2013 has been a very robust and interesting year for the indie game community. From the existentially hilarious walkathon of The Stanley Parable to the far-too-realistic nightvision jump-scarefest of Outlast (aka I swear I’ll play it…tomorrow), the indie market continues to prove itself a diverse and entertaining stomping ground. One particular game from the indie releases of yesteryear has caught quite a bit of attention, and with a well-timed SteamWinter Sale I was lucky enough to come across it myself and pick it up. The game I speak of is Papers, Please.
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.