Abzu takes under three hours to beat. No Man’s Sky, depending on who you want to believe, can take between thirty to one hundred hours in order to see even a fraction of its exhaustive universe. On paper, these two games couldn’t seem any more different, but in reality they’re cut from the same cloth. Both Abzu and No Man’s Sky are games about going slow.
Though they’re hardly the first games to embrace a slower pace, No Man’s Sky and Abzu represent the pinnacle of a certain design ethos. Since the dawn of the indie game revolution, a handful of developers have sought an escape from the chaos of action-oriented gameplay and the cacophonous din of exposition. These studios have attempted something to create experiences that redefine what it means to play. And more often than not, that means an introspective, plodding exploration of space – both literally in the case of No Man’s Sky and figuratively in titles like Abzu.
No Man’s Sky is the kind of game that eats away at your free time. Since it first released, I’ve spent around a dozen hours exploring just a minuscule slice of what the game has to offer. I met a few aliens, made a killing on the galactic trade network, and pinged more beacons than I think I could ever remember. No Man’s Sky invites players to explore and exist and cross entire solar systems. But it also invites players to remember that in space, time means nothing.
Abzu, inversely, seems to have the utmost respect for the player’s time. It begins and it ends all within the average length of a trip to the DMV. Abzu’s trick, however, is that there is no difference between rushing and doggy-paddling through it. The game wants you to sit and soak in the underwater scenery and it even encourages you to stop and mediate – perhaps to reflect on its intentionally thin narrative (it’s about evolution and humanity’s place among creatures though) – but it can all be ignored. My first time through Abzu took just shy of three hours. I swam with dolphins and tried to collect as many nautilus shells as I could find. I even attempted to sit and watch sharks eat schools of fish. My second playthrough was just around just over two hours. I ignored nature and pretended that the deep sea was boring, opting to rush by everything in a mad dash to the game’s conclusion.
That a near-completionist run of Abzu and a pseudo-speedrun of it clock in at similar times is telling. Abzu is never about the actual game, so much as it’s about the experience. The same too, can be said about No Man’s Sky. It’s a revolving door of emotion and exploration. Slower games like these two, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture before them care much more about affecting you than the effect of gameplay.
Maybe it’s fitting that Abzu and No Man’s Sky both released in the same month. Summer occupies a transitory time in the video game industry. Relatively free from the massive rush of games during the spring and holiday seasons. The days are longer under the blistering heat of summer and time has a funny way of looping around on itself. No Man’s Sky and Abzu both seem aware of this; No Man’s Sky teases the thrill of discovery by reminding you that the seemingly nearby space station would take hours to walk towards. Abzu’s short runtime manages to stretch a few short hours to their absolute maximum, where seconds move at a glacial pace.
I don’t know what else I will find as I dart among No Man’s Sky. I don’t know how many hours it will take to uncover whatever mystery the game kind of points towards. I doubt it even matters though, because sometimes the journey really is the destination.