It’s a truism, post-Jaws, to say that the great white shark has taken on an almost fabled status – symbolic of the abject terror that the oceans hold for those hairless bipeds that would dare to brave its depths. It is also, now, a cliché to purport that the great white is one of the most misunderstood animals in the sea. As a cliché it has stuck, but to me misunderstood is the wrong term. Mysterious would be better. It’s not that popular culture has misconstrued the evidence, it’s more that the evidence is barely there at all. We really don’t know very much about these sharks. We don’t even know how many there are – current estimates range from a few thousand to twenty thousand plus, globally. We know basically nothing about their mating habits, what drives their migration, or even where they give birth. They are, essentially, a predatory blank-slate onto which we can project our primal oceanic fears.
So it was with trepidation that I dove into the world of ABZÛ, knowing that the great white was to feature prominently in its narrative, but unsure what caricature I would be treated to…
ABZÛ is the first game from thatgamecompany spin-off Giant Squid, and it is immediately apparent that the thatgamecompany iconic approach to storytelling has made the leap to this new studio. While perennial not-a-game whingers may muddy the waters with unceasingly vapid “criticisms,” ABZÛ, like Journey before it, deftly breaches beyond the grim-dark swamp of the modern blockbuster videogame into a new and pristine ocean of play. Just like in Ecco the Dolphin.
Thankfully, it also manages to be more than just a submariner’s Journey – expanding on thatgamecompany’s mythic structure to explore themes of environmental stewardship. In that sense ABZÛ is more akin to an older ancestor: the same studio’s Flower. That game sees players guide an exultant murmuration of petals through wind-swept prairies and industrial nightmares – re-greening the landscapes. There is an emergent theme across these three games: a sense of human culpability. Flower is the least subtle – with lush, pristine meadows giving way to the sad monochrome of early industry and infrastructure as the game progresses, images that resonate explicitly with a contemporary audience. Journey and ABZÛ both trade more heavily in symbolic imagery: the former’s hieroglyphic interludes loosely depict a civilisation-ending conflict; the latter shows the subjugation of nature – both distinctly human activities.
“ABZÛ is more than just a submariner’s Journey.“
It’s not all beautiful doom and gloom though. Journey and ABZÛ both indicate methods of absolution, paths to redemption for the crimes of their protagonists’ respective civilisations. In Journey it is through co-operative online gameplay: communicating only through song and symbol, players collaboratively muddle through the game’s deserted cityscapes, leaning on each other until the game’s redemptive conclusion. There are players of Journey who have found every secret, explored every nook and cranny – exhausted the game’s content, as indicated by a white robe. Despite this, they continue to play, presumably for the pleasure of helping others.
ABZÛ has no multiplayer – its redemptive interactions are found only in the environment itself. It may well have been a technical trade-off, but it’s a fitting one given the subject matter. Here, instead of calling to each other we “call the world into being,” as my partner succinctly put it. In Journey the song is an announcement of self, in ABZÛ the strange calls of Little Swimmer Boy (as I’ve taken to calling him) are a soothing incantation to a damaged world. In-game the abstract twitterings summon lost species into being and safeguard dwindling environments. Crucially, both games create a non-verbal dialogue between the player and the thing that people have destroyed.
As many major news outlets reported, last year the Great Barrier Reef experienced some of the highest levels of coral bleaching ever recorded due to increased water temperature. A sustained one-degree rise in temperature is enough to cause coral bleaching. While the media reported statistics vary in both accuracy and misguided hand-wringing, the message is clear: all over the world, beautiful things are dying and human civilization is to some degree culpable.
“Beautiful things are dying and human civilization is to some degree culpable.”
With these underlying threads in hand, you may wonder why ABZÛ chose the great white as its mascot: a symbol of prehistoric fear in much of popular culture. Well, there’s another side to the shark. Great white sharks are not just predators, but apex predators. Within their watery realm we barely register as a threat without some hefty technological assistance. As apex predators they, rather helpfully, have another function beyond murder: the health of their population can be used to gauge the health of the underlying ecosystem. It is in this capacity – as guide – that the great white appears in ABZÛ: partly the vicious antagonist we recognise, but also as savior, companion, and spirit guide. It is, despite obvious artistic license, one of the most nuanced interpretations of the great white ever to grace our screens, and an artful inversion of popular tropes.
Yet it is almost despite all this that ABZÛ shines. In the face of real-world climatological cataclysm, ABZÛ’s greatest achievement is that all of the above is subordinate to the play-experience. While there are moments of fear and claustrophobia, ABZÛ is mostly a space teeming with life, movement, and beauty. It is wholly focused on the splendour of the aquatic world; its environmentalist narrative is there – barely subtext – but it isn’t the experience itself. In this vivid, dazzling world is an essence of play and playfulness that’s presented with such deft aestheticism it becomes instantly, wordlessly profound. Through playfulness, ABZÛ makes the underlying environmentalism participatory rather than prescriptive. With the great white as emblem and sage, ABZÛ renders that participation relevant, surprising and illuminating. This is a game that circumvents direct allusion, facts and figures, tired arguments had over warming pints. Instead it is a simple invitation to experience, to be compelled.