Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Waiting for Journey

I'm writing this while Journey is downloading to my PS3. It's a game I've awaited for a long time. Thanks to my work schedule and the PS3's bafflingly slow download speeds, I'll have some time for a few thoughts before I embark. Yeah, that's right: people still complain about the Sony's network speeds (or at least I do). Anyway...

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!


  1. Just completed my first play through and thoroughly enjoyed it. (For the benefit of those who've yet to delve into it, I highly recommend setting aside about 2-3 hours in order to play it from start to finish in one sitting. Also, there'll be some mild spoilers in the comments ahead.)

    For me, the game was all about the emotional connection you establish with your companion(s). (The plural being added because from one "level" to the next it can theoretically be a different player, although in my case I was accompanied by the same person for the duration of the entire game.)

    At first there's trepidation and uncertainty. Who is this person you've spotted on the horizon? Will they want to work with you or go off and do their own thing? Will they be patient or impatient? As the game unfolds, you establish a unique bond with this person. Your only ability to communicate with one another rests with the sounds you can emit, but the two of you soon begin to build a unique vocabulary.

    In my case, we eventually established a recognizable means of exclaiming, "Look over here!", "I'm right with you!", "I'm scared!", "WTF?", "A job well done!", "Thanks for helping me!", "Holy shit!", etc.

    By the end of the game, you've established a special emotional bond with the other player that goes way beyond what most multiplayer games (even traditional co-op) are capable of generating.

    I've seen much talk about Journey being a game that, once completed, has zero replay value. True, there won't be any major surprises next time round, but this game really is about the journey, not the final destination. I'm already itching for my next play through just to see how the emotional experience plays out with different people, or how people on their second or third play through behave differently.

    It's sad to contemplate the fact that, at some point in the future, Journey's user base is going to dry up. What will become of the game once that happens? Solo play throughs could become quite poignant affairs, with the player yearning for companionship that may never come, or be merely glimpsed on the horizon but always beyond reach. What happens to Journey at the end of its journey?

    In the long run, I probably won't revisit Journey as often as I've visited Flower, but it's probably fair to say that Journey has the greater emotional impact the first time it's played. And that's certainly something that most gamers need to experience while the opportunity exists to do so.

  2. Mads Darø KristensenMarch 13, 2012 at 11:56 PM

    I can't wait to check this out tonight! I hope it is out in the European store as well...

  3. I was glad to see you playing this on the first day too : )

    I will be looking forward to your thoughts. I might even add one or two of mine! It certainly tickled my contemplative bone.

  4. Totally on the same page regarding the communication.

    Like you, I think Flower might be a more timeless experience. It might also be a more novice-friendly one. For non/casual game players, the dual-stick set up and somewhat floaty platforming can take a while to get used to.

    Still, I think it's one of the more notable accomplishments of the past few years. Every thatgamecompany game makes me more interested in what they decide to tackle next.

    In any case, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Jorge and I are looking forward to putting out a Journey-podcast soon.