Abzû is the Best Walking Simulator

By Matt Suckley on at

This article contains mild spoilers for Abzû

The semi-derisory phrase 'walking simulator' is now common currency in video games — but it's hard to think of any that are actually about walking, as opposed to just featuring it. Making your avatar walk is nearly always there, the redundant first step in the tutorial, but pushing on an analogue stick to put one foot in front of the other is an interaction so ingrained that it's performed almost unthinkingly.

It's there, but it's not worth commenting on. It's the foundation upon which the rest of the mechanics rely, but it doesn't stick in the mind like shooting a gun, swinging a sword or talking to another character. Even in the games that inspired the walking simulator label, the likes of Dear Esther in which gameplay takes a backseat to storytelling, walking itself isn't the point or a focus. It's merely a means to an end for experiencing — and influencing — an unfolding narrative.

A game that broadly fits this category is Abzû. Launched last year by Giant Squid Studios, an independent developer that can count Journey's art director, composer and lead designer among its employees, it's an exploratory affair that ambles along at a relaxed pace. Keeping its runtime short and its puzzles light, Abzû would be a prime candidate for the 'walking simulator' label if it weren't for one, crucial distinction: 95% of the game takes place underwater.

This obviously demands another way of exploring the world, introducing a scuba-diving protagonist who cuts elegant arcs through the ocean depths. And as with any game that deviates from familiar, bipedal plodding as a means of getting around, this comes to define it.

“We wanted to evoke the dream of scuba-diving,” explained Giant Squid Creative Director Matt Nava in an Abzû development diary. “The Diver is graceful, her movement is like a fluid ballet under the waves.” This is a major factor in making the game what it is: a flowing, meditative mood piece.

But enough has been said and written about that, and I have no new hot takes to deliver about the minimal, ambiguous message at Abzû's heart. The most arresting moment of the entire game for me came in its latter stages, on a surface level, when the Diver takes her first steps on solid ground.

This is one of a handful of intermissions she spends with the earth beneath her feet, constituting only a tiny percentage of the game's already brief duration. There's nothing spectacular about the time spent on land per se — in fact, the movement seems almost clumsy compared to the Diver's gentle, balletic movement in the water — and yet it takes the breath away.

Abzû shakes us out of the apathy about walking as an in-game interaction, and recasts a ubiquitous way of moving as a major moment. A big part of this is that it comes as a surprise. Up until the point that the Diver climbs out of the water for the first time, there is no indication that walking on land will be part of Abzû's journey. There are occasional pockets that allow a head to poke above water, and even the chance to have your own Free Willy moment by swooping to gain momentum and rising in a triumphant leap above the water's surface, but the prospect of actually climbing out of the water always feels like a distant one.

In fact, it wasn't always on the cards. “In the beginning of the project, we didn't plan on having any sequences where the Diver walked on surfaces above the water,” Matt Nava tells me. “We thought that if we had any small islands, players wouldn't want to dive, and would lose focus on the main game.”

Instead, Nava explains, early test builds included an ability to make the Diver sink to the bottom of the ocean and begin walking. This was intended to give players the necessary control to investigate areas closely, but playtests revealed that the swimming controls were sufficient for most players, who simply didn't bother with walking on the seabed.

“We cut sea floor walking to reduce scope,” Nava explains. “About a year and a half or two later into development, we decided to uncut it — to rework it for above water navigation during a late game sequence. Crazy!” It was the right decision. Imagining Abzû in its original form, with walking always just a button press away, it feels as though both the purity of the swimming and the impact of the on-foot sequences would have been compromised.

Nava sees Abzû's eventual, homeopathic ratio of one part earth to 1,000 parts water as an inversion of the formula established by games like Tomb Raider, in which a dip in some cavernous pool is a refreshing break from a long time spent on terra firma. “Abzû is interesting in that it focuses so heavily on swimming, which is usually a side feature in most games,” he considers. “From the first moment we make the player learn that swimming is the norm in this adventure, and we don't deviate from it at all until a long way into the experience. In fact, the moment when you climb out of the water is essentially the beginning of the final act.”

“By breaking the norm that the game has so clearly established, we create a major surprise for the player,” Nava goes on. “We couldn't really have done it the other way around, going from walking to swimming - it would have been too late in the game to teach a very new, uncommon control style. But we get away with it because walking is something that we as humans intuitively understand very well and have a lot of experience with in other games. The unexpected nature of walking as the Diver makes the simple act seem very fresh.”

Abzû reminds us that walking in games isn't inherently unremarkable — it's simply familiarity that has made it feel this way. The game uses that familiarity as a tool, enabling it to interject sequences that surprise the player without confusing them, or needing to explain a new set of controls. It is a strange, comfortable feeling after hours spent as an underwater ballerina to break out of the water and inhabit your avatar in a new way — less graceful, perhaps, but instantly much more human. The effect doesn't exist without the preceding context. Abzû may be mostly about diving but, because of this, it's one of very few videogames that can make walking feel like something special.