ABZÛ is one of those games that tries to tell its story mostly through gameplay and a few short "cinematics" here and there. There's no dialog, no narration, and nothing to read. But, I have to say, there's no real gameplay, either. No (fisherman's) hook.
In ABZÛ, you're fucking invincible. It's a real shame because it totally undermines the game. I don't know about you, but I have this innate fear of deep water. There's something about having a void all around me from which anything might emerge; guaranteed I'd be unable to out-swim it. ABZÛ includes plenty of deep water moments that should fill me with dread. But fear not! Your avatar has nothing to worry about. Nothing hurts him, nothing tries to attack him, water pressure doesn't seem to bother him, he won't even run out of air. There's no timer, no urgency, dare I say no point to this game?
Immanuel Kant wrote of the sublime, of beauty that cannot be adequately described or captured in a medium other than the human experience itself. Sublime is what ABZÛ aspires to be. The graphics are gorgeous, wonderfully stylized, and colorful. The music is atmospheric and fits perfectly with the scenery and events of the game. Your avatar gets up-close and personal with impressive marine life, including blue whales. But it all just feels kind of meh. When I finished the game I immediately started another playthrough. I wasn't sure how I felt about my experience and wondered if a second go-around would make it grow on me. It didn't.
I think ABZÛ is a game behind its time. You know what console it should have been released for? The Virtual Boy. I can just imagine mid '90s reviewers shitting their pants over it. It could have been the system-seller that the console sorely lacked.
The thing about the Virtual Boy is that no review, no screenshot, no video (not that gameplay videos were much of a thing back then) would have done ABZÛ justice. You wouldn't have even been able to watch a friend play it. It would have been a game that players could only experience for themselves. And—bonus!—nobody expected the Virtual Boy to deliver in gameplay anyway. I mean, one can only take so much neck strain and brow-furrowing. You had to get in and get out. ABZÛ for Virtual Boy could have been canonized as an abzulute triumph of gaming. Nowadays, with the console in short supply on the second hand market and its form factor making it difficult to faithfully emulate, hardly anybody would be able to revisit the game and challenge it as nothing more than a nostalgia blast that doesn't hold up. For retro video games, there isn't much better shielding from time.
Throughout the game you can find statues to perch on and "meditate". Meditating allows you to point the camera at various marine life in the statue's vicinity. Basically you just watch fish swim around. Nothing happens. I don't understand the purpose of it. But if I could lay back with headphones on and the Virtual Boy over my face, I think I might.
Aquariums can be amazing places, surrounding you with the sights of the ocean while removing the dread of exposure to deep water. For me, the experience they provide sometimes approaches the sublime. Maybe, just maybe, ABZÛ's meditations could have too.