Monthly Archives: March 2012

Journey – Nascence (Austin Wintory)

Journey is a game I have waited for since I’ve learned about Flower – previous game from Thatgamecompany. Time flies very fast. About 24 hours have passed since Journey has been released in PSN Store for PS3 console. So this time, I’m going to write about a very fresh, new game, as opposed to remembering older titles. I still feel overwhelmed and enchanted by the game. Here I’ll try to capture why.

Thatgamecompany’s game titles are short, simple, yet descriptive and meaningful. Cloud was about flying among clouds, feeling free. Fl0w was about flow of life of an organism, floating in water and evolving. Flower was about nature and how it affects us, how we seem to be forgetting about it. About a life of a flower petal carried on a wind breeze on a sunny day. Journey is, surprise surprise, about…

… journey.

It sounds cheesy, but it’s not. It’s quite an extensive topic, hard to grasp. Honestly, while you will probably find good books and movies on journey, it’s hard for me to recall a game that would be about journey itself. Not just traveling from one place to other, having fun or doing quests. I mean more deep and metaphorical sense of setting out alone, into the unknown, without a clear goal, no score, no guns. About a transcendental path of life and death, about the sense of being both alone and not alone in our world. I believe it’s very hard to contain all this in a game, yet somehow Journey has it all. It grows on you.

What does the game look like? You wander through a windy desert as a lone, red-hooded stylized figurine, with a scarf dancing in the air. You cannot tell whether it’s a man or woman and it doesn’t really matter. You don’t know what’s going on and you shouldn’t know. You vaguely feel that you should move towards a mountain you see on the horizon, but that’s it on goals. The rest is a journey. And so journey it is – you tread the ground with your small feet, strewing the sand in all directions, climbing dunes and gliding down sand valleys. At some point you start to look back, trying to figure out how long you traveled, and if it was really all on foot? The concept of distance is well established here. After a while, you discover that you can not only walk, but also jump/fly for a limited time. This movement, and the cloth fold/play in the wind “transforms” you into some sort of a flying bat or living kite. From now on, you will glide and float through the world. You can even do some pseudo sand-boarding when you go down. It’s an incredible experience of being in the flow, you steer naturally in all directions, and suddenly your travel gets another, a little bit magical, dimension.

You wander through a set of sceneries at different day times and weather conditions. Each set ends with some kind of meditation, where you’re shown another figure, somehow connected to the mountain – a ghost? your mother/father? mountain spirit? You will never know for sure. There’s also an intriguing animation of a mural, that will expand with your journey. Until 3/4 of the game, you don’t have a clue what it is. It’s an interesting choice. From the very beginning of the game, you’re never told what to do and how to go on. You’re just there. No tutorials, no instructions. Journey treats you as a human being, curious of what’s going on and being able to figure it out on your own. Not some puppet, that has to be told every action along the way. You don’t know who “you” are, where and why exactly you’re going and what these strange objects or stories you encounter in the game are. That’s the sheer beauty of it. Because of this approach, you’re really on a journey, you focus on it. Everything’s enchanting, new and unknown to you. There’s no map, no directions. It’s up to you, what you want your journey to look like. It’s really hard to imagine it or write about it, it’s best to play it yourself. The game leaves you sort of helpless, still you want to explore, you want to understand, you want to see what’s behind the horizon. These are goals not related to the game – they touch something very human in our nature. It’s amazing that the game can extract this from you.

If that’s not enough, here’s another aspect being a major selling point of Journey. You are a lone traveler, but it doesn’t have to be like that. The game engine traces who is playing Journey as well and through online system, randomly matches players exploring the same areas. What this means is that sometimes you will encounter another traveler, just like you, a small figurine, weary and tired, clueless about what’s going on. There’s no name, no flag, no nick. Totally anonymous. This simple thing creates a whole new experience and approach. You just meet someone along the way. But it’s different from a typical MMORPG game, where you coincidentally meet others, do quests with them, and then part. You can see their race, their role, their equipment, you can judge from the name who they are and where are they from. In Journey, you know nothing. And because of that, the emotional attitude changes. You start to care about your companion. You realize that it’s good to see other living soul. You crave for emotional contact. You’re convinced that it will be better to travel together. You don’t want to loose him from sight, want to help him jump to that ledge and cross that dune. You intuitively stick together, close to each other, shielding from wind and sand. You cannot say anything. The only way of interaction with each other is through emitting a single “chirp” or bleep. That’s it. Weird? Of course. Creative? You bet.

Let me tell you about my personal Journey. It started very casual, just some walking through sand, solving easy puzzles and going forward. But from the moment I’ve met my companion, I’ve suddenly realized something was different. We were both chasing an unknown target of our journeys. Was it the same one? I didn’t know. My companion greeted me by chirping cheerfully. I responded with few chirps as well, to express my gratitude for meeting someone in this god forsaken place. From that moment, we would travel together and help each other. We stood atop a column, looking around and making a confused chirp or two, not knowing what to do next. We were hysterically chirping at each other, while floating over a red carpet, happy that we were able to solve a puzzle. And when I decided I should go to sleep and continue the next day, I felt deep sadness, that I was going to leave my new friend. I didn’t know how to communicate this to him/her, so I just ran close to him. What I wanted to say was “This was extraordinary adventure, I feel amazing, thank you so much for being a great companion, but I have to go now. Best of luck on your way!”, but all I emitted was several chirps. Did the other figurine understand what I was trying to say? Was he ok with that? Was he mad? Or maybe sad? Did I hurt him in this way? It’s astonishing, how much you wonder, when the communication channel is so thin and unclear. It’s like communicating with E.T.

I didn’t even know what was going to happen when I leave. I was worried that me finding this friend was a unique experience that might not happen next day. But when I continued my journey, after few minutes I’ve met someone again. And it all makes you think – who is this? What’s his agenda? Is it the same person I was playing with yesterday? How can I tell? What are the odds it’s him or her? Maybe we should establish some secret movement or code to recognize ourselves? Will he also be friendly? And even – can I trust him? I was haunted with these questions throughout the game, though my new companion was a great friend in sickness and health. We’ve discovered that if we run in circles next to each other, our scarfs will tangle, making this sort of an eerie magical dervish dance. There were even more amazing areas to explore, and hurdles to overcome. When we were climbing the mountain in howling wind and snow, covering our faces, making very small, very slow steps forward, being occasionally blown down by hurricane – it really felt like a struggle. The game is sending you a message, that it doesn’t have to be all nice, cosy and fun to still get to you. That you’re on a hard journey and you should know it, feel it. If you stop moving, who knows what’s going to happen. You’re on your own there. You cannot just run through or shoot everyone. It’s the path that matters, it’s the neverending step by step, a rajaz rhytm of camels, a 20-thumper hajj to the south. It leaves you a lot of time to think, to appreciate who you are and above everything else, to find yourself here and now, in this very moment of your “life”, your “journey”. It was spiritual to me. My companions – if by some wicked accident, you read this – thank you for being there with me and for me. You made my Journey even more important.

The art of the game is stylized. To imagine how the game feels like, try thinking Prince of Persia + Shadow of the Colossus + Flower + Nights! Into Dreams + Spirited Away + Indiana Jones + Samurai Jack + whatnot combined together. There are some oriental influences, especially in character design. But the graphical setting is arbitrary to a certain extent. You will not find stunning, close-to-reality, full of detail pictures here (sky textures were sometimes a bit cheap, in my opinion). Most of the time, there will be sand, wind, more sand, some rocks, even more sand and some persian-ish buildings. It will change to some other surroundings, but I don’t want to spoil it here for you. Most of the time, you will feel overwhelmed by the nature around you. It’s not an easy journey. It’s slow, it’s tedious, it can sometimes even frustrate you, but it can also liberate you. What will leave you speechless is the work of light and reflection and great camera shots, showing your silhouette from different angles and distances.

Journey’s sound effects should be quite familiar to those who played Flower. You will hear similar soothing dinging of various instruments here or there, very relaxing and warm. Sounds are designed not to “interrupt” your gameplay and your story, they mix perfectly with the landscape and background music, never going into your way, but discreetly enhancing your experience. The music deserves a sincere “omg, this is so right”. Did I mention, that I listen to Flower soundtrack quite often while going to sleep these days? Or when I chill out in the evening? Journey’s music is a little bit different, less “wandering”, setting a more serious, deep tone. It probably won’t work as a lullaby, but will be perfect when you go melancholic or just let your thoughts stray while looking through the window. You will hear a harp, flute, string instruments, triangles, occasional vocals (in “I was born for this” song). The music fulfills the experience of a journey. It’s (mostly) slow, it’s with you as a third companion, it makes you feel that you’re doing something important, something exceptional. String instruments always work great for me personally, when it comes to picture a big space, travel, quest – I think I’ve mentioned that while describing World of Warcraft. Their sad notes underline that you’re in a struggle, you’re going through something, it takes effort, it will take time. And, most importantly, that you’re alone in this.

It’s truly an inspiring and touching experience, probably possible only through a game as media carrier. Because of games like Journey, I’m insanely proud to call myself a gamer and a consumer and a critic of such fruitful part of our culture. Journey is an example, that there’s still so much we can do with games, that they work miracles when they try to open you up, to make you feel something and take part in something. Thatgamecompany, Jenova Chen, they’ve all already earned their place as creators of something unique and artisanal, they’ve left something important behind themselves, a dent in the universe.  My hat off to you – I’m so grateful and honored to have a chance to play Journey. Our world is a better place because of it.

It’s – again – that kind of game you should instantly buy and tell all your friends and show it to everyone you possibly can. It’s a game that should be added to every PS3 console sold. If you don’t own one, buy PS3 just for Journey – it’s totally worth it. Make your friends and family play it. Ask them about their feelings, their thoughts, their experiences of their own Journeys. I will do that. I’m going to have each my guests sit for an hour or two with Journey, to let his soul come out and hear it crying and singing.

More about Journey –