You can’t help but be captivated by thatgamecompany’s considerable, yet slight presence; Jenova Chen’s knowledgeable wit and Robin Hunicke’s effervescent charm a captivating combination – one that’s instantly spellbinding even as their latest game sits idling on an attract screen.
But the elephant in the room, Journey, is a weighty one. Sitting atop our list of one hundred games to watch this calendar year, the logical (if not canonical) follow on to Flower has high expectations, and as I listen intently to what the duo have to say, I can’t help but wish for the gameplay to begin.
When it does, with the cloaked figure gliding effortlessly up the sandy dunes we’ve seen in screenshots meant not to tease but to prevent spoilers, I’m hooked. In those fleeting few moments, the sense of a bewildering unknown sprawling out from your feet, Journey changes from a game we’ve often thought about to one that we won’t ever forget about.
It’s easy to be hyberbolic when you’re still high from the fumes, but Journey represents everything I adore about videogames. As Chen himself tells us this afternoon, games are currently about power, about killing, about shooting – about who’s strongest. Journey flips this all around with a startling disregard for trends and fashion, and makes the player a weak, small, isolated entity.
As with thatgamecompany’s previous work, the exact requirements of the player are left to them to discover as you find yourself awake, alone, in a desert – but we’re shown glowing obelisks, stone structures and mechanical devices seemingly long forgotten.
Everything has its place, explains Hunicke. We’re not told why, not yet, but we’re shown what can happen when the player interacts with certain objects amongst the mysterious ruins that pepper the huge playing area offered by the game – additions, supplementary changes to your outfit, for example, or the ability to temporarily fly amongst the sandstorms.
And unlike other games, anything you collect isn’t yours to keep – it’s borrowed – thatgamecompany keen to emphasise that in this game, you are that tiny spec seen from outer space: you are alone, small, and apparently insignificant. So whilst your scarf may glow white to show you have a new ability, if it’s used the fabric will be left behind, requiring further collection.
Ribbons that dance in the wind, figures that sit juxtaposed against the wilderness, giant gears that jut from the tundra: Journey is a game of wonder, of discovery, and as Chen and Hunicke are all too keen to show, it’s one best experienced with another.
Not that you’ll know who that other player is – a white glow at the side of the screen may alert you to another’s location but you won’t ever know who it is; their name, location and intention hidden away behind their own plain garments. Intentionally, Journey benefits from the freedom only seen when interacting with complete strangers.
You can ‘call’ out, a simple signal that, along with jump, marks the only button input (the left stick moves you and the camera is controlled by tilting the controller) and that’s the extent of the communication. It may seem rudimentary, but it’s so clearly defined and so brilliantly done in game that you won’t rue the loss of voice chat one iota.
Not that the playful, joyous co-operative gameplay is to be sniffed at: finding another soul out there in the wilderness willing to take the game at your pace, exploring the areas you want to explore looks like being a uniquely satisfying experience, your resources and abilities shared, unlocking new sections as you both go along. Machines are activated, bridges are built, secrets are uncovered.
Journey can’t be summed up in 700 words, and it can’t be demonstrated nearly enough in the short time I had with it. I left the room longing for more, the desire to see what’s over the next hill stronger than with any other game I can think of. It’s clearly not going to be for everyone, but for me, Journey strikes me as perfection – gaming nirvana.
And it’s not often we go there.