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Climbing Mountains of Beautiful Sand in Journey

We've played with Jenova Chen's crazy multiplayer experiment.

I have no problem saying Flower was my favorite game of 2009. That any game was able to make Sixaxis controls fundamentally interesting is remarkable enough, but Flower was something special, a calming experience more therapy than game. It’s why I’ve been acutely interested in thatgamecompany’s next experiment, Journey. At first glance, it looks…traditional.

I say that as though it’s a dirty word, but only because the abstraction in thatgamecompany’s projects are part of the appeal. I knew there was more to this, so when I had the chance to play the first 15 minutes or so of the game and speak with designer Jenova Chen, we immediately dove into Chen’s intentions with Journey--and how he’s kind of sort of messing with you.

Journey, like Flower, is about isolation. You’re piloting an avatar this time around, which grounds the gameplay into constructs basically all players will be immediately familiar with. You can jump, collect power-ups that amplify the power of those abilities over time, and solve simple puzzles required to make progress. When the game opens, as you catch your bearings, you’re in the middle of a massive desert with very few buildings, objects or characters. You’re alone.

Journey reveals its “a-ha” moment when another character appears, one who looks very much like you. They look like you because they are you, they just happen to be another player who could be on the other side of the world or down the block for all you know. There are no nicknames, real names or even an indication the character’s not secretly driven by artificial intelligence. You don’t have to cooperate with them, either. That choice is up to both of you.

== TEASER ==

Unfortunately, this feature wasn’t working when I sat down the play the game, but I asked Chen to explain why he chose to strip the multiplayer down to its most core components.

“We decided to focus on innovating the feeling between two players in the digital space,” said Chen. “In a world like this, if you see another player, you will feel like you want to get close to him. In a big city, you’re walking [a] downtown street, you don’t care about [people], because they’re everywhere. You care about your cell phone or whatever. But if you go to the mountain, go to the wild, hiking, you’re so small, you don’t feel you know a lot about the world. You’re insecure. Whenever you run into another person, you naturally want to go and say hi to them. Very simple psychology. I wanted to see an online game where we delivered the mountain.”

Chen decided to push back on traditional multiplayer design because he’s plays a bunch of multiplayer games himself, from Left 4 Dead to Street Fighter IV. While a fan of competition, he became tired of competition. Even when cooperation does occur, it’s forced.

“The fact that you have two-player online, the social experience is there, asking for you to explore, but most games, 90% of the time, you’re shooting zombies,” he said. “You only get 10% time to look at each other and usually that’s forced. People kill me before we reach the end; they steal my health pack. I think if we really want to make people feel better towards each other and have a different impression compared to what the general consensus of online play is, you need to design a game differently. “

You can finish Journey without working with another player, but that's your choice. Chen wants that to be your decision. When solving puzzles in Portal 2’s co-op mode, you’re doing so because you booted up co-op. What if someone appeared in the middle of the single-player experience and asked to help? You’d probably turn them down, wouldn’t you? I know I would. And besides Journey intentionally masking names, your Bluetooth headset means nothing; you can't talk.

"When you run into another player [in Journey], you don’t think about ‘oh, this character’s hot, this character has history.’" said Chen. "You think ‘okay, this is another person who’s controlling the same kind of thing and I know that’s a person.’ That interaction happens at the level of a human being. I know someone’s playing a game. I don’t know how old he is, what gender he is or she is, but I can tell he’s a human, I can tell he’s doing things, I can tell he’s trying to communicate with me. I think, at that level, the multiplayer’s the most beautiful. As soon as you have language, you have ‘okay, this guy is clearly a twelve-year-old.’"

He (it?) has no feet and no arms. Creepy.
He (it?) has no feet and no arms. Creepy.

I'm not the first and I won't be the last person to draw comparisons to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. If you were told Journey was a Team ICO project, you wouldn't blink. Chen doesn't have a problem with the comparison, arguing both him and designer Fumito Ueda are actually designing around the same ideas of establishing emotional connections. Even in my brief time spent with Journey, the wide open vistas, flowing sand (by far the most impressive use of Sweet Sand Technology I've seen) and long, quiet moments of running in isolation brings echos of Ueda.

"Ico is trying to use the environment to focus on the connection between the main character and the girl," said Chen. "We are using that same feeling, which is more of a sense of wonder and not knowing, to force the players to be together. It’s kind of interesting that I heard Shadow of the Colossus was supposed to be a multiplayer game. It makes sense. Fortunately, they didn’t do that because of the limitations of PS2. We get to do that here! I don’t feel bad if people say ‘oh, this is kind of like Shadow of the Colossus’ because really we are trying to go for a similar feel in a multiplayer game."

And even though Journey appears to look more traditional, the controls are not. You might be tempted to look around the world with the right analog stick but the game won't let you. Tilt the controller around, however, and you've discovered the camera controls. Chen admitted the team has not made a final decision on whether the camera controls will be locked to Sixaxis. We had a lengthy off-the-record discussion about the merits of forcing players into this unorthodox camera method. For my money, I dug the deliberate, methodical approach to looking around. Sixaxis moves slower, and you shouldn't be rushing through Journey. You're meant to slowly take in what's around you. That said, Journey isn't Flower and I can see people upset at limited options.

With thatgamecompany, however, one expects subversion. Journey looks poised to deliver that. We'll see if players decide to engage with Chen's multiplayer experiment later on this year.

"I want to see a genuine choice of two human beings of wanting to be together," he said. "I think the connection between the players after they go through the journey together will be much, much stronger than a forced experience. To me, that’s a big experiment. The game design is very, very challenging. I’m glad that we’re using a more traditional adventure game form. That’s also what I want to do if I get to make an adventure game."

Patrick Klepek on Google+