Journey, by thatgamecompany, has already been well considered by adoring critics, but we wanted to briefly interrupt our travelogue to give our impressions. I played it for the first time on Saturday and had a chance to watch Kate play last year. We both loved it. One playthrough is about the length of a film and the name is quite accurate; the game is a pilgrimage through wondrous and at times frightening lands towards the glowing mountaintop on the horizon. There are challenges to unravel, secrets to find, and threats to avoid. However, they are all minimalistic to focus on the core themes of the game and make it accessible even to those often neglected by high profile video game releases.
So does it even qualify as a game? Yes, for two reasons. First, Michael Abbott argues that the mechanics serve the aesthetic and help the player achieve flow, a meditative sort of enjoyment that videogames are well-suited to deliver. In addition, on a less theoretical level as Jason Killingworth discussed the jumping is just delightful.
“Psychology has proven that the behavior of our physical body directly impacts our emotional state. Test subjects who were tricked into arranging their facial muscles in the shape of a smile were more likely to claim to find a cartoon amusing. In the same way, a game that effectively imparts a sense of physically lifting off the ground will engender in the player a sympathetic emotional response of uplift and inspiration. Journey’s leap has a frolicking grace to it. Not only do you lift into the air, but your character will occasionally even twirl playfully like a sea otter before drifting back to earth. You may even grin while doing it.”
Going into a little more detail, your character can make small jumps just by navigating the world, but with the power of their elongating scarf or the help of the various friendly fabric creatures that inhabit this stricken land, you can for a time bound into the air. Your ability to do this is limited by geography and the charge on your scarf, but in either case is readily charged by visiting with the wildlife or spending time close to your traveling companion. In this way, the leaping is moderated but unlike power pellets or a time-based recharge, the way to replenish the power ties you closer to the world and your companions.
The companions are where the real wonder of the game comes in. After the first stage, you will often be paired with another player, elsewhere on the internet, but given only the most rudimentary means of communication. Perhaps surprisingly, this results in interaction that is entirely different than the hostility that too often defines online interaction. This was entirely intentional. Jenova Chen, one of the designers, discussed his influences and motivations with Simon Parker of Eurogamer.
"I believe that there are only three ways to create valuable games for adults. You can do it intellectually, whereby the work reveals a new perspective about the world that you have not seen before. The closest thing I can see to this is Portal. The second way is emotionally: touching someone. You can touch kids emotionally very easily, but it's far harder to touch adults because they are so jaded.
"The only way you can touch an adult is by creating something especially relevant to their lives, or by creating something that is so authentic that it becomes empowering. In order to reach those heights you have to reach catharsis. So that after the strong emotion the adult can begin to reflect on his own, start to find meaning in his own life. That's how I can see I can make games for people around me. The third and final way is by creating a social environment where the intellectual or emotional stimulation could happen from other people. Those are the only three ways."
Earlier in the piece, he noted that that third piece is often challenging because most multiplayer videogames are about killing one another. It’s well worth reading the entire piece, about how they choose to take out many of the puzzles, elaborate interactions, and even collision detection while working to reinforce the loneliness of the places.
And it works. Scott Juster discussed how this changed his outlook to fellow players. So many of the discussions of Journey focus on what happened with their companions, be it Jamie Love’s and Brendan Keogh’s reviews or the collection at Medium Difficulty and the Journey Stories Tumblr.
We shall post a discussion of our own Journeys on a future night.
Image credit: Promotional screenshot from thatgamecompany.