Journey Preview

By Garnett Lee, Jun 03, 2011 1:00pm PDT

The next game from flOw and Flower developer That Game Company, Journey appears, at least initially, to be a little more traditional in its design. In part, it is. When I got a chance to play the game for an hour or so, studio co-founder and creative director Jenova Chen told me, "This is a platformer. It's an adventure platformer; it's been done so many times. It's been done with various characters in various worlds with various characters with various tones. And we said if That Game Company gets to do an adventure game, it has to be That Game Company style. It has to be unique."

On that count they seem in good shape judging from the challenge I face in describing my experience with Journey. In large part, that comes from not wanting to give too much away. Beyond the basics of moving a character around on screen to explore an imagined world, Journey does little to spell out how it works. Instead it invites curiosity. Without being told I simply kept doing the next thing, moving to the next area because it just felt like the thing to do.

This flow of being in the game and experiencing what it offers will likely be different for each player. The team calls these hooks that help guide the player where to go and what to do "beats." The name fits because they define the rhythm of movement through the game. In my hour with game I ventured across vast sand dunes, climbed over ruins of an ancient civilization, and soared on wind currents carried by my magical scarf. And in so doing reached one of those magical "ah-ha" moments when I put together some of the pieces for how things were working right before reaching the end of the area I got to play.

About halfway into my journey, I came across another player in my world. Journey takes a different approach to playing together online. Some of the most common things we take for granted as part of online don't exist. There's no chat with other players, text or voice; nor is there a sign language to communicate in-game, though it is possible to create a sort of agreed upon language of motion and signals with the other player by experimentation. And there's also no indication of who the other player is. Journey's online is a one-on-one anonymous adventure.

This seemingly radical approach comes from the desire to create a different paradigm for online play. Chen explained their goal by way of comparison to Left 4 Dead:

Most of the games today focus on the action, which is the core of the gameplay. What happens in Left 4 Dead is that even though it's about survival together, 90 percent of your time is shooting, and then you only get 10 percent to look at your teammates. And then when you're putting on the bandage, there's a little bonding there. So we were like, "can we reverse that? Can we have most of the time you pay attention to the other player and you just spend 10 percent on the platforming or whatever.

It's an ambitious goal, but one borne out in the section of the game I got play. The trick, as Chen explained, is to make the player feel small. He pointed out how walking around the city we are surrounded by people but we choose to bury our heads in our phones rather than connect with any of them. Out in the vast wilderness on a hike, though, seeing someone else draws an immediate response of "I want to be next to them. I want to talk to them. I could learn something from them," Chen said.

It certainly worked on me. When I saw that other adventurer I wasn't sure what to make of them at first. But then, as started to move, we sort of stuck together and explored around. And maybe one of us would find something, and jump around to get the other's attention. But when I wanted to, I also felt free to just go off on my own. Chen said this was an important part of the design and that when they'd tried having more players in the game at once, it created a sense of social pressure if one member of what then became a group didn't want to go where everyone else was headed.

In a brief hour Journey gave me a tremendous flood of experiences. At the start, simply running across the dunes felt inspirational. The game creates a fantastic sense of this broad vista stretching to the horizon begging to be explored. Then I came across the ruins, and got to better know my character and the world though exploring them. And finally, when joined by another adventurer the whole nature of it all shifted as it wasn't just me playing, but neither was it there any place that the design forced us to play together.

Chen told me that the desertscapes that have been seen so far are only part of the environments in the full game. He hopes that players will get a sense of being on a pilgrimage when they play Journey. It's one I can't wait to make.

For more discussion on Journey, make sure to listen to Weekend Confirmed Ep. 63.

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