ABZÛ and the Unmaking of Humankind

This is my first time trying to write something about a game since I was about 14 years old. It will not be pretty. This is unfortunate, because the game I’m talking about, 505 Games’ Abzû, is probably one of the most aesthetically beautiful experiences I have ever had. The oceans you dive through are teeming with lush, vivid life, and the game’s mechanics of following individual fish, reptiles, and other creatures you encounter through meditation, swimming, or, with the bigger ones, literally holding onto them, make the experience that much more immersive and beautiful.

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For the first chunk of the game, the player’s role feels mostly like an outside observer. You swim through the ocean, meet all the beautiful fish, and spend a lot of time just exploring. The first shrine you come across and can interact with purifies some murky water and introduces more plant and animal life, which for the most part just substantiates that feeling. As you progress through the game, though, plant and animal life isn’t all you encounter. Diving deeper and deeper, you come across giant man-made ruins and temples, and here’s where the game starts to get interesting. The remnants of human activity are, with the exception of the actual player character, unfailingly dead. The deeper you dive, the more numerous and death-related the human relics become, and the murk your actions purify is increasingly tied to the human debris you encounter; after a while, the most common human artifact you come across are explosive mines, all of which are still armed and responsive to anything (and anyone) that comes too close.

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Eventually, your path leads you to the heart of the mess: an automated mine factory, still active after however many years it’s been since it was abandoned, continues to produce, polluting the ocean and taking the lives of unfortunate sea creatures, including the life of the shark that led you here. In a sense, they take the life of the player-character as well, as a particularly hellish bit a blast strips them of their wetsuit, revealing they themselves are just a skeletal, humanoid robot. The scene is pretty crushing in the moment, but soon gives way to catharsis. When you at last purify the final shrine, you already know what must happen, and how it will be done.

In a vivid, frenzied but dream-like rush the very ocean itself and all the life within it joins you to purge everything that remains of humanity from the world. It’s a crescendo of adrenaline and wonder, a celebration of life itself as the world finally cauterizes the wounds we inflicted on it. For me as a player, inevitably human, Abzû ended up being a tremendously thought-provoking experience. Living my life in the beginning stages of the climate apocalypse, a frustratingly avoidable scenario I feel powerless to stop and is already taking billions of non-human (and some human) lives, Abzû feels both tremendously nihilistic and gloriously cathartic, a chance to personally bring the blade down on a long overdue genosuicide. It’s not time to give up on human life on earth just yet. We owe it to all life that came before us and every generation too young to affect the situation to do our best for now. But when the frustration is wearing you thin, Abzû brings relief in a way that feels so, so right.

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