Journey: A Critical Analysis

The Player Meets the Mountain

Intro

The buzz is still deafening. “Beautiful,” “evocative,” and “transcendental” are only a few of the accolades used to describe Journey, a game released by thatgamecompany mid-March of last year.[i] Since the game’s release, Journey won five BAFTA’s and six GDC awards, broke PlayStation sales records to be the “fastest-selling PSN game ever released,” and was also nominated for a Grammy.[ii]

This much attention merits a closer inspection—What exactly is Journey? Fan responses to the game, while filled with praise, typically leave the non-player in the dark: “I have just finished Journey. I can’t even describe how or why it moved me, but it’s changed my outlook of what a game can be.”[iii] The player makes no mention of graphics or party systems, topics which would seem important to discuss when speaking of a new multiplayer game. Instead, the player expresses the emotional impact he received from playing and a changed perspective of gaming.

Traditionally, emotional experiences have been reserved for the classical arts and perspective changes towards games have occurred due to technological advances. And yet, critics are still debating whether video games can be considered art and Journey brings forth no radical technological advances. So how can a game elicit an emotion response and alter gaming perceptions without new technology? This essay will delve further into this question and explore what made Journey a commercial success as well as what elements we can look forward to thatgamecompany improving upon in the future.

What is Journey?

Journey is the third installment of a three game contract between thatgamecompany and Sony Entertainment. The first two games, Fl0w and Flower also received critical acclaim and were created by Jenova Chen for the purpose of studying flow in games. Flow, as defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a “state of being, one in which a task’s difficulty is perfectly balanced against a performer’s skill—resulting in a feeling of intense, focused attention” [iv]. These first two games illustrate this principle aptly.


In Fl0w, players control a microorganism in a pool of water. They can choose to eat, or not eat other organisms and dive deeper to face enemies at their own discretion. In Flower, players control the wind, collecting and blowing petals through the air to enliven dead industrial zones. Due to repetitive actions in both games, players are able to lose themselves in gameplay and focus their attention on being the biggest creature in the ocean or retaking the earth for nature. However, this attention is difficult to maintain. In Fl0w, challenge and skill intersected, but not at their highest potential crossing. Meaning the game has more room to challenge player skills, specifically in lacking gameplay variety. Flower experiences the same issues, even after implementing more gameplay mechanics, due to an environmental stasis. It is clear that in Chen’s third attempt at creating flow in games, he has succeeded in learning from his mistakes by not only adding more gameplay variety, but also different environments to test player’s skills.

While striving to continue to create flow in games, Chen began to study Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, a basic narrative pattern found in many myths from around the world. In the Monomyth, a “hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”[v] This narrative resonated not only with Chen’s film background, where the three act structure reigns supreme, but also with being a non-native English speaker. Chen’s aim then became to create a cinematic, multiplayer experience which “touched [audiences] by creating a universal emotion rather than a sophisticated emotion [that requires language]”.[vi] And that is exactly what Journey accomplishes.

On its surface, Journey is a 3D, 3rd person platformer where players control a hooded figure moving through seven environments towards a distant, mysterious mountain. Yet, intrinsically, it is a unique and touching immersion that completely reimagines the multiplayer experience through emotive game design accompanied by breathtaking aesthetics and brilliantly orchestrated sound.

Reimagined Multiplayer Experience

In a classic online gaming experience, it is easy to make assumptions about the people you encounter.  Is their gamertag X420xxBlaZerX? Did they string 20 expletives your way over the mic system? Did they camp in a corner near a spawn point? These typical experiences lead to negative connotations towards the online gaming community— which is ironic for a system that was created to facilitate fellowship during gameplay. Additionally, the extent to which you rely on your teammates seems to stretch only so far as “I’m out of ammo!” or “Resurrect me!” creating minimal instances of true kinship. [vii]

Journey strives to remove this stigma and exchange the “Help me” dependency relationship with an attitude that’s more empathetic and voluntary—a “Don’t worry. I’m with you” outlook.[viii] To accomplish this in gameplay, thatgamecompany looked to a hiking metaphor. In daily urban life, we pass scores of people every day without giving much thought to the amount of acknowledgement we give or receive. Yet, when hiking, the same experience undergoes a 180—when you encounter someone on a trail, you typically greet the stranger and take pleasure in knowing that you are both going through the same experience.

Journey recreates this hiking phenomenon by giving players a clean slate–no gamer tags, and no chatting. Identity and communication are reduced to a unique symbol on your character’s scarf and a button that allows you to ‘call’ your teammate. The multiplayer experience is also seamlessly integrated. Instead of having to wait for a server or to be matched, players merely need to enter a multiplayer area of the game. If someone else is playing the game and is in the same area you are, your games will combine.

While you could assume that seamless integration is the highlight of the multiplayer experience in Journey; it gets better. Where the game truly shines is how quickly players are able to form an emotional bond with their new companion. “The anonymity of Journey companions led to the most pleasant online experience I have had to date. I instantly bonded with those who joined me for the journey and felt almost heartbroken when we lost each other, which is possibly one of the single most bizarre things I have felt in a game…but in the best way possible.”[ix] Statements such as these can be found all over the internet when discussing companionship in Journey. But just how is Journey able to create such a meaningful multiplayer experience so consistently? The answer is no accident, but instead incredibly thoughtful and emotive game design.

Emotive Game Design

thatgamecompany wanted to understand why people seek out entertainment. Why do we buy tickets to a stand-up show or go to pubs to watch the game? Their research led them to the conclusion that people use entertainment as an emotional supplement. We want to share a common comedic experience with others, or the thrill of close calls and comradery of a sporting event. While these same activities could be done in the comforts of our own homes by ourselves, we choose to share the experience with others. When it came time to implement their findings into the game, thatgamecompany took a romantic approach—they wanted players to experience a shared struggle.

Players immediately begin building a rapport with their companion, even though interacting with this person is not necessary to complete the game. This occurs because the only two buttons available to users are ‘jump’ and ‘call’. Jumps are a precious commodity than can be recharged either by finding pieces of cloth or by pressing call near your companion. Thus, the seeds of comradery are planted.

The game then creates instances to facilitate bonding. During The Mountain, players are forced to take shelter from an overwhelming wind behind narrow pillars. You are physically forced into close proximity with your companion. Later on in the same level, the cold snow and harsh winds begin to freeze your character, making him walk slower. But if you stay close to your partner however, your character stays warmer and has a less difficult time climbing.

These bonding experiences make the departure of your companion at the end of The Mountain level emotionally difficult. The experience, as stated by a player at the end of the last section, leaves you ‘heartbroken,’ which can be interpreted to mean that thatgamecompany succeeded in creating empathic scenarios that set Journey’s multiplayer experience in a different ballpark than other cooperative games. The developer’s realized early on that innovation does not necessarily have to come from high resolution graphics or building a new engine. Instead, emotion is considered the innovation.

Journey is able to pack emotion into every element of gameplay, even outside of finding a companion. From the opening sequence, prior to the title, players are given a short peak into future mechanics. Your character is placed at the bottom of a sand dune and while you have full control of where to lead your character, you seem to be driven to climb to the top of the dune. When you reach the top, a grandiose mountain is revealed far off in the distance and the title appears. Based upon this short sequence alone, players are instantly made aware of their main objective, no tutorial or instructions necessary. The rest of the gameplay follows the same cues—developers never force a player to make a decision. One reviewer equated the game to a paintbrush, “Do what comes naturally and you create your own personal masterpiece.”[x] While your input is crucial to the painting, what really makes the piece remarkable is the immersive art and sound in the game.

Immersive Art & Sound

Arguably Journey’s strongest aspect is its breathtaking and already iconic art direction and character design. They seem to effortlessly speak to the player and bring out the amazement of a barren desert. The sand shines and sparkles as the sun begins to set, and dark caves show off a sense of wonder and mystery. Also impressive are how sand and snow alike stick to the traveler’s robes. Players often describe the first flight moment as ‘charming,’ which is an interesting emotion to evoke in the middle of a bleak environment.  As the game progresses though tunnels, temples and water worlds, more pieces of life are built upon incrementally, giving the player more clues as to the history of the location and more ways to emotionally imply meaning into the narrative.

An example of Journey’s simple yet gorgeous graphics.

Interestingly, Journey does not have a distinct narrative. Instead, through its gorgeous landscapes and exploration, the game moves players to ask questions: ‘Who lived in this world?’ ‘What happened to them? ‘‘Will the same fate happen to me?’ thatgamecompany’s Art Director, Matt Nova was tasked with creating a world which communicated these intensions as well as the company’s first humanoid character. After much iteration, he decided upon an androgynous creature with no arms and a concealed face. The lack of arms removed question of ‘why can’t I pick things up,’ while the concealed face allowed players to see themselves as the protagonists, as well as preventing making assumptions about your companions.

One of the first artistic elements to be created for Journey was its theme, composed by Austin Winters. The song was made on Austin’s first day on the project and when presented to the designers, strongly influenced world and character design. Likewise, when Austin was presented with new worlds to create melodies for, he based his music on the design. This back and forth engendered constant improvements, creating the beautiful work we see and hear today.

The music in Journey virtually becomes its own character. At the beginning of the game, the overture erupts at the player. However, as with every aspect of this game, it served a purpose—it allowed for the player to be emotionally cleansed prior to starting gameplay. As the gameplay strives to not force the players into decisions, neither does the score. There are no ominous cues to prime the player to expect danger.  Instead, the score starts out electronically and slowly incorporates more orchestra pieces as more life is introduced into the game. Since the game can be played to completion as a single player experience or with a companion, there is a different score for each route. If you have a companion with you, the score is tonally richer.

Potential improvements

When you consider everything that thatgamecompany has achieved with Journey and how impressive these feats are, they become doubly impressive when you remember that they are not a triple AAA studio with hundreds of people assigned to each element. Instead, they are a team of 9-12 people working in a small studio in Santa Monica, California. The project took them over three years to complete and drove the company into bankruptcy.[xi] While these limitations make their work more impressive, they also provide insight into what elements thatgamecompany made priorities and which features would have been implemented if more time allowed.

At GDC 2012, Chris Bell, Journey designer, gave a talk entitled, “Designing for Friendship: Shaping Player Relationships with Rules and Freedom.” He specifically asked, “What if in a game about discovery and transformation, you experience that transformation with someone else?”[xii] As we know from our above analysis of Journey’s multiplayer experience, they succeeded in actualizing this question. This means that the majority of thatgamecompany’s efforts were focused on co-op, art and sound. Meaning that in terms of crucial elements needed to create a game, game mechanics became the area of least attention.

One can argue that the designers purposely made the game minimalist to encourage flow. But if one was to remove all the gorgeous art and sound, all players are left with are a series of linear rooms and hallways that they traverse by walking, flying or surfing. Yes, there are cloth pieces to collect and shrines to activate, but there are no fatal enemies, no consequences and most noticeably, no ramping challenge—a necessary component to achieving flow.  Overcoming challenges is a journey that tests a player’s mind and skill sets through gameplay– the traditional core of videogames. But in Journey, players are collecting the same cloth pieces at the end of the game as they did in the opening sequences. For some, this could be dissatisfying.

A potential solution to this problem may lie in assigning value to the cloth pieces. This would give players external motivation to work together to reach the more difficult scarves. These puzzles could ramp in difficulty and directly affect game context in areas were players are helpless outside of dodging the freezing wind. The emotive core of being helpless would still be present, but giving the player the illusion of hope would make the experience more meaningful—players would have tried everything in their power to succeed but despite their best efforts, still failed.

thatgamecompany was still able to convey the ideas the developers most wanted to express without having to focus on being a ‘game’ in the traditional sense. But there are still a few specific areas that could have helped to express these ideas further with more mechanical attention. While the multiplayer experience is inventive, it does not allow players to bring their skill sets forward. Everyone is on the same playing field despite previous knowledge or playthroughs. There is no opportunity to discover or develop each player’s strengths and weaknesses.

An area in which strengths and weakness could be highlighted is the sentinel sequence. The only consequence for being spotted is the removal of a scarf piece. Even if a player were to lose all of their pieces, they cannot die.  Thus, there was no real need to hide or feel stressed. This sequence could easily be enhanced if players were dependent upon successful communication with each other as they moved from cover to cover and separated early if they failed. This simple addition would give value to communication outside of merely recharging your jump ability and enhance not only the emotive richness of the situation but also the core mission of the team to create a shared struggle.

Conclusion

After all this study, we are still left with the question of, “how can a game elicit an emotion response and alter gaming perceptions?” Primarily, we now know how to describe the experience and understand that Journey at its core ignores being a game in the conventional sense in order to convey ideas of discovery and transformation, not only within yourself but within another player. Journey’s ‘experimental co-op gameplay’ adds something new to the multiplayer genre, thus changing the community in which it resides. This cooperation experience is also further enhanced by breathtaking aesthetics and a thoughtful score.

Most notably, Journey’s experience is rare outside of this interactive medium, and it raises a compelling voice to the argument that games, due to their ability to explore the meaning of human nature, are, and have always been art. This is the perception altered by thatgamecompany. We knew that game developers can engage and inspire communities of people who value unconventional play and exploration, but we know now that they can also provide shared human experiences of support, comfort and loss, played out across vast distances, all with no shared language or communication, save the desire to reach a destination, together.


Melissa Borda is a VFS Game Design student


[i] Mallory, Jordan, “Journey Review: I Want To Go There”, Joystiq, March 1, 2012. http://www.joystiq.com/2012/03/01/journey-review-i-want-to-go-to-there/
[ii] thatgamecompany .“Awards and Recognition”. http://thatgamecompany.com/games/journey/
[iii] @B_Sqred. Twitter. March 26, 2012. https://twitter.com/B_Sqred/status/184490485535096832
[iv] Bogost, Ian. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Game Studio,” The Atlantic. March 15, 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/12/03/a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-game-studio/254494/
[v] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1949. p.23.
[vi, vii, viii] The Road Less Traveled: The Making of Journey. Perf. thatgamecompany. Pd Multimedia, 2012. Documentary included with Journey: Collector’s Edition (VG).
[ix] Gaston, Lewis. http://thatgamecompany.com/general/critical-and-fan-response-to-journey/
[x] Winter, Gerrard. “Journey Review: Why Can’t This Game Go On Forever.” March 13, 2012. http://www.indiegamemag.com/journey-review-why-cant-this-game-go-on-forever/
[xi] North, Dale. “Journey took thatgamecompany into Bankruptcy,” February 7, 2013. http://www.destructoid.com/journey-took-thatgamecompany-into-bankruptcy-244311.phtml
[xii] Bell, Chris. “Designing for Friendship: Shaping Player Relationships with Rules and Freedom.” http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1015706/Designing-for-Friendship-Shaping-Player