flOw and Flower developer thatgamecompany is making something new, Journey, a game that’s about singing, sand, hiking, cloth, surfing, astronauts and feeling small. And, in a radical departure for the team, it uses two whole buttons.
Journey is a multiplayer online adventure for the PlayStation 3 that aims to explore the emotional palette that its peers don’t, said thatgamecompany game designer Jenova Chen. He says he was inspired by a player’s feeling of empowerment, both in real life and in video games. In the real world, human beings are capable of knowing so much and being in constant communication, thanks to technology. In video games, players feel godlike in the way that they wield power, whether by wielding a rocket launcher or the invulnerability of playing as a virtual character.
It was further inspired by the works of Joseph Campbell and a lunch with astronaut Charles F. Bolden, Jr. Bolden, says Chen, relayed stories to the game designer about the spiritual awakenings of some of his Space Shuttle colleagues – previously “hardcore atheists” – after having spent some time on the moon, seeing Earth from such a great distance.
Chen called it “awe towards the unknown”.
There are many unknowns in Journey. Chen wouldn’t tell us much about the game’s story or ultimate goal, but he did tell us about its key mechanics. Journey is a game about exploring a world covered with and flowing with sand. Players, as the spindly character wearing a red robe, can walk, run and jump around the world. They can “surf” down sand dunes, ride waves of rippling sand and even draw sketches in it with their feet.
Journey, Chen says, is as much as a virtual hike as it is a story-drive adventure. It’s a story told without language, through symbols and secrets and glyphs. Those symbols can be seen on stone pillars and banners scattered throughout the world, and some will be delivered by other entities.
The PlayStation 3 game’s other big gameplay system is cloth. The player’s robes flow naturally in the wind, as do banners, flags and floating strips of fabric scattered throughout the world. Some are puzzles, some are clues.
In one sequence, we watched Chen jump up onto a trio of long ribbons flapping in the wind. They acted as platforming devices, turning from white cloth to red, covered in glyphs, when the player stepped on them. After walking across all three, a stream of fabric poured out of a rocky relic, forming a bridge.
In another sequence, Chen guided the player behind a series of sandy waterfalls, finding a huge banner, covered in glyphs. How all these items will inform the player is something of a mystery.
Near the end of the demo, in an area that wasn’t so sandy and featured a blue sky, we ran into one of Journey’s helpers. It was a white statue that emitted chunky, floating glyphs made of light. Those glyphs then redecorated the player’s robe with a new design. Chen didn’t clearly explain what this meant, saying it could be related to aging, your score, a status symbol or some type of new ability.
One ability that we haven’t addressed is the singing. It will help the player collect strips of fabric that are nearby and will “harmonise with other cloth players in the world,” Chen says.
Journey’s journey is one toward a mountain. It’s a brightly lit goal far in the distance that you’ll reach by observing and figuring out surfaces. You’ll ride sand and fly in getting to the mountain, Chen says, with the game’s enemies consisting of “obstacles that are proposed by nature”.
Along the way, you’ll see side attractions, run into fellow hikers in the world of Journey and solve puzzles together. You won’t verbally communicate with them. The game can be both competitive and cooperative, Chen says, if players choose to play it that way. There’s an end goal to Journey, it’s persistent and the hidden mysteries of the world encourage multiple playthroughs.
Chen described Journey as many things, including a “very good gallery or museum” and a way to form a “genuine connection” with other players.
While it sounds like Journey is still in the process of figuring itself out, in some ways, the game isn’t due until (hopefully) next year.