An Interactive Lagoon: a Comparison of The Embodied Interface and the Video Game Abzu

Robert Delany Jr.

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Video games merge well into the theories surrounding Interactive Cinema because to play a video game, interactivity is mandatory. Whether one is playing a “choose your own adventure” desktop type game where the only inputs required are single mouse clicks, or playing a fighting game that requires methodical and almost acrobatic manipulations of the video game controller, the game will not play itself. One must invest both the minute energies that it takes to manipulate the controls with one’s hands, and the mental energy that goes into the many decisions one must make every second while playing. As a result, one can quickly find one’s mind being sucked into the world of the game. However, there are some games that are more interactive than most, and some that align with the methodologies of Interactive Cinema in a more seamless way. There are games where experience is everything, where one’s mind can feel like it is fusing with a digital avatar and is experiencing everything emotionally that the avatar experiences in real time. These types of games are my personal favorite, and while this hallmark of blending into the protagonist of a game is present in most video games, it seems to be a recent trend to heavily lean into the experiential nature of gaming. This sort of embodiment came to mind immediately while reading the writing of Toni Dove, who talks about the ability of Interactive Cinema to allow a viewer to embody the protagonist of her films, or disappear into it’s environment to have an unique experience that expands one’s notion of what is possible in Cinema. While it is not possible for her viewers to completely manipulate her cinematic environments, she puts experience above all else as a way for her audience to viscerally feel her ideas. I will connect Toni Dove’s ideas surrounding The Embodied Interface, with a game called Abzu. This game seems to be built entirely on this concept of The Embodied Interface, revealing interesting connections between the work of Toni Dove and some of the most recent steps forward in unconventional gaming.

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Abzu, developed by Giant Squid Studios and initially released in 2016, would be a surprise to a casual observer of the gaming community. Especially today when video games are perceived as overwhelmingly violent and aggressive, this game would feel like a cool salve to those who can only recall Call of Duty as a popular game title. One begins the game by seeing a magnificent sky of pastel blue, dotted with fluffy white clouds, and the camera pans down to show a vaguely humanoid character floating in crystal blue water. One does not see any prompts, any exposition, any narrative to speak of, but quickly graphics appear on screen detailing the simple control scheme. This consists of swimming slowly, swimming quickly, curling up into a ball and spinning, “singing” to sea creatures so they follow you and form a pod, and the ability to grab onto large sea creatures and ride them around the environment. The avatar has large diamond like eyes, a black and yellow body with swimming fins on it’s feet, and appears to be more of an android than a human. The game exists entirely within an ocean landscape, and your avatar is free to swim and gaze at the brilliant art design of each area. As you progress from one level to the next, the only goal present is to breathe life into the landscape. As your character first enters a level, there are a series of simple actions one must perform, and a underwater cavern quickly becomes teaming with sea creatures, coral, and pastel colored rock formations. Abzu is all about art design, all about sound design, and about immersing the player in a world of underwater sensual delight. Abzu is about allowing a player to viscerally experience how color can change how an environment feels to the eye, how a change in musical score can quickly catapult a player into a rush of motion or stop a player abruptly in their tracks, and how gaming can be one of the most powerful ways to escape inside a piece of art. As Scott Butterworth described the game in a review for Gamespot.com, “Abzu is serene and meditative, calming and cathartic, moving and timeless, its simple components assembled so elegantly as to become something altogether richer.”

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Compared to the work of Toni Dove, Abzu is a perfect example of The Embodied Interface. In Dove’s own words, “An embodied responsive interface produces the experience of doubling or extending the body. Characters are inhabited like digital puppets and when a viewer feels their own presence in the screen through the character, it can produce an uncanny experience.” Most of us can only imagine what it would be like to grab the dorsal fin of a dolphin, swim at full speed with an entire pod, dive out of the water, flip and soar through the air, before diving back into the water seamlessly. In Abzu. this embodied interface allows a player to revel in these sort of uncanny visual experiences. Even further, the avatar can even sit on a sculpture in the middle of each area, meditate, and simply watch the sea creatures as they swim and interact with one another. By stripping away narrative focus, goal oriented gaming or filmmaking, both the work of Toni Dove and the developers behind Abzu can connect into this interactive well of technique, allowing a viewer or player to experience art by sifting their consciousness into the work.

Works Cited:
Abzu, Giant Squid Studios, 505 Games, 2016
Scott Butterworth, “Holy Diver”, Gamepot.com, August 2nd 2016, https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/abzu-review/1900-6416489/
Toni Dove, “The Space Between: Telepresence, Re-animation and Re-casting of the Invisible”