because, you know, Mario needs a platform to land on, or can you put some significance to it? Can you create some history [so it] exists for a reason?”

The structures of the Middle East are a prevalent influence in Abzû. What was the antediluvian Mesopotamia is located today in Iraq and Iran, and as you swim through the game’s evocative mural chambers, it’s impossible not to notice a strong resemblance to Islamic architecture in the trefoil arches and Arabesques that characterize its sunken interiors, especially if you happen to look up.

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“They’re actually called Muqarnas,” Nava says, referring to the ornate, geometric vaulted ceilings found in many of Abzû’s domed structures, which the team went out of their way to understand and recreate.

“Its one of those things where you look at it and it’s just overwhelmingly complex. You know there’s logic and reason for the patterns, but you cant really understand how they come together or how people could make something like that,” Nava says. “So that was a personal challenge for us, was to figure out how those things worked so that we could represent them, because they’re so beautiful.”

Giant Squid’s results speak for themselves — it’s no surprise that Nava and his team made studying appropriate architectural styles one of the game’s top artistic priorities.

“It takes that research and understanding of how these buildings were made, or how they were designed to fit together, before you can really make something that feels like it fits in a game space,” he says. “You need all of those visuals to feel cohesive.”

The evidence is in more than just the construction of Abzû’s lost cities. As a metaphorical exploration, and celebration, of marine life, the game weaves together a kind of cultural record left by a race that lived in religious harmony with the sea.

“Because I’m such a nerd for architecture and ancient art, it’s really fun to design your own kind of canon, and the most fun is when you’re drawing influences from many different ancient cultures,” Nava says.

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It’s a striking discovery then, when, gliding through the kelp and schools of fish, you happen upon a sacred sculpture of a half-man, half-shark; it’s a marker where players can choose to meditate, observing the surrounding fauna by controlling a camera that tracks each finned, shelled, or tentacled subject. Nava jokingly refers to these shrines as shark Sphinxes.

“One really fun thing to me about all these ancient cultures was that they incorporated the animals of their environment into their artwork — very often as these images of gods,” Nava says. “So I thought, ‘if there was this civilization that existed underwater in Abzû, what kind of artwork would they make? What kind of sculptures and deities would they have created, or worshiped?’”

As Abzû is largely the product of Nava’s own love for everything in the ocean, he hopes these sites, hidden in each of the game’s chapters and representing various saltwater biomes, give players the opportunity to forge a stronger bond with what he sees as a reverent place. (Players can also ride alongside larger animals for the same reason.) And while the team wasn’t sure at first how they might portray their world, it soon became clear that reality is stranger than fiction.

“At the beginning of the process, we didn’t know if we were going to try to make up fish or try to invent larger-than-life creatures,” Nava says. “Then we started researching, and we realized you can’t make stuff that’s crazier than what’s out there. It’s just so cool what fish do. It’s so insane.”

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Anyone that’s ever watched videos of, say, prehistoric nautiluses or bioluminescent deep-sea anglers can attest to earth’s mind-boggling aqueous diversity — so overwhelming and strange that it almost seems impossible. Yet as Nava and his team continued to learn about underwater ecosystems, the more obvious it was that they had an almost documentarian obligation in making the game.

“There’s so much in the ocean that people just don’t know about. And one thing that we talked about a lot about was that this is first time that some these fish have really been represented in semi-mainstream media,” Nava says. “This could be one of the only times a person could ever see a representation of this creature. So, what is our responsibility for representing them in a somewhat accurate way?”

Nava likens it to public perception of dinosaurs.

“You think about how they’ve been represented in media, and the kind of lasting interpretation the first image of dinosaurs has had — you know, these big lumbering scaly guys who are dumb,” Nava says. “Now the image of dinosaurs has completely changed. They’re quick and they’re warm-blooded and they’re full of feathers. [But] people are so reluctant to change their view of them. It’s kind of interesting how media can really shape our perception of things that we don’t have direct contact with.”

Aside from representation, it was also a challenge to choose which animals to include in the game. Nava says there are around 200 types total, though the number of bodies on-screen at any given time is generally much higher — numbering, at a glance, in the area of a thousand and then some. In the end, it was impossible to include every species the team wanted to; to make the most of their resources, they chose the most varied range possible.

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“That was definitely a trick. We love all of these fish, and we just keep learning about new ones,” Nava says. “We had limits — of time, and of the systems we could use to represent them that were a good match for our tools. And we basically wound up making fish until the last minute.”

As a rule, that meant including creatures that best represented their genus or family in the most iconic way. In keeping with the mythological message of the Sumerian Abzû, the team also took liberties grouping different species together from across the globe, organized by similarities in their habitats.

“When you go to a tropical reef, you might see fish from Indonesia or the Caribbean, but they both live in similar biomes, with coral and shallow water and sharks and things like that,” Nava says. “And, you know, go deep into the abyss and you’ll see lantern fish. But all the fish for the most part exist in biomes that they really would exist in.”

It fit with Giant Squids broader vision to show life as it actually is beneath the waves.

“We researched how fish were being done in 3D in all sorts of different ways,” Nava says, “and you never see them eating each other. It’s just such a hard thing to model in a computer.”

The sheer amount of marine activity would normally make such a simulation running in any game next to impossible.

“We have tens of thousands of fish, and without that many it doesn’t feel like the real ocean. It’s just so dense,” he says. “And they all have to be aware of each other. They’re all hungry, and calculating which ones are the right kind of species — and you know, [prey] have to be smaller, they have to not be cleaner fish — because bigger fish don’t eat cleaner fish.”

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Cleaners like the bluestreak wrasse, found midway through your voyage, form mutually beneficial relationships with bigger fish, “cleaning” parasites and dead skin off of their larger would-be companions by eating the offending bits. Spend any time meditating and you’ll often see the life take its course in other ways as well, as hunters pursue and catch their smaller marks, whether they’re bait ballers (actually, giant trevally are just as likely to be predators, but the point remains) or just unlucky stragglers.

But realistically it’s hard to say whether Abzû would have happened at all — at least on console — if not for Giant Squid’s small team of programmers, who found a way to simplify each fish’s animation without affecting the visual output. It multiplied the number of fish possible on screens by 10.

“Suddenly we had an ocean,” Nava says.

Modeling the fish, which all have individual AI that has cascading levels of awareness and interaction with the rest of its environment, was an iterative process as well.

“We started just by getting fish to swim around an environment and not go through walls,” he says, laughing. “So we started with this really basic level of … how do you get a fish in the water, how do you make it stay below the surface? Then it was like, okay, how do get him to move its tail? How do you get him to turn, and bend when he turns?”

From that foundation, Giant Squid had to figure out how to make their creations interact with each other: schooling, eating, and taking on roles as predator or prey. Finally, once everything else was was in place it was possible to consider modeling bait balling, a herculean math problem that wasn’t solved until development was nearly finished.

“What’s cool about stacking logic like that is we already have how a fish reacts to predators, so when a shark goes through the center [of the bait ball], it punches a hole, and the fish dart away, but then they reconvene into this shape,” Nava says. “What happens is you start to see behaviors that you didn’t program emerge. And you realize that’s how fish actually work — each individual fish is just doing the best thing for itself.”

For Nava, it was vital Abzû’s world to be governed by these systems of natural eat-or-be-eaten logic, an idea that originated, fittingly, with his own oceanic explorations.

“You’re just struck with the beauty of this place. But at the same time, you have this respect for it, because you know that really you’re not in control. You’re not really the one with power here,” he says of scuba diving. “You are taking a risk down there. And that dichotomy between the fear of the ocean and the awe and majesty of it is something that I think speaks to us deeply — we really wanted to capture it in the game. And that required not sugar coating [anything].”

Still, these are hallowed waters. The player’s path mirrors the wordless diver protagonist’s, who begins her journey isolated and alone before gradually coming to understand her own impact on this place and more important, her role within it.

Taking a page from Flower, the first project Nava worked on at while at thatgamecompany, a significant part of Abzû revolves around making its waters burst with new life by activating sporadically scattered interaction points. And while the presence of encroaching influences become more and more abundant as the narrative progresses, the environmental message is clear from the first time you watch a lifeless plain explode in a symphonic bloom of fins and coral.

“It’s very much this metaphor for our current relationship with the ocean,” Nava says, “and I think that’s a global message and issue. We really wanted to make this game speak to everybody and get at these deeper feelings and issues [we share].”

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Despite the undeniable threat of issues like climate change, Giant Squid didn’t want to leave players with a sense of despair.

“So often you watch these nature documentaries, and you’re presented with these beautiful images. And then at the very end, they’re like, ‘And that was the very last polar bear,’” Nava says. “They start with you a sense of awe and they leave you with depression and hopelessness — it’s like, ‘Oh, God, there’s nothing we can do!’ I didn’t want to do that with Abzû.”

Though its narrative is never entirely explicit, he views the overall experience as constructive.

“We made it so that even after you learn there’s problems in this world, there’s hope,” he says. “Even though things are dire, there can be positive change. And I think that that really is kind of the very first step in actual change. You can’t really change the world or fix these problems if you don’t believe they can be fixed.”

Even a great white, ostensibly a menacing presence in Abzû, is given more nuance than the archetypal killer we typically associate with sharks, another example of both Nava’s diving dichotomy and finding an affinity with nature.

“The great white shark is a central character in everyone’s idea of the ocean. And so often they’re just portrayed as a terrible eating machine, based on the fact that they are scary and powerful,” he says. “But we were really interested in showing more sides to this shark — we start with him being the typical bad guy, then we kind of subvert that. There’s more to a shark than just fear.”

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Perhaps it’s the effect of primal images like these, with the power to frighten and mesmerize in equal measure, that gives the concept of the ocean — a force of water we can’t hope to control — such an undeniable allure.

“Even in our language, there’s so many references to water, because we just understand it in such a fundamental way and interact with it all the time,” Nava says. “It’s such a metaphorical thing. Everything we talk about is deep, or on the surface, or shallow — there’s just so many ways we use to it to understand our world and understand ourselves.”

In any case, there may be ties that resonate more deeply than a gut reaction contemplating mortality.

“[The ocean] is kind of the predecessor of our world. It’s something I think we all still have in us, as a part of us,” he says. “You know, you look at a fish and you can see how it morphed through evolution. That connection is so powerful.”

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