Matt Nava is the co-founder of Giant Squid and creative director of ABZÛ, a beautiful underwater adventure game that was released on PS4 and PC on August 2, this year. Nava was also the art director of Journey and Flower.
Recently, Gamegryo did an interview with Matt Nava to talk about the inspirations and development process for ABZÛ.
Here is the edited transcript of the interview.
Could you start by telling us who you are and what you do?
Matt Nava: I am Matt Nava, I’m the creative director of ABZÛ, and co-founder of Giant Squid. I also served as the art director on Journey and Flower.
What made you become an artist? Is it a gift, hobby or education?
Matt Nava: It’s probably a bit of all those things. I’ve always loved to draw. I grew up in an artistic household, and always knew that I wanted create visual experiences. I attended the Otis College of Art and Design to study 3D animation and digital concept art. It wasn’t until after graduating that I realized that I would end up creating video games.
Could you share with us your working experience?
Matt Nava: My entry into the gaming industry was very non-standard. My first job making games was working as the art director on Flower with that game company. I was very fortunate to meet the creative director of the project during my senior exhibition in college, and managed to land the job after completing a lengthy art test. After shipping Flower, I worked on that game company’s next game, Journey as well.
After that, I started Giant Squid!
What made you decide to found Giant Squid in 2013? How many people work with you right now? Besides ABZÛ, any upcoming project?
Matt Nava: I had an idea for a game that I thought could be a very beautiful project, and an idea to create a company where meaningful games could be made in a friendly and positive culture. We simultaneously created that project, ABZÛ, and the team behind it over the course of three years of development. At its maximum, the team reached a size of 10 people.
After the tough final stretch of ABZÛ’s development, the team has been taking some time to relax, but we are taking the first steps on our next top secret project!
What was the source of inspiration for ABZÛ?
Matt Nava: ABZÛ was greatly inspired by my fascination with natural history and experiences scuba diving. In high school, I dove in the kelp forests at Ana Capa Island and had an encounter with a large sea lion about 40 feet down. I could hear it barking underwater, and it came right up to me. It was very playful and put its nose right on my mask. It was a very joyous creature and I wasn’t scared at all, despite it being lightning fast and maybe 7 feet long. Exploring a fantastic, alien world and forming a connection there was a great inspiration for what we wanted the player to experience in ABZÛ.
Could you share us development process of ABZÛ? Challenges, Learnings etc
Matt Nava: Creating the vibrant world of ABZÛ was a very different challenge technically than creating the barren world of Journey, and it was a very refreshing project for me in that regard. Every time you make a new game, there is quite a lot of work to be done to figure out how to make its unique elements work. ABZÛ presented the challenge of rendering thousands of fish in dense, dynamic environments, but also creating its message and narrative had us experimenting and testing different ideas throughout the entire development cycle. It took us three years to figure it out!
What parts about ABZÛ are you most satisfied with?
Matt Nava: We really like how the game surprises players. Many people begin with the impression that ABZÛ is purely a serene, meditative underwater experience, and are entirely surprised by the places it takes you as the story unfolds. ABZÛ’s narrative is not told in a traditional way- different players may come away with different ideas based on what clues they find and how they interpret them. By taking the approach of letting the player interpret ABZÛ’s mysteries, we allow them to infuse the game with more personal meaning. It’s cool to see how ABZÛ resonates uniquely for each individual.
It’s also cool that we were able to put hundreds of species in the game, all based on real creatures from around the world. It’s a big achievement for a team of only 10!
What’s the relationship between 505 Games and Giant Squid? What made you two decide to work together? Any stories behind this collaboration？
Matt Nava: When I first began looking for a publishing partner for ABZÛ, I presented the concept to many different companies. The people at 505 Games understood the game immediately and more clearly than anyone else we spoke to. It was this in combination with the fact that they are very collaborative and respectful of the creator’s vision that lead us to partner with them for this game.
One of the coolest things that we created with 505 was an awesome digital fish tank display at E3 to promote ABZÛ. It showed life size fish from the game on transparent screens!
What are the respective responsibilities of 505 Games and Giant Squid for the ABZÛ project? What are the benefits to have a publisher for indie developers?
Matt Nava: Giant Squid was responsible for designing, creating delivering the game, while 505 provided invaluable support and funding for the project. A publishing partner can provide many essential services to indie developers. 505 helped fund ABZÛ’s development, assisted with marketing, and provided quality assurance support, among other things.
You’ve done Flower, Journey, and ABZÛ. All three games are telling us some meaningful experiences. What have you learned from all these projects? What would you like to achieve?
Matt Nava: One of the powerful lessons I took away from working on the games Flower and Journey was that a video game can be a life changing experience for players. As a new studio with a new team, creating ABZÛ was also the process of finding our voice as developers. I am very interested in making beautiful, meaningful, and timeless experiences for a wide range of people. Hopefully our work has a positive impact for our society!
For ABZÛ, you are not only an art director, but also a co-founder. What are your biggest feelings about the role upgrade compared the time you made Flower and Journey?
Matt Nava: Making a game is a lot of work, and its especially difficult when you are making something that is so different than everything else. Every project I have worked on has had me take on more and more responsibility. As the creative director of ABZÛ, I led the team’s efforts in creating this game. It meant a lot more time selling the game, showing it to the press, and doing interviews. It also meant making sure everyone on the team was fully utilized, but also happy and learning. I took it upon myself to design and create a positive company culture, which is extremely important to make sure that everyone is able to collaborate in a great way.
What qualities and skills do you think a great artist should possess?
Matt Nava: Technically, the ability to draw has been the skill that has gotten me through all my toughest problems. But I think that the most important quality for an artist to be able to step outside of yourself, to distance yourself from your work, and judge it honestly. Being able to see the bigger picture, the broader perspective of how your work fits into the whole, and even how your style of working fits in to the team you work with, is a crucial skill to develop.
Whose art works do you admire most?
Matt Nava: I love ancient art. I love ancient Egyptian art, cave art, and others. I love the patterns, the simplicity and elegance, and how much the art was symbolic and communicative. It’s incredible that such amazing works were created with so little technology, and have lasted all this time. It’s no small feat to create a work of art that affects human culture for thousands of years!