How Abzu Helped Me Overcome an Irrational Fear

Around Thanksgiving of 2020, I was browsing the Nintendo and PlayStation stores for some great deals.  One of the best was a 90% discount on a game called Abzu, which I got for $2 (its usual price is $20).  If it wasn’t for the cheap price, I might not have bought this game because part of me worried it would be a tad boring.  Relaxing, yes, but otherwise uninteresting.  Fortunately, I was very wrong, and this post is going to cover both my review of the game and, as the title suggests, a personal tale of my own.

Abzu is a few hours long, and you play as a diver who starts their adventure in the middle of the ocean.  The story is vague and told through murals and wordless events that I feel can be interpreted multiple ways by the time the game is over.  You will spend your time swimming through and exploring various undersea environments like underwater caves, ruins, and the deep sea.  Gameplay is actually very light, and you could literally get through each section very quickly had you decided to hurry because very little is required of you.  Find a drone that can open the path.  Follow the chains to their source to open a door.  To say this is a game is actually a bit of an overstatement because there is so little you actually have to do.

If you were so inclined to rush through this game, then you will get pretty much nothing from it.  Where this game excels is in its beauty and relaxing environment, which can only be enjoyed fully by slowing down and taking your time.  For one thing, Abzu features some truly vibrant colors and is stunning to behold, with an equally beautiful soundtrack that complements it perfectly.  In general, the game is more like your own personal aquarium, and if you love sea life as much as I do, then you can spend a good deal of time just exploring every underwater nook and cranny as you admire both creatures swimming about the environment and those that walk the seafloor.  The fact that every creature is totally real is actually more interesting than if this game had decided to present us with a plethora of imagined creatures.  There is such an amazing variety of sea life, too, that simply seeking out new animals comprised the majority of my playtime and enjoyment, and it was so cool to find a creature that I recognized, and just as much fun when I discovered something totally new that I had never even heard of before.

G’day, sir!

And while the first few areas are a bit basic, eventually the game takes you to some even more interesting locations, like the ocean floor, which was so cool, but also a bit intimidating when surrounded by dark waters in all directions.  And when I thought this couldn’t be topped, I’m presented with even more beauty, with even more fantastic creatures to swim with.  I don’t want to spoil it, but some of the creatures towards the end of the game are simply amazing!

Do I wish this game had a little bit more in terms of gameplay?  Sure.  I feel like this game is relaxing in the way that GRIS is, but that game seemed to have more gameplay and puzzling going on to keep you occupied throughout your adventure.  Nevertheless, I still loved my time with Abzu and was astounded by this game’s ability to actually drive me to tears by the end, not because of sadness, but because of the sheer beauty and the vague story that I have since interpreted in my own, personal way.

Of course, if you want more gameplay or don’t find sea animals very interesting, then I don’t think you’ll get much out of this game because it’s clearly meant for a certain audience.  But I would highly recommend it to anyone who finds sea creatures as beautiful and as fascinating as I do, in which case I think you’re bound to have a truly memorable and profound experience unlike any other.

Now that the review is over, I wanted to discuss one personal way in which the game affected me, concerning an irrational fear that I very much doubt most people can relate to.  Sure, many of us are afraid of snakes or spiders.  They’re dangerous and fairly common creatures that us humans, as land animals, can easily come into contact with.  While I share such fears myself, there is something else that utterly horrifies me despite its harmlessness and the infinitesimally small chance of me encountering it in my average, day-to-day life.

My dad used to scuba dive.  Being a fan of the ocean, he has always had various books with photos of sea creatures.  One of these was a particularly hefty book that I decided to peruse one fateful day.  Oh, it was all fun and games until I came upon something that literally turned my stomach.  What I had unwittingly stumbled upon was a living nightmare.  A monstrosity that looked as if you took an otherwise normal, but oversized fish, and cleanly chopped off a large portion of its lower face.  Pleasant, huh?  Well, this so happened to be…gulp, a basking shark.

Why do you even exist!?

Sure, these creatures are utterly harmless and only feed on plankton and whatnot, but such a massive mouth for an otherwise peaceful creatures is still the stuff of nightmares!  What if you were swimming in the ocean, and you and the basking shark were not paying attention…could it swallow you whole without even knowing?  The odds of this are extremely low, but could it happen?  My morbid self must know!

Well, I returned to Abzu after completing the game in order to find the remaining collectible nautilus shells.  (Unlike basking sharks, I love nautilus.  They’re so flippin’ cute, and I got so excited whenever I found one just floating there with its sweet, little eyes and stubby tentacles.  Ahem…)  It turns out there are two sections of deep water where a nautilus shell is hidden, both of which I had previously assumed you couldn’t actually venture into.  At the second one, I start to swim lower to find some humpback whales.  How I had previously overlooked several massive whales, of all things, I have no idea.  Well, I swim with them for a short time, and then I begin to swim into ever darkening waters.  This is already intimidating, but then I start to make out a large shape swimming below.  At first, I assume it’s just another whale.  But there’s something different about it.  The shape is different…the movement of the tail is not quite the same.  There is something…much too familiar about it, in fact.

As I approach the large shape with a growing apprehension, a wave of nausea washes over me.  I kid you not, this is the effect these creatures have on me.  I know that silhouette.  I swim closer and grab on because of my obsession with riding on every large sear creature I see, and the creature looks pretty normal at first, until I move the camera to see its face, its monstrous open mouth, just before the text “basking shark” appears on screen, as if the extra confirmation was even needed.  Of all the creatures, why did it have to be a basking shark!  Oh, why, cruel world, why!

Both completely appalled and strangely fascinated, I stayed with the basking shark for a while, forcing myself to look upon that wide, open mouth that had always frightened me.  I even let go and tried to swim in front of it to really confront my fears, which felt even more terrifying than when I was simply holding onto its side, safely away from that all-consuming maw.  I’ll surely never see a real basking shark, so this is the closest I’ll ever get to swimming with one.  When I returned to shallower waters, simply knowing that a lone basking shark swam unseen in the dark waters below was a truly unsettling thought, despite the reassurance that this was just a video game, and I was in no apparent danger.

And yet, the next day, I decided to look up photos online, and the earlier queasiness is…actually gone.  I can look into that massive, open mouth with naught left but a fascination for how such a bizarre creature can exist.  To think that when I looked back through my dad’s book all those years ago, I would try my hardest to avoid the pages featuring that accursed nightmare, the creature that had since haunted me for years uncounted.  And now…it doesn’t really bother me all that much.  Okay, maybe a little, but I feel like a lot of my earlier phobia has since been cured.  Is it a phobia that really needs to be cured?  Not really.  But do I appreciate the experience Abzu gave me to swim with one of my biggest irrational fears and live to tell the tale, without being eaten by complete accident while that big lump of a fish just obliviously goes about its day?

Yeah, I really do.  Thanks, Abzu. So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Video from YouTube User: Virtual Bastion