The question of whether or not video games are art was hot on everyone’s mind a few years ago, but shortly after that phase passed we moved on to another question: what is a game? How do we define what is and isn’t a video game? What are the criteria? Is something a game just because its creator says so? Games like Gone Home, The Path and so on were central to this debate; today these are often called “walking simulators,” because they’re narrative experiences where all you tend to actually do is walk around and look at stuff.
Personally, I’m all for calling those things games! I think it’s great that the industry is becoming more inclusive in that sense, especially because if we clearly define something as a game, we can judge it on the same standards as other games. For instance, I find that most games where you walk around and look at stuff while listening to someone narrate their LiveJournal are boring and I’d rather not play them. Even recent disappointment simulator No Man’s Sky is a game, though it’s a game about walking around and looking at stuff while refilling nag meters and as such is boring. It’s not a philosophical discussion, just a matter of taste – what a shock!
Anyway, ABZÛ came in, our trusty managing editor sent it to me, I checked it out. It’s not a walking simulator! It’s a swimming simulator; a swimulator, as I’ve decided to call it. You’re a diver and you’ll swim around and look at stuff, mostly fish. Sometimes you interact with the fish; sometimes you can grab onto one of the larger fish and ride around on it; sometimes you can meditate on the inherent nature of fishiness and possess a fish so you can follow it around and watch the fishy things it does. Other reviews have made sweeping statements about how grandiose and moving this game is, and they aren’t wrong. It’s also made me afraid of plastic six-pack holders and sushi chefs. You don’t have a speargun, which is unfortunate as I feel like that would have added a lot to ABZÛ, but c’est la vie.
This is a swimulator, so you’re going to be doing a lot of swimming. That’s actually pretty fun! It controls a bit like controlling a 3D Mario game underwater; point in a direction, hold the trigger to flipper your way around, and tap X to pick up speed, which also makes your fins all long and cool-looking. One thing that can be said for ABZÛ: it’s probably the best-looking swimming game I’ve ever played. One of the advantages of this sort of game is that the compressed experience lends itself well to nice graphics, and in this case it’s clear that a lot of attention was paid to how your character moves. That extends to the environments and wildlife as well, which are all colorful and eye-catching.
That’s basically it! You’ll swim around, look at stuff, and interact with stuff in non-violent ways. I’m afraid that despite my stern belief in the importance of gameplay in making a good video game, I actually had a pretty good time with this one. I’d probably blame the kelp forest for this, since it looks absolutely fantastic; you also get to ride a turtle, which is an experience that all good games should have. If you speed up you can launch yourself out of the water with a giant trail of fish behind you, which looks amazing and is incredibly enjoyable much as it was in the Genesis classic Ecco the Dolphin. I didn’t hate the ending and it wasn’t nearly as condescending as the endings of these games tend to be. There’s all kinds of little touches like this that make ABZÛ a surprisingly fulfilling game despite it completely contrasting with my views on what makes a game fulfilling.
I wish I didn’t have to admit that I like a walking simulator because this is a swimulator (get it?). But ABZÛ is close enough to count. There are games that really want to be art; there are games that are desperate to prove that they are art; there are games that are designed from step one to be marketed and sold to people who want games to be art; then you’ve got ABZÛ, which is just a really gorgeous game that pairs inherently enjoyable movement with interesting sights to see. Despite being a relatively short game, it’s worth your time. More importantly, the fact that it doesn’t have a speargun doesn’t hurt it nearly as much as I would have figured. Consider that a recommendation.