Post Script

EDGE - - PLAY - Matt Nava, cre­ative di­rec­tor, Gi­ant Squid Stu­dios

As art di­rec­tor on Flower and Jour­ney, Matt Nava helped de­fine the dis­tinc­tive aes­thetic lan­guage of Thatgame­com­pany’s out­put. Now, as cre­ative di­rec­tor of his own stu­dio, he’s fur­ther ex­plor­ing the po­ten­tial of his strik­ing art style, while also push­ing his game de­sign skills to the fore. (Spoil­ers fol­low.) Does the game have an eco­log­i­cal mes­sage? I think a lot of peo­ple are afraid to talk about the morals or mes­sages in their work, but it’s pretty clear that there’s an en­vi­ron­men­tal les­son to be learned from Abzû. What we tried to do was put that in there – this mes­sage of giv­ing back to the world and be­ing aware of your im­pact on it – with­out beat­ing you over the head. How did you man­age the ten­sion be­tween search­ing for se­crets and the laid-back pac­ing of ex­plo­ration? When we first started pro­to­typ­ing the game, we thought we were mak­ing an open-world game, be­cause the ocean is so vast and we thought that would be a per­fect set­ting. But it turns out that the story we were try­ing to tell re­ally needed to have this pro­gres­sion, and events needed to hap­pen in a cer­tain or­der. So we tried to fig­ure out a de­sign that was a bal­ance of those, so that at any point you could linger if you wanted to – and there are rea­sons to do so – but at the same time it wouldn’t take too long to fig­ure out where to go and how to progress. Did you de­lib­er­ately make the sur­face feel strange? It was def­i­nitely some­thing that was on our minds. It’s su­per-weird be­cause most games when you dive into the wa­ter they start to mute the mu­sic, and it’s harder to see, and you get that murky feel­ing. But what we tried to shoot for was that the world be­low is a vi­brant place that you want to ex­plore and stay in. There was a lot of temp­ta­tion early on when we were de­sign­ing the first lev­els to put is­lands above the wa­ter, or some kind of mark­ers, but we de­cided against it. As soon as you have an is­land, peo­ple want to get out and ex­plore it. The walk­ing sec­tion is par­tic­u­larly sur­pris­ing. It’s funny – it’s this thing that’s very com­mon in games: walk­ing around be­comes this huge sur­prise [laughs]. In the early de­signs we had this idea that the player would not only be able to swim but also walk on the bot­tom of the ocean, and we ac­tu­ally built an en­tire con­trol scheme for trans­lat­ing be­tween swim­ming and walk­ing – so you could fall to the bot­tom and ex­plore. But we re­alised that no­body wanted to walk on the bot­tom be­cause swim­ming was more fun, and so we cut walk­ing. Then, later on, we had the de­sign for the area with the ar­chi­tec­ture above wa­ter, but we tried to think of a way to do it en­tirely un­der­wa­ter be­cause we’d cut walk­ing and didn’t want to spend any re­sources on it. But I did a quick pro­to­type of the level and I was like, “This has to be how it is.” And so we brought back walk­ing be­cause it was so cool. But you also made The Diver feel frail on land. We don’t let you run su­per-fast – she’s much faster un­der­wa­ter. And so it’s an­other in­ver­sion of our own mas­tery of the en­vi­ron­ment. Every­thing in Abzû is like that. With the sound de­sign we do a sub­tle thing where when you’re above wa­ter we start to mute the mu­sic, which is the op­po­site of what most games do. It’s re­ally sub­tle, but it’s about mak­ing the player feel more at home un­der the wa­ter than they do out of it. How de­lib­er­ately were you echo­ing Jour­ney? I al­ways see these pre­views and peo­ple say, “Oh, it’s Jour­ney un­der­wa­ter,” and I’m like, “Oh, you’ll see…” [laughs]. You can also see in­flu­ences from an­other game that I worked on, Flower, in there, too, and other things as well. I think vis­ually the style is ob­vi­ously de­signed by me, the same guy that worked on those games, and then the story that it’s telling is again this lonely char­ac­ter in a for­eign world. But what I re­ally like about it is how it changes things and it’s dif­fer­ent from what I’ve done pre­vi­ously, but is still in that same vein. I think one of the things I took away from work­ing with the team at Thatgame­com­pany was that you can re­ally move peo­ple with this medium, and cre­ate an ex­pe­ri­ence that’s last­ing and pow­er­ful. I wanted to see if we could make some­thing that res­onated in a sim­i­lar way to Jour­ney, but take things fur­ther. And so in many ways Abzû is a more am­bi­tious game – full of life, light­ing tech and crazy wa­ter dy­nam­ics: all these sys­tems that are very com­plex and quite chal­leng­ing to cre­ate. The game feels more op­ti­mistic than Jour­ney. That’s ac­tu­ally some­thing that we talked about a lot. If you look at the real ocean it’s in a very dire state, which is a sad thing as there’s so much beauty there and so many in­spir­ing things. But when I watch na­ture doc­u­men­taries, which I do all the time – David Attenborough is my hero – of­ten you get to the fi­nal part about the po­lar bears and you’re just like, “Oh, god, this is go­ing to be the most de­press­ing thing I’ve ever seen…” So we wanted to cre­ate an ex­pe­ri­ence that cel­e­brated that beauty and ad­dressed the is­sues that we have in the world, but also leave you with a pos­i­tive sense that things can be dif­fer­ent, that you can change your­self, and you can make a dif­fer­ence. So in that way we wanted to make some­thing that was hope­ful.

“You can re­ally move peo­ple with this medium, and cre­ate an ex­pe­ri­ence that’s last­ing and pow­er­ful”

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