In any standard game review, outside of scrolling immediately to the X/10 score, we look for a rundown of the game’s assets and liabilities. Are the graphics good / are the visuals outdated or difficult to read or suffering from poor performance? Does the game have a story and is it original, does it have compelling characters, does it resolve itself well, how does it affect the length of the game experience? How is the gameplay itself: are the controls easy to master while still providing depth for experienced players, are there limitations to your players movement that frustrate the experience? And how does the game exist in dialogue and history of other games?
All these questions and more come to the forefront as we approach a game not because they are the inherent principles of game review, but because the traditions of game design have enforced a particular view for reviewing games. I can’t emphasize this enough. Put another way: because what we know as “video games” have become codified, so too have the reviews for those games.
But what happens when a game shirks our benchmarks for game appraisal while still creating an interactive software experience? No doubt, it is still a video game. But when Abzu released earlier this month on PS4, reviewers had a difficult time with it. The game currently has a 77 on Metacritic and 80.05% on the (much more reliable) Gamerankings.com. This is far from poor scores, but still lukewarm compared to my time with the game.
I am fully willing to admit my own personal bias for games that provide a succinct, focused experience over something bloated with content and meandering in direction that might, technically, provide more hours-per-dollar-spent. Abzu scratches that itch but resists typical game assessment because, well, what do you do? There are few challenges to the game, few reasons to come back and revisit the game for additional secrets, it is incredibly short, and tells a story so simple it could be summarized in a single sentence. What are the virtues of the game? It moves confidently from scene-to-scene, setting up tension and resolving it in a way that interestingly changes perspective on characters, it features incredibly memorable imagery, and — most of all - Abzu has an almost flawless synchronization with its soundtrack.
It is with this last point that I think we might better understand how the game functions and why it resists traditional review categorization: Abzu plays like a symphony. Each scene is a movement, each area or type of fish functions as an instrument, and often the momentum of the soundtrack enforces itself on the gameplay. If someone had labeled this as an interactive music piece, might it have fared better in reviews? But then, who would be qualified to approach it? It would be stuck between the IGNs and Rolling Stones of the world, because each has systematized their parameters for media coverage.
One thing I keep coming back to is the similar reception that 2010's From Dust received. With aggregate scores again between 77 and 80, what did reviewers take away from this game? It looked somewhat like a real-time-strategy game, but your real interaction was consumed with a rock-paper-scissors dynamic of the earth, water, and fire elements. The world in From Dust is uncontrollable, but adding to or subtracting from it is very nearly your only form of expression. So, the game did not sync well with those familiar with Commanding & Conquering, nor did it really offer the omnipotence of other god-games, like Black & White.
To this date, I would be hard-pressed to find a game that said as much about humanity’s interaction with the earth as From Dust or about our distance from and ownership of our fears as Abzu. Few games have the ability to speak without preaching (a trap Flower falls into) or tell stories without over-telling (most JRPGs weaken plot moments by overcomplicating what are essentially simple story elements).
And yet, the loudest argument against these games is their worth, whether they are worth paying $15-$20 for such short experiences, for games with low difficulty and no real gameplay mastery. I would argue that if that is a measure of our game support, we are going to end up buying all our games in bulk, like Costco, getting 60+ hour experiences that aren’t so different from their last iteration. Games are inherently luxury items, but the argument that it is not worth the price being asked of it should never be something impacting the score, it should always be an external question of whether a game with that review score is worth exploring to you at that cost of entry.
To wrap up, I’d again like to praise Abzu for being so short. It is rare that a game has such focused direction where you can say that there is no fat, no wasted effort, that everything in the game has effect without being filler. This, maybe more than the stunning visuals and fantastic soundtrack, could be the most impressive thing about the game, something that until now has been given far too little credit. If we have had games for many years now that are held up as examples of games as an art form, this efficiency of production might be the next important development in that direction.