What Are You Playing?
Beyond Definitions of Game


This critique contains a few minor spoilers.

JourneyWhat happens when you fund a small, ambitious and creative development team for a few years of experimentation? They come back with something beautifully unforgettable like Journey.

The most consistently depressing aspect of being interested in the aesthetic dimensions of play is the sheer vacuity of the typical videogame release schedule. While there are always oddities and curiosities being put out into the wild, the interesting titles are by-and-large tiny, low budget projects – and just as the film industry lavishes its attention primarily on feature films not shorts, so the games industry similarly lavishes its attention on the bigger games, those able to create a compelling world, or push forward the envelope of representation by sheer force of funding. The sad truth is that very few game developers get a chance to indulge in making artistically-motivated projects, and fewer still get a few million dollars to do so. My joy at what thatgamecompany have been able to do with the money their current patron, Sony, has afforded them is tempered by the stark knowledge that this is all too unique a situation. A great deal of creative talent is stifled by a funding gap that is greater than in any other medium today.

Journey has its aesthetic roots sunk deeply into the work of another artistically-motivated developer under Sony’s patronage, namely Fumito Ueda’s Team Ico, creators of Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, which they are named after. But whereas those particular games are hymns of praise to the deeply masculine experience of overcoming challenge and adversity (the emotional experience of triumph or fiero that is central to violent videogames), Journey is guided by an admirable restraint that allows it to explore genuinely new play experiences. Make no mistake – the aesthetic territory explored by Ueda-san is the unavoidable progenitor to Journey’s feel, but Jenova Chen and his dozen-strong team have managed to take that inspiration and build on it in unique ways.

If it were not for, shall we say, the excessive minimalism of Shadow of the Colossus, I doubt Journey could even have been conceived. This style of development focuses resources into narrow areas, thus allowing much of the typical game design deadwood to be trimmed away while the surviving features benefit from increased refinement and prominence. For Ueda-sans famous game, the attention is paid primarily to the colossi, which perfect the well-established Boss formula into something capable of delivering a rare additional emotional experience: regret. For Journey, its the world that all the attention is lavished upon, as a sequence of carefully crafted environments are presented to the player with an exquisite eye for delivery. Understated framing of viewpoint, including camera cases within which the player remains largely in control, are used to show off the beauty of the spaces the team have crafted. This landscape requires only patience to cross, and those with the willingness to meekly submit to the experience will be justly rewarded for their persistence.

There are slight problems with the breadth of appeal that perhaps need to be acknowledged. Just as Shadow of the Colossus was an artistically-motivated game destined to be played and loved by a comparatively small cadre of a million or so players, all of whom were highly literate with the complex controls required for entering 3D synthetic worlds, so Journey will not appeal to anyone who has not already spent considerable time out in the digital frontiers. If thatgamecompany believe this can be played by non-gamers, they are surely mistaken – such players will require a helpful guide present in the same room if they are to overcome the potentially baffling controls. Even though only two buttons are used, their function is quite arcane (and presented with minimal explanation) such that some players – even when able to explore the world competently – are still unable to describe in words quite how they are doing what they are doing. It’s a minor issue in many ways, since this game will be loved by its players, and it is to Journey’s considerable credit that it strims back its control suite to a comfortable minimum of two actions – sing and fly. Nonetheless, prior experience of videogames is a necessity for appreciating Journey. That said, no-one is going to begin admiring paintings with a Mondrian or a Picasso: adequate preparation is often a requirement for fully appreciating artworks.

Where the game truly exceeds expectations is by taking influence from a comparatively obscure title, namely Tale of Tales’ The Endless Forest, a massively multiplayer screensaver which invites players to interact with one-another as deer. Within that particular world, players could not enact any act of violence and could only behave as a deer would behave – creating a kind of collective performance art that was further facilitated by the absence of written or spoken communication. Each animal was identified solely by a unique glyph, and from my experience of that particular game it seems players seldom met the same deer twice. This idea is taken up in Journey (the team acknowledge the influence of the earlier game in an online interview) as each player’s traveller is similarly identified by a unique symbol that appears stitched into the front of their robe, and hangs in the air whenever they use their button to sing. As the player explores the world, they meet other players (provided they have opted to sign in to Playstation Network) in a way that owes a debt to what was pioneered by Tale of Tales, but once again takes it further.

Throughout Journey, the player is repeatedly paired with other players who are at the same point in their pilgrimage to a distant mountain. Sometimes these other players fail to notice or care and push on regardless, leaving their fellow travellers alone in the desert. Sometimes, however, they stop and sing to one another, communicating through a strangely beautiful piping and chiming voice that varies according to the frequency with which the button is pressed. There is no way to enact violence against the other – you can help, or you can leave: those are the only choices. The result is unexpectedly rewarding: players are actively encouraged by the design to co-operate, indeed, co-operating is the most rewarding course of action from beginning to end. Experienced players even return to the game (which can be completed within two hours) in order to render aid to fellow travellers. This carefully designed co-operative circumstance draws an entirely new experience out of the online multiplayer concept – you cannot help but help, since even if you wished to cause grief to the other player all you can really do is complete the progression of challenges ahead of them, making their journey easier.

The developers describe Journey as an “interactive parable”, and there are two distinct stories at work here. Firstly, the story of the world, a mythic-but-familiar tale of the hubristic fall of civilisations, told in short, mandatory mosaic sequences that appear between sections. This is the game’s least successful element, for although the exposition of the backstory is elegantly presented, it is also intrusive and unavoidable, and becomes wasteful of the player’s time during replay when the game becomes more overtly game-like. This is a minor complaint, however, as it is the second story – the tale of each individual journey – that really shines, and these emerge from the random pairing of players cloaked in an anonymity that forges a bond between strangers. This is not to suggest that a player who explores this world on their own will not enjoy themselves – the odyssey is sufficiently well-crafted to entertain any gamer who can bear to give up the adolescent power fantasies that fuel so many other videogames. Nonetheless, you can’t fully appreciate what Journey achieves until you’ve experienced its “massively co-operative” online play.

Journey is not just a rarity for being a well-funded artgame, nor for exploring the frontiers of the vast uncharted play space beyond videogame violence, but also because this is a game which willingly touches upon the spiritual. It would certainly be possible to offer a more subtle presentation of these issues – but since other games never come even remotely close to such matters, this must surely be forgiven. Besides, my sense is that a great many players (although perhaps not all those who will encounter it) will be genuinely moved by where Journey takes them, and some of the emotional tones it is able to touch are just slightly further afield than other games have even dared to imagine. It is an achievement to be lauded, even if it is tempered by the knowledge that the current state of game industry funding denies almost all creative teams – including Tale of Tales, who helped influence this title – the chance to create unique and memorable synthetic worlds like this one. As thatgamecompany admit: there’s no way they could have made flOw, Flower, or Journey without Sony’s patronage. Something is seriously wrong with any creative medium that manages to so radically block its own potential.

This is a critique, not a consumer review. My review would be: buy this game if you own a PS3 and want to support videogames as a creative medium.


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"Something is seriously wrong with any creative medium that manages to so radically block its own potential."

For some reason I had a double take when I got to this part. It looks like you're equating creative medium with the industry, and in particular with a certain portion of the industry. While I'm grateful that Sony has supported ThatGameCompany, I think it's a bit unfair to argue that "the medium" is the one that's blocking any potential. I think at this point in time, we have more to blame ourselves (the consumers) than anything else (e.g. the recent "we don't like the ending of Mass Effect 3" campaign). The platform holders have lost a lot of that power, the market has grown and changed (allowing for much more diversity), we now have more reasoned/critical/informed discourse about games than ever before.

Jose: I appreciate your counter-argument here, but I'm not at all convinced that the industry can be absolved of any responsibility in this matter. Other creative industries - including books, films, television, music - all support lively niche markets for artistically-motivated works. In books and films, best-selling content is produced without having to step outside of the commercial sector.

In games, however, the industrial sector has been mono-maniacally obsessed with farming teenage boys to the extent that the large media corporations with a stake in games were so far removed from a fair understanding of the audience that they allowed the mass market sector (currently serviced by social gaming companies, Nintendo and Apple) to lie fallow for decades. This was pure commercial incompetence, and I would argue that the failure to invest in arthouse games is exactly the same kind of manifest incompetence.

We could have a lively, artistically-motivated game development scene at a commercially relevant scale if each of the big publishers invested 1% of their marketing budgets into creating such a space. But they have no interest in doing so, and it can't simply be claimed to be the audience's responsibility that the publisher's are too cowardly to invest in the potential of the medium. That many such investments would fail to turn a profit is no excuse since this is true of *all* videogame projects - including the mountains of dross that are pursued in the often mistaken belief that the publisher is funding a commercially valid project. And that's not to mention some perfectly reasonable game projects that fail simply because they were allowed to acquire excessive budgets (LA Noire springs to mind).

So yes, I do believe it's the industry's fault that the creative potential of games is under-developed. The responsibility doesn't end there, but I certainly believe that's where it starts.

@The original point of the posting: "singing", "flying" , "journey", " companionship" , "selflessness" -- what a great poetic vocabulary for any piece of art... ! How can we neglect all this ? Will we not regret very soon...?

I would have to agree Jose Zagel on this.

The current company model is designed to specifically to maximize profit; all activities undertaken are to ensure this. As such companies will feel more comfortable in producing cliched video games that are guaranteed to generate profit as opposed to artistically styled games.

Perhaps the gaming industry could create a committee to subsidize smaller companies and their ideas but that idea seems a fair bit off.

Ultimately though as consumers it is up to us to dictate what we want and how we want it.

translucy: Great to hear from you! Alas, videogames are so possessed by the gamers - who are happy with what they are currently getting - that there is not much room for this kind of regret.

HH: You're assuming - erroneously - that the artistically motivated games would not generate profit. They would be profitable as a portfolio, which is the same condition that other videogames can make to profitability. That profitability would be on too small a scale to be a corporate incentive on its own, but the PR and talent pool benefits of investing in this way would be more than worth the small cost.

Hollywood is just as profit-focussed as the videogames industry, but film is a more mature industry with a better understanding of the importance of keeping the bread buttered. Videogames corporations are still largely run by jumped-up gamers - this is not a mature industry. I hope some day that we will become so.

Thanks for commenting!

@HH: The point you are making sounds very true from the perspective of corporate business strategy - a discipline that has been considered premier league for several decades ... until it was replaced by innovation strategy just recently. The approach you seem to favor ( a long with , just as one example, a company like Sony , posting one record loss after another ;-) focuses on exploiting a few big businesses that "consumers want".
Innovation strategy aims to learn from the rise of Apple, Google and the like through understanding that disruptive products can turn a business segment on its head making complete industries obsolete in just a decade. Why? Because consumers can "want something else".

I will add this famous quite from a car inventor: " If I had asked what people want I would have created faster horses." ( bordering on the cliche but I like it anyway)

So to become the Google or Facebook of Videogaming aim for disruption not exploitation!

@Chris: Thank you! So let's hope for the Nouvelle Vague in Simulation Games and New Hollywood for FPS ;-)

@Chris: In retrospect my post made a rather grave assumption in regards to the profitability of artistic games. I apologize for that; I do believe that artistic video games can generate a profit but they would be rather minuscule as opposed to the 'blockbuster hits' of say Halo and its' counterparts. I sincerely hope to be proven incorrect in this regard; until then however I play NWN and NWN 2 player developed modules and campaigns (which have a far more varied array of stories).

@translucy: I do admit I have a bit of fondness for the corporate business strategy (they have really nice suits).

I also believe that the innovation strategy just ends up turning into a corporate business strategy because executives become more and more cautious with the spiraling sunk costs.

Thank you both for your time.

HH: "I do believe that artistic video games can generate a profit but they would be rather minuscule as opposed to the 'blockbuster hits' of say Halo and its' counterparts."

Well let's be clear - if we're talking about revenue, you're right - a blockbuster title generates far higher revenue than an artistic title. But if we're talking about profitability than the measure shouldn't be the scale of revenue but rather Return on Investment (ROI) i.e. profit/investment - and the ROI for successful artistic games is actually *far higher* than a franchise like Halo, which has very high overheads in both production and marketing. Conversely, artistic games that are successful (like those made by thatgamecompany) can turn very good numbers on comparatively modest investments.

So I can claim, with some justification, that an artistic videogame portfolio can be *more profitable* than a blockbuster franchise - and also, that such a portfolio is commercially more stable than attempting to launch a new blockbuster franchise.

But you are right that the publishers in the games space have their eyes on the bigger revenues, and as such, discount what could be done with an artistic portfolio as being below their threshold of interest. And that, I suppose, is the nub of the problem. :(

All the best!

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