ABZU Interview: Talking to Matt Nava about Scuba Diving, PS4, Ocean Anxiety, and Austin Wintory

Last week during E3 2016 I got a chance to sit through a presentation of ABZU with its creative director Matt Nava. Launching on PlayStation 4 and PC on August 2, 2016, ABZU is an underwater adventure game where you play as a diver exploring a gorgeous underwater world.

The demo ran through a familiar but modified area of the game that was previously playable. Upon finishing, I got to ask some questions about the game and its development process.

Steven Santana: How do you feel about your game often being compared to Journey?

Matt Nava: I was actually the art director on Journey. I worked at Thatgamecompany on Flower and Journey as the art director. Then I founded Giant Squid and started doing ABZU as creative director. I absolutely think the connection to Journey is obvious. Its something that people always ask, “Is it a bad thing?” or, “Is that a good thing?” And I think it’s a great thing. You know, that was a great game, we had a blast making it, and people had a great response to it.

What I wanted to do with ABZU, was take what I learned from that game and go further, and make kinda the opposite world, really. That game was set in the desert, and I was tired of making these dry, empty spaces. I wanted to make visceral, immersive spaces full of life. And so I think that with ABZU, the easy easy to describe it to people is to say its Journey underwater.

But what I think is going to happen is — when people play it —  they’re going to discover that it has a really unique soul of its own that I think our team is very proud of. We definitely are proud of our heritage and excited about the future.

Steven: How large is Giant Squid currently?

Nava: We actually only have ten people. It is a very small team with very talented programmers. We’re just busting our butts trying to finish this thing.

505 Games Representative: The first trailer they did was when just two of them were working on the game. When they debuted it at Sony’s 2014 E3 press conference there were only two people in the studio. So they built that whole trailer over the weekend.

Nava: We had the double challenge of building the team and our first game at the same time, which was challenging but a whole lot of fun.

Steven: Have you been scuba diving?

Nava: Yeah I’ve done scuba diving a few times, and had some great experiences. We have an engineer, Brian Balamut, who has also been scuba diving at the Catalina Islands just off the coast here for some research. You know it’s “research.” He had a great time, it’s very inspiring.

You have this sense of fear about what’s down there, and ask yourself “am I going to die?” But at the same time when you’re underwater it’s the most serene, incredible, life-changing experience. It’s like you’re flying, and discovering amazing things.

Steven: I actually have a fear of the ocean. Not of the ocean itself but just the darkness within it. When I played ABZU at PlayStation Experience last year and entered the darker area I had some anxiety.

Nava: That’s actually really common. We had a lot of playtesters express that. And what I think is really interesting about the underwater stuff is that you can really push and pull on the emotion of the player just by how far you bring the fog in.

We try to use that to its full extent to really give you an experience that can swing from ultra serene to super tense, “Oh my God what’s happening?” We really use that to drive emotion.

Steven: Was it easy getting Austin Wintory for the game’s score?

Nava: He was super excited actually, and it’s really funny, when we spun off from thatgamecompany and started Giant Squid he said, “I don’t even know what your game concept is but I’m in.” He’s a great guy and he’s produced an amazing score.

It was recorded by an Orchestra in Nashville and a choir in London, and the orchestra had a seven-piece Harp Ensemble which is crazy! That’s a lot of harps. Most harp ensembles are only one harp. So it’s a very exciting thing to be working with Austin again.

Steven: Are you going to sell the score separately?

Nava: I hope so, it would make sense.

Steven: The Journey soundtrack is something I listen to often.

Nava: Awesome! I keep going back to it, it’s a great one. What’s crazy about that soundtrack is when Austin worked on Journey he sent us a theme and said, “Hey I thought of this as an idea, what do you think about this?” It was the first thing he sent us and we were like, “Yes that’s it! Just make the score for the rest of the game!”

And the same thing happened with ABZU: he came up with the theme first, and we didn’t have to iterate on it at all.

Steven: How hard or easy has it been developing on PlayStation 4?

Nava: It’s actually been really enabling, we couldn’t do any of this with the previous generation of consoles. The thing that made us able to do this game was to have many fish on-screen. We have thousands of them and at the same time thousands of leaves and grass.

The first thing I said to Brian, the lead engineer, when he was diving was, “You see underwater there’s just billions of stuff! There’s just so much stuff and you need that.” So I had to figure out how to utilize that smartly, because even now if you try to do a fish in a video game the normal way it was through a skeletal structure. You could only get a hundred of them on screen but we figured out a way to animate them with a procedure. Just starting with their tail and all that stuff and that approach is way cheaper to render. Over the weekend we have a thousand fish, and then ten thousand fish in the game.

Steven: Have you announced the pricing yet?

505 Games Representative: That is still under wraps, we’ll be announcing that in the next few weeks. We have some fun things coming up.

Nava: We just yesterday announced the release date and a new trailer which is really cool. It shows some shots of the other environments of the game. You can see we’ve been demoing this first area, the green and blue areas, but there’s actually a kind of gold kelp forest and you find a lot of unexpected colors, which is something I really enjoy.

Steven: Since last year the visuals have improved.

Nava: It has come a long way. We worked a lot on the rays of light and all that stuff. Actually what’s funny… I think in the last demo the water surface was not transparent, and you actually couldn’t see through it. Now there’s a lot of distortions, reflections. We got in there and said “we have to make it okay.”

We’re really happy with all the different things done to the water surface with reflection, distortion, transparency, and actual height fields. With most games you get two out of three of those things, and we’re happy we got all of them, so it’s pretty cool.

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Steven Santana

Born in Queens, raised in Vegas, living in Vancouver. 25, loves dogs, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and long form video critiques.

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