It begins with a shrouded figure awakening in the desert, with no recollection as to who they are or what they're supposed to do, and only a glowing mountain in the distance to guide them. The journey to that mountain and to its answers--that's the game.
As with flOw and Flower, the story is told through gameplay--there's no verbal communication, no explanatory texts to collect--with players coming to understand the mysterious glyphs and murals through puzzle-solving and experimentation.
"We will tell a story without using any language," vowed creative director Jenova Chen.
The twist, however, is that Journey has online multiplayer.
"We wanted to re-imagine an online experience, where the player doesn't feel that powerful, rather they feel small and feel in awe towards the world," explained Chen. "And when two players, who both feel small, meet in an online experience, it will be quite different from two players who both have a rocket launcher in their hands."
Not only does Journey have online multiplayer--I'll get back to that in a few moments--it also has a more traditional control scheme than thatgamecompany's previous works. Unlike flOw and Flower, which saw players tilting the controller to move around, Journey assigns movement to the analog stick, with players literally tilting the controller to move the camera around. Only two other buttons, jump and call, are used.
One early puzzle, and the only one we were shown, saw the wanderer stuck in a valley--a portion of the bridge to the other side had collapsed, forcing an exploration of that valley in hopes of a solution. Fragments of cloth littered the landscape, and by collecting them--either manually or using "call" button while nearby--the wanderer was able to temporarily fly, but it still wasn't enough to get across the gap.
Eventually, Chen came across a series of tapestries blowing in the wind, all of them red except for the one at the end, which was bright white. After touching the white tapestry, it released several portions of cloth that repaired the bridge.
The multiplayer component of Journey isn't intrinsically competitive or cooperative. As Chen tells it, players will, from time to time, come across another wanderer as they're exploring the world. What these players choose to do from there is entirely up to them. The whole affair can be tackled solo, if a player so desires.
The concept is similar to hiking, he explained. "You go to hike by yourself and sometimes you see another hiker. You guys can choose to hike together, have a great experience together. But if you don't like this guy, you can just walk off. That's more like a close description of what [Journey] will be. Is it competitive? If the two guys like to be competitive, they could be competitive. Is it collaborative? It could be collaborative."
Interestingly, players will only be able to communicate through their actions and their use of the call button to make noise--Journey won't support online voice chat. At some points, players will be able to write messages by walking in the sand--"Certainly, we have some people leaving penises on the sand," Chen laughed--though the effectiveness of this technique will depend on the flow of wind and sand.
"Our focus is on the connections between two strangers on the Internet," he elaborated. "You notice there's no name tags or anything, because we want to keep it just at a level of interaction between two humans. You don't even need to know whether this is a guy or girl ...This game is more about a genuine connection that communicates through actions, through gameplay. I felt if we actually had voice chat there, it would actually distract the player from the feel of the game, they would more care about who this chick or guy is and how old they are."
Still, Chen promises that "if you really like someone, you will be able to find out [who they are]," teasing "we have our ways, that doesn't interrupt the game."
He also took a moment to preemptively address concerns that the game would use the same color scheme throughout and thus become visually tiresome--a latter section of the game had a bright blue sky and much more lightly colored sand, and expressed his hopes that hidden areas--such as a cave tucked away behind the sand equivalent of a waterfall--will help encourage exploration and multiple playthroughs.
As for stereoscopic visuals or PlayStation Move support, Chen was unsure. "I'm willing to see how this game will look in 3D, but we don't have any particular agreement yet on whether we will support it. Move, I'm very interested in the Move control, but when we started the game we didn't have enough information about Move. Most of the stuff is designed for the conventional controller. I think for now, we're still focused on that."
Without a doubt, the gorgeous visuals and intriguing concept behind Journey drew me in unlike anything else I saw at E3 2010, but it was also, regrettably, a game barely talked about, as it was only formally demonstrated an hour before the show closed.
"Hopefully next year," as Chen pegged the release window, never felt so far away.
Exclusive to the PlayStation 3 and its online PlayStation Store, thatgamecompany's Journey will be released as a digital download "hopefully next year."
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Best looking game I've seen in a long time. That is fuckin' art direction, right there.