How Scuba Diving Inspired a Realistic Underwater Video Game

Talking 'Abzû' with game developer Matt Nava (artistic director on 'Journey' and 'Flower').
14 August 2016, 11:45am
Images courtesy Giant Squid

When game developer Matt Nava worked as art director on thatgamecompany’s Journey and Flower titles, he helped deliver some incredibly gorgeous and surreal visuals. The games quickly became known for mesmerizing atmosphere, motion, colors and scale—a rarity in the video game world.

After working on these titles, Nava broke off to create a game every bit as beautiful with his new development studio Giant Squid. Titled Abzû, his game is an immersive dive into the depths of the ocean to experience a set of expansive underwater worlds. Players will be dazzled by Nava’s characteristic visuals, as well as Austin Wintory’s score, but Nava also hopes that the immersion will serve as sort of emotional mainline to how we think and feel about the ocean.

“We set out to create an experience that would immerse our players in a beautiful, surreal world, and to deliver a moving, emotional narrative,” Nava tells The Creators Project. “We love the ocean and feel deeply that it is an integral part of all of our lives. After three years of development, we hope Abzû will give our players a glimpse into the beauty and spirit of the ocean.”

Nava says that most Abzû players who have played Journey tell Giant Squid that they feel a resonance between the games. Nava thinks this is great, as it’s natural to see a connection because of the shared art direction. But Nava says that player feedback describes a game with a “unique soul” and of course a quite different message than Journey.

So, the Giant Squid team went scuba diving, whale watching, and took several trips to aquariums, where they studied fish behavior, kelp physics, and water dynamics. They also watched a lot of BBC nature documentaries for visual references, including The Blue Planet.

“We are big fans of Sir David Attenborough and everything he creates,” Nava says. “We were also deeply inspired by Dr. Sylvia Earle, a strong ocean advocate, and her film Mission Blue. Attenborough and Earle are both in the special thanks of Abzû, along with Jacques Cousteau, of course.”

Abzû is built with Unreal Engine 4,” Nava adds. “We created and animated models and characters with Maya 2015 and some Z Brush. Photoshop was used for image manipulation and texture creation.”

Like Journey, there is a sense of realism to Abzû’s visuals blended with a sense of the surreal and fantastical. The hundreds of sea species in Abzû are all based on real creatures from oceans around the world. But when Giant Squid studied these creatures they quickly realized that each fish is infinitely complex in the way it moves, acts and looks. “We very intentionally chose what we felt were the most iconic elements of each species and focused our design on those, the outcome being a stylized representation of the actual thing,” Nava explains. “This approach worked very well in that it help us convey the essence of the creature, while simplifying less important details and reduced the noise.”

Balancing visual noise with clarity was a major mission for Giant Squid. In many areas of the game’s underwater world, fish, kelp leaves, ambient particles, corals, and seagrasses overwhelm the screen. The challenge was to allow for this, while at the same time ensuring that the space was readable. As Nava says, this stylized look is both an aesthetic and functional choice: “Abzû takes you on a tour of undersea biomes, ranging from swaying kelp forests and bright coral reefs to deep pelagic chasms and dark abyssal plains,” he explains. “There are also several secret, very surprising areas that you will discover, and which dramatically change the mood of the game.”

“The environments in Abzû are lush, dense with sealife and vividly colored,” he adds. “If you explore off the beaten path, there are many secrets to find, like secret species and ruined architecture of a long lost civilization. Players have found it rewarding to revisit the game to discover more and connect clues to piece together answers to the mysteries of Abzû.”

Integral to all of this is the sound design and orchestral score, which Nava describes as core features of the game. They have a bit role in setting the game’s mood, and helping the narrative unspool. He says that Wintory’s score changes dynamically based on events triggered during gameplay, boosting what he calls the game's “emotional takeaway." As for the underwater sounds, Giant Squid had to experiment with some novel techniques, as they weren’t exactly sure how sound works underwater.

Amongst the tricks used to make players feel more at home underwater, was the slow muting of music and ambience when surfacing. Nava says this is the exact opposite of what happens in most games, but it made total sense for Abzû.

“We designed the spaces you explore to emphasize the game’s emotional arc with their lighting, murkiness and mood,” he says. “The underwater environment is very expressive—simply pulling in or pushing out the visible distance can create a dramatic shift in the player’s feeling. Since there is no dialogue telling the story in Abzû, we rely heavily on the environments themselves to set the tone and provide insight into the history of this world.”

Abzû is out now. Click here to download and play.


What's It Like to Art Direct a Major Video Game?

What's It Like to Direct Kit Harington in 'Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare'?

'We Happy Few' Is the Perfect Dystopian Video Game for Brexit Blues