White Awake by Daniel Hill, Free for CAPC Members
White Awake brings us back again and again, gently but inexorably, to the truths that we’re so unwilling to face, steadily prying our hands from our eyes.
Note: This article contains mild spoilers for ABZÛ.
One of the most powerful sections of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Criteria of Negro Art” concerns a discussion of beauty: “After all,” Du Bois asks, “who shall describe Beauty? What is it?” These questions are resolved later in the essay when he invokes images of a painting and sculpture alongside his view of an African village to illustrate how landscapes and created artifacts immediately jar us into recognizing their splendor, forcing us to consider the spectacle and history of the beautiful thing before us.
Trying to create those moments of beautiful disruption is tough—but gaming is getting there. Recently, games like The Witness, Journey, and That Dragon, Cancer have presented unexpected moments of beauty that make us struggle to capture or make sense of how and why they so deeply moved us. ABZÛ, the latest release from developer Giant Squid studios, may not manage to completely capture that kind of emotion and ethos; however, it certainly models an approach to human existence that centers on beauty’s ability to unsettle us whenever we encounter it.ABZÛ‘s unfamiliarity emphasizes a deeper wonder behind beauty that we seldom acknowledge in our lives, much less in our games.
Despite what such a lofty claim might suggest, the game itself is actually pretty straightforward and simple: You begin as a character who wakes up floating in the sea, and you spend somewhere around two to three hours moving through different ocean landscapes while piecing together a minimalist narrative about your connection to ocean life and nature. There’s not much in terms of challenging gameplay—or really any gameplay at all. The game wants you to admire it, but one of the criticisms I’ve seen leveled towards ABZÛ is that it feels both predictable and limiting in how it facilitates players’ interaction with the created world in front of them. And to be fair, that criticism is pretty valid—you really don’t do much beyond swimming and collecting various items littered across the ocean floor.
Still, gameplay isn’t why ABZÛ is so impressive. It’s a game that unashamedly calls attention to the ocean’s beauty, and it seems intent on making us respond in some way to that beauty. In an interview from a few months ago, Matt Nava, the game’s creator, makes a quick comment about how confronting the ocean’s unknown depths manipulates a player’s expectations: “You have this sense of fear about what’s down there, and ask yourself ‘am I going to die?’” But halfway through the game, I realized that fear of death wasn’t the emotional reaction the game was creating in me. Instead, I couldn’t stop thinking about how ABZÛ invokes awe and humility even in its deepest trenches. This is a game about seeing and existing in a world we’ll likely never visit ourselves, and that unfamiliarity emphasizes a deeper wonder behind beauty that we seldom acknowledge in our lives, much less in our games.
Specifically, ABZÛ invites us to move past admiring beauty and to begin partaking in creating it. For some unexplained reason, parts of the game’s world have been stripped of life and color. When you encounter them, your task is to offer some portion of what appears to be your character’s soul in order to restore life to the world. These areas are pretty obvious: one moment we’re surrounded by lush underwater algae and a cornucopia of colorful fish and creatures, and the next we’re in a vast and lifeless seascape. The game obviously wants us to bring beauty back to those areas.
Such moments of restorative creation spring from the developer’s understanding that if we encounter and cherish beauty, the only natural result is to want to replicate and protect it. Elaine Scarry, author of On Beauty and Being Just, calls this responsibility “the site of stewardship”—the place where our encounters with beauty, in whatever true and good form they take, result in our acting “to protect or perpetuate a fragment of beauty” in the world around us. She ultimately calls being unsettled by beauty a “radical decentering.” ABZÛ is the first time I’ve seen this idea given form in a game.
It’s not just in these moments of restoration where the game invites consideration about how beauty affects us, though. There are also statues sprinkled around the ocean floor that invite us to meditate before advancing into the next area. When you click on a statue, the game’s camera shifts to follow one of the fish or other creatures in that area. We could dismiss it as a cool feature of the world’s most advanced aquarium simulator, but Scarry’s thoughts helped me see a connection between these moments of reflection and the way we’re commanded in Scripture to think about beauty.
Writers of the Psalms recognized that beauty was never simply to be admired. Instead, they show how God’s beauty challenged them to live and work in ways that reflect our position as His image bearers. Psalms 90:17, for instance, speaks to how the beauty of the Lord was replicated through the “work of our hands” when the Israelites were creating the temple. In Psalm 8:4, meanwhile, the beauty and majesty of God leads David to a singular realization: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” To answer that question, verse 5 responds, “[y]ou made him a little lower than the heavenly beings”—an acknowledgement that we should want to be being overwhelmed by the beauty of God. When that occurs, we move into a recognition we must work—in whatever fashion we can—in reflecting and replicating that beauty.
In ABZÛ, each oceanic area took me further and further into the depths, but those meditative moments by the statues invited me to linger far longer than I normally would have. Every statue I encountered became a moment of worship—a silent reminder that beauty is humbling, pleasurable, and a testament to the God who invites us to join Him in making something of the world.
Sadly, by the end of ABZÛ, the game’s narrative—minimalist as it is—disappointingly moves away from what the rest of the game has done so well. Your character belongs to an ancient civilization whose technology has run amuck, but this narrative thread is so vague that the final confrontation between you and the revealed antagonist rings extremely hollow. It’s not even clear if this evil is responsible for the dead areas we encounter earlier in the game. Perhaps that vagueness is intentional, but it still seems like an odd and abrupt ending.
Even so, the game’s finale doesn’t ruin how peaceful and beautiful the journey is to get there. For all of ABZÛ’s shortcomings, it reminds us that Christianity is a beautiful faith, one that pushes us past ourselves to find and replicate Christ in the world around us. Our lives and habits may radically vary, but our shared purpose is to make something of the world with the lives and abilities we’ve been given. ABZÛ’s lasting reminder is that even at the bottom of the ocean, there’s still work to be done.
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