Fantasy and Escapism in ABZÛ
One of my favourite moments in gaming.
A QUICK OVERVIEW
I distinctly recall the first time I was playing ABZÛ; I was swimming along peacefully when suddenly a giant whale pulls up beside me. Its sheer massiveness took my breath away, and when I swam towards it and found I could hang on to it and ride around with it, I was giddy like a child. From there on, those moments just kept coming. Seeing prehistoric creatures, jumping in and out of the water with a pod of dolphins, the vivid undersea environments coming to life before my eyes. No game has so successfully given me that childlike sense of wonder and fascination, or left me genuinely happy for days after playing it. In this post I will attempt to unpack why ABZÛ left such an impact on me, and how more games can achieve this.
There's a reason that the fantasy genre is so popular across so many forms of media. Seeing places that are so beautiful, and that we in our everyday lives will never encounter, can be extremely powerful. Games are especially good at this, because they have the ability to allow the player to live in these worlds, to explore them and be a part of them. Watching a nature documentary about ocean life can be enthralling, but it is nothing like actually snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, or swimming with dolphins. We may dream of doing these activities in person, but the reality is for most of us that it doesn't happen. Not only do games like ABZÛ manage to play on a dream, they utilize it to tell a story, and exaggerate it to make it fantastical. In the same way that folk tales for centuries have taken the very real setting of medieval knights in a castle, and added dragons and magic, ABZÛ has taken the ocean, and made it vibrantly colourful with ancient technology. Fantasy requires taking the familiar and subverting our expectations about it, which is exactly what ABZÛ has accomplished.
Game designers often talk about creating a "power fantasy," such as being a powerful killer able to slaughter any enemy, or having god-like abilities to control and do whatever you please. While ABZÛ is definitely a fantasy, the moment with the whales proved to me that it is the opposite of the power fantasy. The sheer sense of scale of the whales compared to yourself shows how insignificant you as the player are. You are a part of something much larger than yourself; the ocean, a vast unknown landscape, and despite the fact that you are trying to save it, it is not for your own benefit. I found it refreshing that a game would allow the player to feel small, and not necessarily heroic, while still having fantasy elements.
The immense scale of the ocean life.
Another word that relates to the concept of fantasy that is thrown around often is escapism. The feeling that, if for only a few hours, we can be lost in an entirely different world, free from the stresses and worries of our mind. It is what developers often try to achieve when we talk about immersion. And everything about ABZÛ's design shows that the game knows how to create this. The controls have simplicity and feel fluid, like one is actually swimming. The visuals are stunningly colourful, and the amount of ocean life means that our attention is constantly redirected. Each creature also has unique sound effects that make it feel realistic, paired with emotionally serene music. It is the kind of concentrated experience where everything is polished with the intent of bringing you into another world. It is clear the developers know that fantasy and escapism is where the game shines most, which is not surprising considering their previous work, Journey. Seeing a game studio consistently and successfully putting more emphasis on creating a beautifully polished world rather than having hundreds of hours of substandard content is truly refreshing.
A gorgeous coral reef.
ABZÛ may have its flaws, but the idea and concepts behind it are extremely insightful in today's industry. Fantasy that subverts our expectations and mechanics that immerse us into a beautiful world can grant amazing, memorable experiences. This type of play is definitely something I want to see more of in future games.
Until next time, Tabea