e3 2010

What Is The Mystery Behind Journey?

by Matt Miller on Jun 17, 2010 at 04:30 PM

The team behind Flow and Flower is moving on to a third project that was revealed to a small group of journalists during the final hour of this year's E3. The remarkable new game, entitled Journey, is just as thoughtful and artful as thatgamecompany's previous projects, but understanding it is a whole other matter.

The inspiration for Journey arose from several sources. Chen described a lunch meeting many months ago he had with a real life NASA shuttle pilot. The pilot explained that he had never set foot on the moon (he was piloting), but he had traveled with others who had. Without exception, he said, these people came back changed, with a new spiritual and emotional perspective on life brought on by the sense of isolation and vastness they felt standing upon the lunar surface. Chen was fascinated by this phenomenon, and decided to explore the concept in his upcoming game. Chen also spoke about how the nature of many modern video games was about the fantasy of power, and he was interested in creating a game that evoked the opposite sensibility -- a sense of powerlessness brought on by being alone and isolated. Such a game character would crave contact with others, in the same way people in real life seek out connections and meaning through relationships. In addition, Chen noted a personal fascination with the comparative mythology writings of Joseph Campbell, the same author George Lucas often cites as an inspiration to Star Wars. Campbell's concept of the hero's journey is central to many narratives of the 20th and 21st centuries.

From this stew of ideas, Journey began to take shape. The game begins as the player/character wakes on a vast open desert filled with sweeping sand dunes and blowing wind. A beautiful, lonely cello melody picks up in the soundtrack. The main character is an unusual figure in a long red cloak. He can walk with the left stick, pan the camera with the six-axis tilt, jump, and let out a keening song with another button.These are the only controls. Climbing to the peak of a nearby dune, the player can see a distant mountain that exudes a pillar of light into the sky. With nowhere else to go, the strange mountain becomes the definitive destination for the game that follows.

As the red-cloaked hero runs along the dunes, the ground responds like real sand, tumbling down around his footfalls, and letting him slide down steep surfaces. The sand has an almost magical quality; it rolls and rises like sea waves that break against the dunes. The hero can catch these waves, and surf along them as if they were water.

He passes strange waist-high rocks that chime as he passes, but there's no immediate explanation for their behavior. Later, he reaches a cliff and leaps off, and glides down hundreds of feet along the wind. In the stone-strewn sandy plain beyond, he finds scraps of cloth that look just like his cloak. By singing, the cloth is gathered to him. Then, by expending the scraps, he is able to fly for brief stretches. Strange mysteries abound in the vast desert, like waterfall-like sand rivers that hide dark caves behind them. Elsewhere, huge billowing pieces of cloth can be mounted to use as a sort of platform to reach high areas, somehow magically supporting the character's weight.

As the hero continues to explore and uncover elements of the desert, some of the cloth he finds begins to form a bridge between massive pillars of rock. Crossing the bridge, he encounters a strange stone monolith that comes to life and bestows a ring of symbols upon the hero's cloak. There are no words spoken, and the meaning of the symbols is unclear. Turning away, the hero heads back into more deep desert. Then, as the demo is about to close, another figure is seen in the distance, runniing across a dune. It is another player, just like the hero. With this reveal, the demo fades to black.

Journey will attempt to blend the single player quest to reach the mountain with an intriguing multiplayer concept. From time to time, a single player will run into another player wandering the wastes. These are actual other players who are online, but they cannot speak, and you won't necessarily see their online tag. Instead, this other player is a sort of social experiment. How will you react? Do you ignore this lone other player, and leave them behind? Will you try to communicate with them through your movements and the strange song your character can sing? Will you help them find secrets out in the desert that you've already uncovered? Jenova Chen likens the experience to being on a long hike. From time to time, you encounter other hikers. Perhaps you join them. Perhaps not. But meeting them in the isolation of the wilderness has a unique quality that Journey will attempt to explore. Chen hopes to re-imagine traditional online multiplayer experiences, and expand the emotional palette we've come to expect in a video game.

Our look at Journey left us with far more questions than answers. But, of course, that's part of the charm of thatgamecompany's poetic and contemplative games. Journey is definitely heading in a new direction for the small development team, but the thoughtful and engaging concepts that the studio is known for appear to be in full effect. Journey will release in 2011 exclusively for the PlayStation Network. Until then, we'll have to wait and wonder what it's all about.