Sunday, 18 March 2012

Everyone's Journey

The PS3 (PlayStation 3) exclusive indie game 'Journey' was released this month to critical acclaim, and has since inspired passionate discussion about what defines a gaming experience, and what place games have in the media kingdom. The game, available on the PlayStation online store as a downloadable product; sees players controlling a red-cloaked figure wandering through a windswept desert.

The game world is minimalist yet flowing, melancholy yet expressive. A largely empty desert plays host to scattered ruins that bespeak a once-proud empire now destroyed. The player's goal is to reach an omnipresent distant mountain, capped in light, and the player constantly runs, jumps and soars towards this mountain; flowing red robes and scarf conveying movement perfectly. You do indeed soar in the game, but only for limited periods. The ability is recharged by finding magical fonts, and you can fly for longer by finding scraps of the embroidered scarf.

There is no obvious pressure or direction guiding the player to the next objective, no quest journal, on-screen arrow, or exclamation mark over a character's head. Just the distant mountain. It is in this way that the game utilises your most basic instincts, and, likewise, exploits the most basic fundaments of gaming to provide enjoyment. We are drawn to head towards the distant light-capped mountain, because that is the goal in front of us. We feel elation as our character glides over sand dunes, and empathy as our character struggles against a dust storm. All the way, we keep heading towards the goal, the end of the journey.

We are alone in this journey, but our passage is touched by intersections with others, who may aid us, ignore us or try to take us off track. Journey has online connectivity, and other players will run into you on your journey, as you will on theirs. There is no ID or dress customisation; your fellow traveller looks exactly the same as you do. The only communication is a basic chirp. The puzzles in the game are platforms that must be leaped and bridges that must be opened, and your enchanted scarf is used in clever ways in these basic puzzles. Many puzzles require, or are easier with, the assistance of another player. Communication and synchronisation between the two of you will be required to survive the journey, and generally the game encourages pleasant, helpful interaction. However, you are free to simply walk away from the other person, disappearing into the desert sands on your solitary path. Undoubtedly, some players will find ways to trick or inconvenience other players utilising the communication methods available. Ultimately, your paths will diverge and your friend will depart on his own journey, dissipating into the desert sands. Your journey is one you will take alone.

As art, the graphics have the elegance and form of minimalism and a vague surrealism in the figures and landscapes portrayed. However, the individual characters and objects are distinct and bear rich, restrained colours. Sandstone buildings and mountains can be interacted with, or stand silent in the distance. The ruins, tablets and mosaics speak of a once-proud empire now fallen, bringing to mind the vain boasts of Ozymandias. Soaring, subtle orchestral tracks form the majority of the game's music, with frantic bursts of sound during the many tense puzzle sequences.

This is a game made to utilise the most fundamental elements of the human psyche, the need for direction, the need for a goal, or an end to life's journey; the ability to enjoy happier moments and to struggle through obstacles, emerging through the other side of the storm. No complex instructions or guidance are necessary, as the few cues we see on our screen appeal to our instincts, providing basic goals and obstacles. As a gaming experience, Journey utilises the mountain as a goal for the player to work towards, providing an objective to the game. The ability to soar and interact with basic puzzles is the only element of control the player has over the character, but is used effectively to overcome the game's 'levels'- the bridges and ruins that need to be traversed.

Both as an experience and as a game, Journey provides an end that we are always approaching, and in between there are puzzles, lows, highs, and brief interactions with others. The question is whether the game was built around the experience ThatGameCompany wanted to offer, or whether the experience was built around basic gaming controls. At a mere three hours, and with such basic interaction necessitated, it makes gamers question our perception of what makes a game good value. Journey is a piece of art, an enjoyable if basic video game, and a memorable experience. If you can view the game in that light, it is highly recommended.

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