Playlist 2012: Journey

Journey PS3 | thatgamecompany | March

journey-desert

It is much easier to play Journey than it is to explain it.

I’ve seen Journey played by more people than the number of times I’ve played it myself. It’s a difficult task, to simply watch, when the person playing knows you know exactly what they ought to do next. Besides any strangers they meet in that barren desert, you will want them to experience it without any guidance. At the same time, you will be curious about whether the emotional peaks it provides aren’t just in your head. Given how much of the game pivots around social awareness and behaviors, seeing a person’s reaction to Journey as it unfolds is appropriately part of what makes it so special too.

Journey‘s message is embedded in its rules: you can only run and jump, and you can only jump when there is cloth nearby; your actions are tethered to a scarce resource, but if you work together that issue ceases to exist. Its visuals are economic, conveying only what they need to…but they’re also incredibly bold as every landscape pops with a new palette and obstacles to overcome. My appreciation for Matthew Nava’s art direction was further cemented when I read his art book for Journey. In one chapter, Matt details the process for fine-tuning the look and feel of the traveler (also known as the main character), and I found it interesting to read that the traveler’s arms (or any direct acknowledgement of them, i.e. allowing players to use them) were removed since they caused distractions. Having them affords more opportunities to play with things you simply don’t need to in the environment, such as pushing objects (or other people), lifting, climbing, etc. Without them, you can’t help yourself but to run, jump and soar through the sand until you reach that mountain in the distance.

Being a small part of a larger discussion going on within the gaming community also has its moments. From recounting your own journey to heated debates about “What really happened when…” and “What did that represent?”, Journey knows how to start a conversation, and ironically enough for game featuring no written nor spoken dialogue. When reviews for the game hit, it reminded me of the cultural high the general gaming community experienced when Portal released: a short, laser focused and thought out adventure with a minimalist art style is swept up as a critical darling and a commercial success–and was developed by a relatively small team. What was especially exciting for a couple peers of mine and I was the opportunity to meet the folks from thatgamecompany at the opening for The Art of Video Games exhibit, which was just days after Journey released. Getting to hear their own stories about what it was like to see the game take shape over the past few years, and to see them interact with their fans, friends and family on the cusp of a landmark entry into the medium was every bit inspirational.

journey-02Journey‘s strength does not lie in numbers–not points, health, nor time spent. In the couple hours it asks you to spend with it, this game makes you feel something rather than rely on you to keep track of any statistic. Journey will take you through the desert, but it won’t make you do it alone.

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