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”