This article contains Journey spoilers.
I want the player to find it out
“I want the player to find it out, it’s part of the fun,” said Jenova Chen of Journey and its hidden meanings and messages, of which there are many. “This is a world where there are no plants, no animals, and not even a single water drop to be found. The only things that are moving are these things, these characters, made out of cloth.”
Speaking a few months ago, Jenova Chen, the visionary developer responsible for fl0w and Flower, was wary of spoilers. And going into Journey blind, without knowledge or preconceptions, is of utmost importance; that little more wasn’t said – or rather, leaked – of Journey since I first saw it over twelve months ago is striking in these days of everything spilling out – intentionally or otherwise.
Journey's prototype stages are fascinating.
A prototype, written in Flash and used to secure the game with Sony, featured ideas and designs that would evolve considerably over the years into the game that is currently shaking up everything we know about the industry.
And whilst we don’t find any dragons in the traditional sense in the final game, Sony’s decision to keep the game’s latter sections out of the public eye has resulted in real surprises for players. But anyone who was granted access to the beta last year would have seen the writing on the sand, literally: dotted liberally around the second area in particular – the section with the broken bridge – were chunky, metallic looking skeletons half embedded. In them, sometimes, were trapped sections of cloth, digested possibly hundreds and thousands of years ago, before vast cities and civilisations were lost to nature.
The idea, of course, is that you draw your own conclusions from the game’s plot, and whilst these are only mine, they may well match up with yours.
But then I suppose that’s partly the beauty of the game – it’s the same game for everyone, but unlike many other titles, the actual experience will no doubt be vastly different. For what’s essentially an unassuming, download-only title, the way the game has been critically acclaimed should be evidence enough that this sort of project is worth pursuing, assuming that as a developer you’ve got the right ideals at the heart of the project.
For thatgamecompany, those ideals appear to be love.
all good, until it all goes wrong
Greed is an obvious mechanic, but Journey’s backstory, peppered throughout the end of area cutscenes and re-iterated through the glyphs left abandoned, tells a familiar, entirely relevant tale that echoes events around the world right now. Power sources from the ground, power hungry leaders and power struggles; all good, until it all goes wrong.
That much is obvious, even to the casual player, but there’s more to Journey’s exposition, much more. The metaphor for life is hardly shoved under the carpet, for example: an innocent, wide eyed exploratory beginning through to adulthood and – naturally – the inevitable end of life.
A notion echoed by the finding of a partner – you don’t meet anyone until the second stage – a fact foreshadowed by a tiny, lone silhouette at the relevant marker – and of course the concept that you only ever come across one person at a time.
There’s no coincidence there, although back in the prototype stages, this wasn’t always the case.
“We didn’t know how many players we wanted to do,” said Chen, speaking at GDC last week. “it could be a man alone, it could be two-player or four-player, so we were researching mechanics that would work regardless of how many people it was,” he says. “Actually, [at the time it felt like] the more people we had, the better.”
“One of the big challenges that we had on the production side is when we looked at all the things we wanted to do, we had to make a decision about making it a four-player game versus a two-player game and it was going to be very difficult for the design team to test all possible combinations of entries and exits and puzzles states and stuff with more players,” says TGC’s Robin Hunicke.
“And the more we talked about it, the more we felt that honing in on this relationship between two people, two strangers, was going to be a real challenge anyway, and that’s really what the focus is, and so when you start to add more people you’re doing it more for the complexity – the coolness of the complexity – and not for really getting that player the best experience, so we ended up narrowing it to two.”
Every player has their own stories to tell
Sometimes it’s nice just to sit and watch, as in the shot above, but it’s clear thatgamecompany worked really hard on the multiplayer once the decision to just focus on two players at once was made. “What is the typical experience of online play – and how can we change it?” was the ethos behind the game’s so-called multiplayer portions, as explained to me by Nick Clark, the game’s lead designer last year.
Every player has their own stories to tell, but mine are simple, human tales of fleeting friendship and co-operation. Games today tend to immediately turn me off with regards to their online modes: they’re all competitive, reactive, and rarely appeal. Drivers cut you up on the first corner, soldiers stab you in the back, but in Journey, every time I’ve met someone it’s been a pleasurable experience.
As I explored the game a forth or fifth time, it was with the intention of locating all of the glowing icons. The game doesn’t highlight this, but it’s possible to see which ones you’re missing via the in-situ level select hub, which has a single broken monument to the right. I knew I had just a couple remaining, and I knew roughly where they were from the indicators.
My final icon was in the game’s vertical Temple area, the last piece of my internal summary of the game’s plot and arguably the most pivotal. I’d played through that and the proceeding areas with a single other, and as we reached the top I decided to try to ask if my companion had the icon I was missing. I stood over the single dulled indicator on the pedestal, and chirped a few brief notes. The other player seemed to understand, and, after a longer call, headed off into the deep below us.
Following, we darted to and fro to the areas where the icons were normally situated. As we approached the ones I had, I let out a few shouts, and the other player instantly moved onto the next – when we reached the one I was missing there was a clear sense of elation. Not because of the trophy ping, but here was a stranger that had interrupted the flow of the game purely to help another stranger collect something he was missing.
Journey breeds that kind of cooperation, like no other game I can think of.
That’s not linearity, that’s intelligent design
When I spoke to thatgamecompany last year, Bryan Singh, Journey’s Game Designer, told me how they were using the data from the beta. “One of our engineers, Martin, created some very cool database code that tracks where players travel, where they run across other players, and how long they stay paired up,” he said.
“Using this data, the designers can create heat maps of player activity and discover which areas players are most likely to see another journeyer. We can also look at play patterns and see if players are travelling in the directions we intend.”
Some reviews have criticised Journey for its linearity. This, as far as I’m concerned, is an odd thing to comment on, and suggests that the author writing the review failed to grasp what the game was about. For me, there’s enough freedom to explore the beaten path, but a clear enough focus to ensure that the player doesn’t wander about aimlessly. That’s not linearity, that’s intelligent design.
It also means that the game can effectively ensure that players are paired up as much as possible, sometimes seamlessly if someone drops out. If the game was a single huge expanse of desert, what’s the chance of running into someone when you’re miles away from the destination? “We are using the numbers to understand how often people find each other as the playerbase ebbs and flows,” I was told by the developers.
Personally, I find the game’s pacing rather refreshing, and whilst it’s clearly designed for maximum impact on a player’s first run through the game, chances are that player won’t have picked up on many of the nuances and subtleties that pour from every nugget of plot or half buried mural, many of which can be absorbed during repeated plays. Hidden areas, collectibles and routes might make the idea appeal to some, but I’ve run through the game a good eight or nine times now, and haven’t once wished that something was different.
Or less ‘linear’.
The journeyer has, over the years, been many things. As the game started to take shape, the player character was a stocky, more confident character with a far more traditional ‘human’ appearance. Crucially, he had feet (which were removed due to technical difficulties in getting them to connect with the same) and arms. If a character doesn’t have arms, the player is less inclined to feel they can effectively combat an enemy.
They’re more defenceless, more likely to run, or hide.
That’s my own perception, of course, but it’s an important one. As Journey moves on past grave-littered sand dunes and friendly cloth creatures, the underground section clearly marks a turning point. Not least in terms of the colour scheme, which abandons burnt ambers and deep reds for pitch black and delicate blues, but in the way the player is expected to behave.
Exploration is gone, survival is in.
The bridge area is an iconic section.
Cloth, you’ll know from the hour or so prior, is your friend – watching it being destroyed by an awakening colossus leaves nothing ambiguous.
Except, of course, for your perception and interpretation of what this creature is. Like I said above, you’ll have seen long dead versions of the dragon much earlier in the game, but now it’s alive, and looking for you and your partner. And you can’t fight it at all. “Nature is your enemy,” says Chen. “If there is an enemy, you can’t do anything about it. You’re small and weak.”
Journey plays off the concept of power, too, and the idea that the civilisation of old failed because it fought over power, and ownership. Basically, although your scarf increases as you collect more icons, and thus grants you longer in the air, that power is never yours to keep. On a trivial level, you need to ‘recharge’ via the cloth patches.
In the end
“We did have a level up experience [initially],” says Chen. “If you collected 20 patches, you would jump higher or fly further. But that felt too empowering, which is the opposite of what we wanted. So instead of acquiring power, we made this metaphor for borrowing power. There are patches in the world, and when they hear your call, they come to help you out. Once you use them, they return to where they were. It’s not an ownership situation.”
A twist when you collect all the icons changes this slightly, and thus in turn other players’ perceptions of you, but essentially the game plays off on the notion that nothing is really yours, and the perpetual looping of the plot reinforces this: nothing you can do can really make a different to the world, other that to affect those around you, if only temporarily. The cloth pieces might help you along the way, but they’re never yours to keep.
“In the end, we decided to not give you [permanent] possession of them,” says the developer.
You can’t avoid death, but you can ensure that life is as pleasurable as it can be for the short time you’re granted it – and, as I said in the review, it’s how you spend that time with others that’s of paramount importance.
Journey’s a special game. Not because it’s endlessly beautiful (it is) or contains one of the single best musical scores the industry has ever seen (it does) but because it’s intelligent, subtle, has what I would consider outstanding multiplayer integration and is crafted with years of love and attention. It’s a stunning achievement – moving, complex, emotional and yet never patronising and, presumably, untouched by a publisher that should be hugely grateful that this game is exclusive to their system.
In a slightly odd paradox, I’m hoping that nobody has read this far without playing the game through and yet simultaneously would urge anyone that has done exactly that to make sure the buy the game when it releases on Wednesday. I’ve seen many comments worried about the game’s length and the fact that it costs £10 – all I can say in response is that in my opinion Journey is the best game I’ve played for years.
Hopefully that’s enough.