Abzû explores this connection with the mysterious depths and plentiful life within it. One diver transforms an undersea world and becomes radically changed herself. This metamorphosis brings us back to our own beginning in a game that developer Giant Squid was formed to create.Giant Squid founder Matt Nava had a formative experience in high school scuba diving off Anacapa island in California’s Channel Islands. While exploring a kelp forest with an instructor, a sea lion approached, swimming rapidly and barking underwater. It swam around them, and with a playful boldness, came right up to Matt’s mask. As they ascended, the sea lion kept circling. When they got to the surface it jumped out of the water and over them. It was “a genuine connection with a wild creature,” Nava says, and one that laid the groundwork for Abzû.This rapport with sea life is at the heart of Abzû. The game boasts 64,000 fish spanning species from around the world and across different ages in time. They follow their own behavior patterns, react to what’s going on around them (including the food chain), and are fundamental to how the player progresses through the story. Giant trevally, yellow tang, manta rays, sharks, hawksbill sea turtles, crabs, sea urchin, orca, marlin, and (of course) giant squid are just some of the sea life you encounter.Playing the demo, the ecosystem I drop into is a wonder filled with life. It inspires both meditative detachment and an innate desire to forge a bond with the animals. Swimming with them is a form of communication that naturally leads to the desire to touch them. Pressing a button forms a school of nearby fish, or lets you hitch a ride with larger animals like sea turtles. Still, it’s not an automatic, follow-the-leader command. The school may dissipate naturally or not even form at all, and you must create bonds with larger animals before you can do more than just ride them. It’s not about mastering your environment, it’s about becoming one with it.“Most games where you have a world full of animals, the player has really very limited interaction with those creatures, and is usually limited to, ‘Shoot them with a gun,’” Nava says. “What we wanted to do is capture kind of a different interaction with creatures. When I’m hiking and I see some animal on the trail, I never have this feeling of, ‘Oh man, I wish I had a rifle with me.’ Usually I have this moment of awe and respect.”Scuba diving may be one of the inspirations (and the way the protagonist gets around), but that’s not what Abzû is directly about. “It’s not a scuba-simulation game,” Nava says. “No, it’s about the sense of wonder and majesty you get when you are scuba diving.”Both Nava and Brian Balamut, lead engineer at Giant Squid, are certified scuba divers, but they are careful not to let its trappings interfere with Abzû’s gameplay. “Scuba diving is not about the instruments,” Nava says, “Not about the tech and stuff. It’s about freedom of movement and being lost in a new space – experiencing this amazing alien world. When you scuba dive, you are weightless. It gives you this sense that anything’s possible.”In the water, I’m struck by how natural it feels to move around and how differently swimming feels compared to other games. You don’t need to fight the controls, because the game makes no artificial attempts to make you fl oat or sink. It doesn’t take long to get used to, and you are rewarded for simple commands with elegant movements that mirror the ease of the fish themselves. You can fl ow along freely, speed up with a school of fish, and stop and fl oat in the water serenely. You can also flip through the water on command, tumbling with your momentum.The easy mechanics of Abzû’s swimming are useful not only when getting around, but also when interacting with fish and the rest of the environment. Abzû isn’t just about enjoying the scenery; as you progress through the world, unlocking its secrets can involve solving puzzles. Getting by an area might require interacting with the sea life in a certain way or swimming and flipping fast enough to continue.The protagonist works with motorized drones, which are an important part of exploration and her story. Drones mine material from the ocean floors and reefs, sometimes enabling access to new areas, and yet they have a certain autonomy. She can beckon them with a sonar ping to investigate a pool of resources, but they also swim off by themselves or scan unfamiliar life forms. They can be damaged by larger animals, but also repaired to a point.The protagonist’s relationship with the drones, as well as everything around her, evolves as she progresses. Naturally, the drones’ invasive activities are at odds with the life around them, bringing into question the protagonist’s own role in the ecosystem. How this is resolved is one of the story’s prime arcs.The word Abzû, roughly translating into “ocean of wisdom” from the Sumerian and Akkadian languages, pertains to a Mesopotamian origin myth. The protagonist draws wisdom from interacting with the swirling sea life, taking her to unforeseen depths. Nava says Abzû is ultimately a hopeful tale. “You can reinvent yourself. You can make change. You can make mistakes, and then there’s the possibility to fix that.”Playing through the demo, I was intrigued by how my actions could transform such a beautiful world. Kelp plants rise and sway in the current as light filters down from the surface, and multiple schools of different kind of fish go about their business. Nava and Balamut tell me that one area has a coral reef, which serves as one of many congregation points for some of the fish as they migrate to different areas. Balamut turns on a debug display that shows exactly what’s going on; more than 2,000 kelp stalks, almost a million kelp leaves, the temperature, the tide, and countless fish are represented in real time.Getting caught up in the scenery is easy, and I ignore how I’m actually going to get out of this area. I revive a few drones harvesting a mineral bed on the sea floor. This opens up an even larger kelp forest. The curiosity of exploring a new area is heightened by darker colors and different fish – the majesty of a graceful giant manta ray is breathtaking. Progressing into the depths reveals tight caverns and columns of coral, and the mood throughout the demo is altered by the excellent soundtrack by acclaimed composer Austin Wintory, who also worked with Nava on Thatgamecompany’s awardwinning Journey.One of Abzû’s challenges is how it balances freeform exploration in such an environment with the need to progress the story’s dramatic ebb and fl ow. Like Journey, you cannot die, there are no voiceovers or text giving direction, and there are no timers to create artificial anxiety. The team believes that players will be compelled to push the story forward without having to sacrifice their own desire to explore. “We don’t have that dissonance between the narrative trying to tell you, ‘Go rush to the end,’ and the gameplay telling you, ‘Go play the sandbox,’” says Balamut.Despite some of the more serene moments, the game promises harrowing ones as well. Knowing Giant Squid’s reverence for animals, I ask if the player will ever combat the sea life, even in self-defense. Derek Cornish, graphics programmer, isn’t worried about Abzû’s lack of an attack button. “I think we’re perfectly capable of creating a thrilling environment that involves danger and suspense that involves the wildlife and creatures around you, without it necessarily meaning you have to kill them, or attack them, or fight for your life because they’re attacking you,” he says.The demo contains one such moment that proves this point. A narrow cavern opens up into an abyss, noticeably darker and with a far less hospitable tone. Since starting, I’ve adapted easily to the environment, feeling calm and comfortable. That drains away as I swim forward into a stillness that, to this point, is unusual. My instincts are correct as a large shark darts out of the murk and swallows my drone before escaping. I’m indifferent to the loss of the drone, but I’m reminded how alone I am in these waters, still searching through the unknown.