Coming off the development of "Journey," one of the most critically acclaimed video games in recent memory, Matt Nava had a big challenge ahead of him: What's next?
"'Journey' was a very lonely game," says Nava in an interview with Tech Insider. "[As an art director,] I spent three years making a desert for that game, and I wanted to make a game that was full of life."
Enter "ABZÃ" — the new game from Giant Squid Studios for which Nava is serving as creative director.
The initial trailer shown at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 2014 opens with a description of what the word "ABZÃ" means — "to know water."
"ABZÃ" puts you in control of a scuba diver exploring the vast depths of the ocean; Nava himself loves diving, so it was only natural to draw on those experiences.
"One thing you instantly realize when you go diving is it's this extremely magical experience," he says. "You really experience a new world and it really transforms you in a way that's very meaningful."
Nava describes one particularly memorable experience during a dive at Anacapa island, off the coast of California.
"I actually met a sea lion underneath the waves. It was probably seven feet long or something," he says. "[He was] very playful and he just came right up to me and put his nose right on my mask ... Having a connection with that very wild animal was really meaningful and that is something that I think was really inspiring for 'ABZÃ.'"
So, what exactly is the point of "ABZÃ"? What is it about?
"It's not a simulator," Nava is quick to point out. There's no limit to how long you can stay underwater, so you don't have to worry about looking at an air gauge, for example. "We wanted to focus on this dream of scuba diving, and get at the heart of what scuba diving is all about."
To get at this idea of making "ABZÃ" about more than just the physical act of diving, and more about what it means on a more metaphorical level, Nava turned first towards finding an art style that reflected that.
"It's inspired by the real world — all the fish in the game are based on real life creatures — but my feeling is that you can get at the essence of things more directly from an illustrated look because you can focus the user's experience."
Both of the games that Nava has worked on — "Flower" and "Journey" — were praised for their emotional and artistic impact, something many people don't typically associate with video games. Between the illustrative art style and the score from Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory (who also scored "Journey,") "ABZÃ" looks to be just as affecting.
As for what kinds of metaphors and narrative we can expect from "ABZÃ," Nava didn't offer any details. Mostly because a big focus of the game is about a sense of discovery and exploration.
"Because the ocean is so unexplored, we can really take the narrative to surprising places," he says. He teases that there are a lot of "fun secrets" to uncover.
Now, if you've ever played any game with an underwater level, be it "Super Mario Bros." or "Call of Duty: Ghosts," one thing's for sure — most of the time, they totally suck.
Nava is fully aware of the historic hatred for underwater levels in otherwise-grounded games, but whether out of ambition or masochism, he sees it as an opportunity.
Underwater levels are usually terrible because "they're kind of the side level, they're not really the focus of a lot of games," says Nava. He thinks that since they've designed "ABZÃ" from the ground up to center around underwater navigation, Giant Squid Studios can conquer a lot of the issues that usually plague these gimmicky stages.
One thing "that's really hard about making underwater levels is that the controls are fully 3D," he says. "So solving that 3D space, how [you] control a character in 3D space is a very tough problem."
Nava says he mostly turned to the world of flight simulators for ideas about how to make free navigation in a three-dimensional space feel intuitive. And, yes, to figure out how to make "ABZÃ" control well, they also had to play some pretty terrible games to figure out what not to do.
In "Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future" for example, released in 2000 for the Sega Dreamcast, "the camera rolls and goes crazy," says Nava. "Our rule [for 'ABZÃ'] is that the camera never rolls and it never goes upside down."
"ABZÃ" will be available later this year for PlayStation 4 and PC. Watch the trailer from E3 2014 below: