E3 2011: Journey Preview
In case you don’t know already, we singled out Journey as the Best Game that E3 2011 had to offer beating off stiff competition from the likes of Battlefield 3, Gears of War 3, Mass Effect 3 and various other games whose titles are concluded by a three.
The award is no mean feat (not everyone at IncGamers selected it as their favourite) and it shows just how far download-only titles have come in recent years, and that in terms of gameplay, they are so regularly the equal of their disc-based brethren. What the singling out of Journey also highlights is the continued skill and innovative approaches to game design displayed by the team at thatgamecompany (TGC).
TGC don’t make toys, they make experiences. Studio founder Jenova Chen has spoken in the past about the fact that he doesn’t want to make games that are ‘merely’ described as fun or exciting by the players and press. Instead, TGC aim to illicit emotions that are more in line with what you expect to experience when consuming other art forms – sadness, joy, isolation, companionship, wonder, optimism, awe etc.
Cloud, Flow and Flower, the studio’s output thus far, have been in keeping with this mantra in that their most important element is not the way you interact with the game but the way the game makes you feel as a result of that interaction – the reward is not in the accomplishment of mastering a control system or gameplay mechanics but in the feelings to be had from them. Journey’s main themes seem to centre on isolation, awe and companionship.
The ‘journey’ is one undertaken by a living, humanoid piece of cloth to a mountain that lies at the fair end of an extensive desert. In terms of ‘story’, that’s it. Of course, this being a TGC game, the real story is not the one you’re given but the one you make for yourself. While the physical goal is to reach the mountain, the ‘real goal’ is to explore the world and to define and understand your purpose within it.
Scattered across the world are pieces of cloth that range in intricacy from single sheets to complicated shapes with multiple, interconnected seams. Finding and ‘harmonising’ with cloth adds to your ‘life force’ and allows you to jump, glide and occasionally fly across the environment.
This being a desert, the wind is an ever present force blowing sand from place to place. The combination of cloth and wind, it would seem, represents our path through life. We’re the cloth and the wind is the world, a world which we can manipulate to some extent but never fully control; ultimately, we’re just swept along with it. That’s my interpretation of it but, I’m sure there are many others that are equally valid.
Before you ask, no, the cloth cannot kill you. There are no enemies.
Unlike TGC previous output Journey seems to be placing a big emphasis on co-op multiplayer. You can undertake the game as a duo over PlayStation Network and share the experience with a friend or stranger. There’s no way to physically interact with one another but you can ‘call’ (highlight your location) to each other in your bid to harmonise with more cloth and complete your journey to the mountain. Again, there’s little structure to online play, the story being the one you make for yourself and the experience of companionship within an expansive, desolate environment.
This all takes place in a world of visual glory, a result not of some technical wizardry but because of inspired art design. Journey’s world is one of suffocating openness in that the world is expansive but claustrophobically empty. The sun and the mountain stand out with in imposing solidarity, occasionally changing hue but never relenting in their determined surveillance of everything happening below them.
Tracks are made in the sand as you traverse the environment, serving as a reminder that (no matter how little) you are indeed having an impact on the seemingly impenetrable world. The whole thing looks like you’re playing an oil painting.
TGC say that the game can be completed in two to three hours if you move through it at full pelt. Again, this speaks to the intensity of focus held by the company and their refusal to compromise their design approach to fit with the status quo. Even from the little we’ve seen, three hours of gameplay looks like it’s going to pack more reward and emotion than the even the longest modern day, grand scale RPG.
Before this becomes too much of a love-in for a game that we haven’t played all the way through, I’m going to stop this preview now. But, if you’re only going to add one PS3 exclusive to your wish list this year then make sure it’s Journey…yes, I’ve heard of Uncharted 3.