|A screenshot from the beginning of the game. Really.|
Many of you has already heard plenty about this game and its genre transcendence. The controls are so simple, anyone could play and finish it. Only takes about two hours, depending on your pace. About the length of a movie. And yet it does something that movies cannot do very often, which is capture the imagination and leave you fully captive to the world created here. One of the critical features that allows this is the music, which perfectly follows the flow of the experience. I'm listening to it right now, remembering and re-experiencing moments from the tale. There are no lyrics. And within the gameplay, the story is exclusively told through some ancient tablets which indicate the fate of a lost kingdom.
Your goal is always clear: reach the top of the mountain. It gets closer and closer as you travel up and down sandy slopes and through ruins. But I won't spoil it. This isn't even a review, though I would certainly give Journey a perfect score, as I would Portal 2, To the Moon, and Bastion, three other games that aren't games, to different extents. I mentioned "genre transcendence", which may mean nothing in most reviews, because most journalism deals in sensationalism and empty superlative expressions. By "genre transcendence", I mean that this is not a video game. Time to qualify that declaration!
Historically, games have evolved based on hardware and budget restrictions, much like film. We could spend a long time dwelling on the similarities here, but I'll leave it at that simple comparison. The first video game, "Tennis", was Pong. We all know Pong. It was you versus a computer that didn't lose. The AI was simply programmed to always play perfectly, and your job was survival. Later iterations included more "stupid" AI, which would semi-randomly decide to mess up and stoke your generous ego. Really, it was a simulation of a simple sport. But it did not take long for "Story" games to appear. These games were simulations of tabletop role-playing games (like Dungeons & Dragons), which allowed the user to replace his or her friends with an automated response system. "DRINK YE FLASK" was interpreted by the program and a response was generated. Meanwhile, other games were developing movement and becoming fancier sport simulator. It didn't take long before people decided to combine storytelling with gameplay, and the two managed to blend fairly well, as developers were almost all pretty independent and were required to do everything themselves. Which is really hard. But despite these limitations and the weakness of commercial success, people kept making games. Fast-forwarding a bit, graphics got good enough so that reality could be properly represented by pixels, and gameplay became homogenized to appeal to the broadening market.
Nintendo and Sega produced simple 2-dimensional side-scrollers with marginal stories that we could and should ignore, and with gameplay that was addicting. And addiction was seen as success. Get people to play your games as long as possible and you know you're a solid developer. While this may seem like flawed reasoning, games were and are not inexpensive purchases, and so your $50 needed to be justified by at least dozens of hours of entertainment.
Anyway, gameplay and story were necessarily separated at this point by the increasing number of large "AAA" studios, which were ever-intent on producing hyper-realistic graphics. Also of note was the fact that Japan ruled the mainstream gaming world, and that PC games were almost all independently created, allowing a smoother but less-polished marriage between gameplay and story. Shifting forward a few more years, Japanese games stayed the same while American studios became the ones to push new trends on a mainstream level. This is a topic for another day, but many of the newer games were and are more centered on violence as a selling point. Regardless, stories are getting more absurd by the year. At least with the large companies. They can't manage the weight of their own technical perfection. And so games like Mass Effect may look great and have extremely interesting concepts lurking for those who seek them, but remain shackled by the perceived truth that the market wants games that are good-looking, violent, last forever, and free of major bugs.
In order to eliminate bugs, games are built on existing code, and old 3D models are recycled for new franchises, which are fairly uncommon. Violence is created by forcing the story to focus around some sort of violent conflict (war or zombie apocalypses, generally). Your job is to kill things, sometimes in creative ways. Artists are still doing their jobs. Infinitely long games are produced by creating giant and open worlds that take a long time to navigate, which inspires exploration. Developers make the world bigger in expensive downloadable expansions. And multiplayer skirmishes against strangers make games, like sports, endless conflicts.
These trends are apparent, and I am sure you have recognized them to an extent, but, far from complain about the lack of value these time-wasters provide, let's contrast them with Journey and discover what truths separate them. Journey is almost completely bug-free. It uses a stable physics engine with some tweaks to make sand the coolest thing in existence. In fact, it is much more bug-free than complicated billion-dollar franchises. But that is only due to the length of the story and the narrowness of the focus. More on that in a second. There is no real violence in the world. There is no enemy. One may argue that the stone snakes (really disturbing) that appear and may attack you at different points are enemies, but since you do not understand them, you can do nothing but fear them when they show up. But they are a relic of the past, spoken of by historical tablets you pass, and help to tell the story of the fall of a nation. Journey's length has been oddly controversial. The price usually hovers around $10, which is what you would pay to watch a movie in the theater, and half of what you would pay (retail) for a DVD version. If you compare it that way, the cost seems very reasonable. And yet we expect our games to last a very long time. But that brings up an important question: why do we even play games?
I've played games since my early childhood, and so I never had to question their value. They were fun. I think the reason I considered them fun was because they allowed me to do things in another world. My imagination always loved them. I always wanted to create my own. Up until around 2004 or so. That year, I did not stop playing them. But I think there was a shift in my focus. They became an escape from the pressures and annoyances of school and the social life that I never wanted to have, being an awkward introvert. Games were played to burn time. I still had fun playing them in a sense, but not really. Eventually, I went on my mission to Guatemala, slightly addicted to games, but not enough that it made me dysfunctional. Still, I had to learn how to be socially functional. Upon returning, I dove back into some of the games that I thought I had missed out upon in not playing them, but it seemed an empty experience, and so games stopped mattering. Halo was the only exception, because I played that with a jock-like desire for victory in something. I suppose most guys have it. Eventually, even that got intolerable and seemed a great waste of free time. During all this, however, a few great games (again, Portal 2, Bastion, To the Moon, and Journey) managed to fall into my lap, and all of them share a few important traits.
1. Length--The longest of these titles is Portal 2, clocking in at a paltry 7 hours or so. And that game was $50, so the price is proportionately the same. Bastion was 4 hours long, To the Moon was 3.5 hours long. Do I wish there was more content? Yes and no. I would like to see the stories adapted to new material, but they told their stories fully. They all felt finished. More so than games like Skyrim or Halo 4, where you never really reach any great conclusion. And the stories were far more profound and integrated than average titles today. I laughed (and cried, in To the Moon's case) and felt far more in their tightly woven tales, despite the linearity present. Speaking of that...
2. Linearity--There are some open-ended games that manage to create strong stories. Well, at least they appear to do so. The best moments are always tightly scripted, and though each of us plays differently, the regularity is needed to fully involve us. As in every movie, camerawork and music can greatly enhance the power of any story. Remind me to tell you about Click with Adam Sandler the next time we chat. It's the oddest touching part I've ever seen, and it just sort of shows up out of nowhere in a terrible movie. Anyway, Journey is linear. If you try and break out of the confines of the trail, the game swiftly redirects you to the only course. And you do not mind.
3. Music--Games have some really great music, which is a shame, considering the immaturity (said with a few connotations) of the medium. Iconic songs from Mario and Zelda define the franchises for us. Without music, most games would be a shadow of themselves. All four of the games that I listed have completely custom soundtracks that were created for different scenes and elements in the game. I just realized I bought the soundtrack for each of them, which is not something I do as often as I might. Journey uses its sound to great effect. Watch and listen.
I wrote all this about a month ago, and had planned on just letting this post die (in the drafts folder) like many of the other ones I have in my elephant graveyard of a Blog. But I like this post, dangit. So there.
So, Journey and a few other games manage to transcend the medium. Coincidentally, J.J. Abrams (of Star Trek and soon-to-be Star Wars directing) fame and the businessman behind Portal 2 had a discussion this last week on stage about games and movies. From Wired.com's article:
Abrams and Newell made the surprise, succinct announcement at the end of their keynote speech, which took the form of a carefully rehearsed discussion between the two creatives about the strengths and weaknesses of games and movies as storytelling mediums.
“Players are often asked to imprint themselves or relate to insanely mute empty vessels,” Abrams said, playing a clip from Valve’s Half-Life that showed its mute protagonist Gordon Freeman.
Newell pointed out that it can be frustrating for a viewer to not have agency while watching a movie, pointing to Abrams’ film Cloverfield as an example — why, he said, doesn’t the character just drop the camera and run away from the danger? The “self-paced” nature of games, he said, can create a more optimal experience.
“Movies let you experience moments that you might not think are the point, but really are everything,” Abrams said, pointing to the early introduction of compressed air canisters in the opening scenes of the movie Jaws, which initially seem unimportant but prove consequential to the film’s ending. Newell pointed out that the “take your child to work” scene in Portal 2 accomplished the same thing, setting up important plot points in a way that made them initially seem like humorous throwaways.
Abrams correctly mentions one of the limitations and potential strengths of games: Our main characters are necessarily almost mutes, devoid of personality. At some point, someone decided that gamers would rather become the character than direct him/her/it in a film-like manner. I don't think this has always been the case. It is even apparent in some recent games that developers are attempting to make the main character their own person, even though that seems odd, considering players are still manipulating every one of their actions. Mass Effect is an example of a game where your character has a personality, and a freedom of expression that is impossible to provide in movies (since the ending will always be the same, as will the journey). That's the idea, anyway. However, your character is an idiot with words, and it is frustrating to see him/her fail so miserably at self-expression. It's easy to see why most developers don't even try. Mass Effect had something like 400,000 lines of dialogue per game, and a crew of over 1000 developers, not to mention a budget as big as any movie's budget.
And so, if our character must be bland if the player is to have any choices, we sacrifice the character. In the games that I mentioned, each character is interesting, but not really important.
I wish that game developers would borrow more from movies. Personally, I hate the Walking Dead, but the game version of the story was the top-rated game of last year, and it was mostly an interactive story. So there's a market for it. Actually, I predict that it will become a very strong portion of the market. If you're anything like me, you don't really play games anymore, though you still think they are cool. If you play a game, it is for the social/competitive aspect of it. So, why am I sitting here on a Saturday afternoon talking about games like I play them? Well, I want to play them, but most do seem like a waste of time, because that's the purpose we have given to them. Games are a combination of every kind of entertainment, and the only kind that is flexible. Everything music, movies, and television can offer can all be contained within a single game, and can provide a unique experience upon repetition. But games are still juvenile. This is certainly a discussion for another day, but the game industry mistakes maturity for vulgarity or edginess. Games never grew up. And I imagine it's because the creators spend too much time not growing up. It works for some games, like the Mario titles Nintendo keeps spitting out, because there is a need for catering to children in a Pixar-like fashion. But titles like Call of Duty or Gears of War or Battlefield or Resistance or Assassin's Creed or Killzone or Resident Evil or Skyrim or Manhunt or Far Cry or Dead Island are all limited by their insistence on maturity. I'll write about this somewhere else, but the blood spurts are a clear example of the pointless catering to the lust for violence that immature developers think we all have. Seriously, why does blood go flying everywhere when we cut someone in a game? It flies everywhere. Bleh. We're all just closet psychopaths.
That was a lot of digression. Back to Journey real quick. It taught me about human nature.
In Journey, multiplayer is an odd and unique and special thing. So, as you're making your way toward your goal off in the distance, other characters that look like you will show up, one at a time. There is no name presented, and you can't speak to them through a microphone. But they are distinctly human. You can communicate through quiet bell sounds and jumps controlled with a single button. It is imprecise, but it works, somehow.
The first time someone showed up, I was a bit annoyed. After all, this was my story, and they had probably already seen the end. I hate watching movies with people that they have already seen before me, and that feeling translated to the game. So I ignored the other player and did a bit of exploring in a simple open puzzle area. They followed me, and, even though it was apparent that they had already played the game before, they let me lead the way. If I had to guess, the other player was certainly an adult with a solid life. And yes, I had to guess.
Eventually, that person disappeared and I was left alone, which suited me just fine, because I felt less pressured to get to the end or to remain focused. But when the next person showed up, I decided to race them. Apparently, if you get too far ahead, the other person disappears. So I ditched them. And regretted it, since I hadn't been paying enough attention to things and probably missed out on some items scattered about.
The game got more somber and dark, and I found myself with a new companion in an underground ruin. The music was sinister, and my companion was almost certainly a young person, since they were constantly making music and expending their energy. Playing it cool, I lead the way, eventually coming upon the only thing that could be considered an enemy in the story. It spotted us, and though I avoided it, my companion was attacked and lost some of the scarf that had been growing up to that point. I rushed to the poor person's side, though there was nothing to do but chime and wait for them to recover. But it seemed the proper thing to do. The same thing happened to me in the next room, and so we both stumbled on.
Another partner showed up out of nowhere. It seemed like their first time too, but I decided to lead the way. Definitely an adult, because they responsibly split up the task of lighting up some statues with me. As we came to a new part, they signaled with a bunch of chimes, which was meant to be a farewell, as they sat down and logged out.
Alone again, I was happy. Introversion translates to video games, and being alone can be wonderful on its own. So I took my time and enjoyed the next part, eventually getting to the foot of the mountain toward which I had been traveling for the past hour or so. Partway up the path, I met up with another person more chatty than myself but also more reserved in using his/her abilities. The temperature dropped, and so we were forced to huddle together along the path to retain our energy (which was restored by proximity). We were together for a long time, and covered each other when we were attacked, though we still took a beating. And, eventually, well, the end happened. I left that person behind and enjoyed the freedom of the last few minutes.
It was a very different experience than one would expect from a game. During the credits, the IDs of my companions were revealed, and confirmed some of my theories about what kind of people they were. For example, the one guy I felt compelled to race was named "Broncofan435435" or something. The young fellow who followed me was "Monkeysomething454." Names are important, especially when we give them to ourselves.
And that's the end of my giant post. As always, feedback would be appreciated. If not, well, I had fun rambling on about something I enjoy. Or at least want to enjoy again. If I have time.