Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Waiting for Journey
I realized that It's been a long time since developer thatgamecompany released a game. It's strange to think that Flower came out over three years ago. Thankfully, time hasn't wilted its petals. In terms of design and presentation, it remains one of the most unique and striking games of the past generation. It remains one of those games people bring up when they feel like rehashing the whole "games as art" argument. Whatever your feelings on the subject, it's hard to ignore the amount of time and effort thatgamecompany poured into it, as they do with all their games. After all, Flower came nearly three years after Flow. It's poetic that, through some confluence of development time and marketing cycles, they've managed to put out a game about once every three years.
In a world of annualized sequels in which franchises get shopped out to different developers every other year, having a single company spend several years crafting the game they want to release is a treat. Thatgamecompany's games are never the flashiest or the most feature-dense experiences, but they always feel deliberate. Rather than use games a mode to transmit points or test reflexes, Flow and Flower convey themes and tones. Their games have a certain elegance that makes them simultaneously simpler and more complex than most other commercially-released games.
Thatgamecompany takes its time when creating games, but the company isn't cutoff from the world between releases. Studio leaders Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen routinely give presentations, sit for interviews, participate in podcasts (check out Chen's appearance on Giant Bomb's 2011 show for particularly insightful observations about everything from emotions in games to the hazards of Internet dating). Outspoken designers, especially those so closely associated with a major publisher, are quite rare. Getting to hear their thoughts on the industry and design philosophy is a pleasure usually confined to a limited GDC-oriented audience.
Of course, thatgamecompany deliberately avoids talking too much about certain things: namely, the specifics of their own games. Flower and Flow have the basic tutorials that go only far enough to describe the mechanics. When you start those games, you are told how to move, but not the limits of that movement, what kinds of dynamics arise from those movements, or even why you would want to move in the first place. The games are about experimentation and discovery, piecing together the visual and kinetic elements of an unfamiliar world and slowly coming to understand it.
They are about starting out in a limited place, both geographically and intellectually, and charting the course to a one. Sometimes these trips are simple: in Flow, you quickly learn that inward pointing arrows send you deeper into the level and outward pointing levels let you surface. Sometimes, things are more complicated: Flower's story is one about the reconciliation between the natural and built environment, but is such a thing even possible in our world? In any case, whether it is learning a new control scheme or comprehending a thematic message, thatgamecompany is exceptionally talented at creating these layered voyages of discovery. Journeys, you might call them.
Well, the time is at hand. Journey is downloaded and installed. I'll see you on the other side!