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Player versus Enlightenment.
Journey was literally my final sneak-peek demo/appointment at June's Electronic Entertainment Expo—like, out-the-door, into-the-taxi, and off-to-the-airport final—and it was by far the most unusual of the whole show. After a week's constant exposure to blaring show-floor exhibitor booths, pulsing, liver-killing parties, overenthusiastic company-reps, overstimulated game-nerds, oversexed party-crashing go-go dancers, overedited, hyperbolic game trailers, and about twenty-thousand under-brained Lakers fans, we suddenly found ourselves… in a quiet, unadorned conference room, listening to a soft-spoken guy talk about a game designed to make one feel lost, powerless, and small.
[image1]It left a strange feeling in my head, that comparative silence after the Din—which I'm sure would have pleased game designer Xinghan “Jenova” Chen to no end.
Co-founder and Creative Director of thatgamecompany (and designer of ambient offbeat games like FlOw, Cloud, and Flower) Chen didn't show us a logo, a measly sprite, or even a single pixel of gameplay for the first fifteen or twenty minutes. Instead, he spoke of the 'emotional palette' of the games he had already created; he spoke of how many games aim to give their players a sense of Power, through virtual machinery, magic, muscles, and missiles; he spoke of the sense of unearthly smallness and insignificance—and new, instilled spirituality—invariably carried back to our planet by NASA astronauts of all walks and (former) creeds… once they had glimpsed the lonely, glowing disk of the Earth hanging in the ego-pummeling void of space.
He spoke of these things and more, of wanting to evoke those sort of feelings in gamers in an online space—all of this in a dreamy, soft-spoken, quietly-transported and perfectly-reasonable voice that soon gave me the worrying sense that they might start passing out the Kool-Aid and Nikes.
At last, Chen gave us a taste of Journey in action: The moody, low-key, surreal-evocative game presents players with a small, silent figure—their nameless, almost featureless character—standing in a sprawling desert extending to the horizon in every direction.
[image2]Controls are sparse: SixAxis-sensing controls the camera view, the analog stick moves the character, one button executes a simple jump, and the other button… sings. The environment is also sparse: The occasional dune sweeps up here and there, in the foreground or far off—and the single dominating fixture of a towering, important-looking, cloud-shrouded mountain looming in the distance makes it pretty clear which way we'll ultimately want to go.
The only sound, after the game's somber cello opener, is the incessant rush of the wind and the ambient, scouring hiss of sand that doesn't often behave like what one normally thinks of as 'sand'; in fact, it often surges by in dreamlike, impossible waves (catch one of these ephemeral sand-waves and it's even possible to 'surf' it for a brief period), and can sometimes be seen pouring down from higher elevations in endless, cascading sandfalls. It's an idea setting that begs the player-question: “Where am I, anyway?” Or, for broader-minded thinkers: “Who am I?” And finally: “What am I here for?”
Slowly trudging (or briefly, dreamily surfing) through this endless, sandy waste makes you feel small and lonely right and quick. But before long, the desolate landscape starts of offer up its mute, isolated interactive mysteries: What are these cryptic stones that light up when I touch them? What's with these pieces of cloth I occasionally find, seemingly owner-less and rippling in the wind, that allow me short arcs of temporary, effortless, dreamlike flight? Who or what made the crumbling remains of the bridge-like thing standing in ruins so high above my head, and how the hell am I supposed to get anywhere near way up there? Am I supposed to get up there? Okay, I can sing melodic nonsense, but to what purpose? Is that other player over there on the horizon having any better luck than—holy shit, is that another player over there?
Yes, indeed; while the game is firmly rooted in giving players the lonely, unanchored sense of mystery and isolation, there will be times when two wandering online travelers can cross each other's paths. The chances and frequencies of such chance meetings are to be carefully and if necessary artificially constrained, so as not to have the desolate ambience ruined by congregating packs of Journeyers.
[image3]There is no text or voice communication between Journeyers per se, but wanderers who do spot that rare fellow traveler and choose to close the distance will be able to (very broadly) attempt to 'communicate' by singing—the longer the button is held, the longer the tone. Precisely what this accomplishes or how it will work is something Chen is keeping his silence on, for the moment. The tone of interactions, if any, is meant to be as non-intrusively anonymous as possible; you won't see a fellow-traveler's Playstation Network name… and whether or not he/she is a member of your online Friends or not is anyone's guess (and, on that score, probably largely irrelevant).
Presumably, the players can find rudimentary ways to work together: How do we get those fluttering scraps of cloth to float and assemble in the air to form a passable structure—and will the result help us both, or is this a sacrificial kind of deal? What is the next step on this strange, mute Journey, and should we try to press on together? Is there even any way to reach that ultimate distant Mountain together, or is that a Journey we must each undertake alone?
It has been noted that a player's movement through the sand can leave trails—but given the dreamlike, occasionally oceanic behavior of the sand, it's not clear how useful or of what duration any such 'sketched' communications might be. Chen himself has noted, without any clear sense of frustration, disgust, or particular concern one way or the other, that instances of, shall we say, puerile imagery being drawn in the game-sand have already been witnessed. While Journey is designed to be an online experience, the game can evidently be approached as either a cooperative or solo experience (although it is not clear if the game has any kind of completely-offline component).
God knows we gamers love our throwing-stars, sniper-rifles, air strikes, and ICBMs, but it's refreshing and even something like beautiful and eerie to see a game try to evoke the small, still, wondering voice inside us all. Journey was certainly the most thought-provoking game I saw at the show, the bubble of its mysterious silence louder than the most obnoxious screamer-trailer. We're looking forward to learning what it all means when we take our own, reviewable Journey in the coming year.