I never did play flOw, ThatGameCompany’s debut work, because it seemed a little esoteric for me. I’m a huge fan of narrative (which is really what this blog should be called, I think) and a game about abstract shapes in a blue featureless mass just didn’t appeal to me. Where’s the story in that?
But then Dharkanjil was visiting me shortly after Flower came out and insisted that I buy it and play it. Based on the media released for the game, I hadn’t been impressed and had some of the same concerns as I did with flOw. However, trusting my friend, I picked it up and played it. It was wonderful.
Certainly there is no strong narrative, but it did open my eyes a little to what you can do to craft narrative with only a few, wordless, suggestive elements. The ‘story’ in Flower, if there is one, is that there are a few potted plants sitting by a window in an apartment in a city, and the game – largely occurring on big open grassy fields where flowers grow wild – is the dream these potted flowers are having.
I wouldn’t think I could care about the dreams of a daisy, but you know what? Flower made me care.
So when Journey was announced by the same company, I was eager to pick it up and see what they were going to show off next. Overall, I loved it, but it’s so different from what I normally play, I find it hard to describe why.
No small measure of my delight for this game comes from the visuals. The game is gorgeous to look at and it accomplishes that feat with a decidedly simple design aesthetic. The game takes place in the desert where there is little more than dunes and a few broken structures at first. As the game evolved, more and more complicated architecture is on display but it all follows the same simple mantra: clean and simple.
But the game then hangs some truly stunning lighting effects onto those visuals. There is a scene that takes place at sunset that is so beautiful it took my breath away. The game even draws your attention to it by turning the camera to the side and forcing you to play sideways with the setting sun squarely in the center of the screen as your character surfs his way down a sandy chute. There is little to no danger in this set piece, so the rather abrupt loss of camera control doesn’t hinder the experience in any way. The game just wanted you to take in the beauty of the scene they had created and I was delighted to do as I was told.
Controlling the game is a simple affair as well. Left thumbstick for moving, right thumbstick for camera controls. There is one button for jumping and one for ‘talking’ (more on that later). And that’s about it. You can actually control the camera by tilting the controller as well – something taken from Flower — but that’s largely a gimmick because there is no comparable gesture-based control of the main character.
Jumping is actually an interesting mechanic in the game. You start of unable to jump at all, but slowly through the game you obtain glyphs that add to a scarf you have around your neck. The longer your scarf, the higher and longer you can jump. The higher and longer you can jump, the easier it is to get more glyphs. You can get through the game with only the most basic required jumping ability, but it’s decidedly not as fun as being able to soar about the architecture on your slowly depleting scarf.
Talking is a very simple affair. Hitting the button briefly causes you to ‘speak’ a unique glyph the game assigns to you. Holding it down causes you to ‘shout’ the glyph much larger and with a flash of light. Why would you want to talk? Because when you start a game of Journey, you are randomly joined with other people playing Journey at the same time as you. Like an MMO, you will periodically run into one or two other people in the same level as you, also trying to accomplish the same tasks. You can’t find out the other person’s name when you meet them, the only identifier you’ll ever get is their glyph, but if you are generous enough and they are as well, you can work together to get through the game.
The benefits of working together with the people you meet are straightforward: If you are next to each other, your scarves will regenerate automatically. This means you don’t have to find recharge points for your jump (flying magic carpets, in a nicely Arabian touch) and it also means you can potentially fly forever, assuming you can keep the same distance throughout your flight. It makes many of the challenges of the game easier, but it is a difficult thing to pull off, considering you have no means of communicating with the person you need to fly beside.
With the lack of real communication and only a shared situation to bond over, it’s actually quite touching how easy it is to find a partner to play through the game with. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it’s almost impossible to hinder the other player, or that the true anonymity prevents any real negative emotions from being communicated from player to player, but I always smile a bit when a stranger comes out of nowhere and helps you fly up to get a glyph that was just out of reach.
And really, Journey is about those ephemeral feelings. That camaraderie from finding a friend willing to help you for little benefit of their own; the awe of finding something truly beautiful in the desert; the sinking feeling when something emerges from the sands and comes after you; that joy the ending sequence bestows just when you think everything has been lost.
Playing this game so close to Mass Effect 3, which has similar ‘hopeless’ journey vibes imbued within it, actually makes me wonder how much of the conflict over the ending of that game had to do with over communication and not under communication. Journey’s story – such as it is – is cyclical, and tries to make the player an iconic character fulfilling a grand, destined role through no dialog or million dollar cutscenes at all. It’s amazing how satisfying such a simple game – and a simple story – can be when executed perfectly.
I smiled a lot while playing Journey, for a lot of reasons. The game is rewarding, playful, joyous, briefly sad, beautiful, and in the end, very satisfying. Less than four hours is all it took. We’ve gotten a little too used to excess, that seeing something so simple, and yet accomplishing so much, can really be breathtaking. Everyone should play this game. It’s worth every minute.