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In-Depth: Journey's rare and magical success

Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander talks to Thatgamecompany as she goes in-depth with the upcoming Journey, which she calls "the finest achievement yet" of the visionary studio.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

March 1, 2012

8 Min Read

For years, Thatgamecompany has been driving at a singular vision through its unique, often meditative and quietly thoughtful works: To create an emotion in players. Games like FlOw and Flower faced the interesting design challenge of providing players engaging gameplay in spaces where the experience was more important than the idea of task or objective. Journey, soon to be released on PlayStation Network, is the finest achievement yet of the visionary studio -- a game where the objective and the emotion are stitched into the same cloth. Journey opens in a vast, rippling desert dotted with mysterious gravestones. In an endless sea of sand, the player intuits that the next object in the distance -- a cluster of small, faceless monuments that strongly suggest graves -- must be the goal. The character, a gracefully stylized and genderless figure draped in paprika robes, glides fluidly over the rippling desert until a mountain, cleft with a beacon of light, appears far in the distance. With no sound and no word, no clue but the elegant expanse, you know what you need to do: Make the journey. The desert land is populated by shreds of windswept fabric and glowing sigils that bestow the ability to glide, swathed in a magical scarf that grows longer with each discovery. At times, the drifting textiles even form living creatures that resemble sea creatures, borne on the rippling wind. All of Thatgamecompany's games are aesthetically lovely in their own way; many players found a kind of zen in FlOw's simple palette of glowing silver organisms in fluid blue, or in Flower's breezy landscapes dotted with chiming blossoms. Journey is an entirely new level of beauty, the kind of awe-inspiring that makes you sigh. The sandscape evolves subtly as you explore on your way to the mysterious, distant goal; sometimes the phosphorescence of a cavern gives it a distinct subterranean feel, and other times, radiant sunsets and the stark shadows of stony ruins make it gleam like fire. "It's a choice, and also basically a forced choice, because of constraint," Thatgamecompany co-founder Jenova Chen tells us. What's most fascinating about the studio is that although its work can feel sentimental, even esoteric to those skeptical about the power of emotion and storytelling in games, it makes all of its decisions based on very practical, even traditional game design considerations. "When we picked the desert scene, it was because we had done the game Cloud which was about sky; FlOw, which was about water, and Flower, which was about lands. We thought about, what else can we do?" The decision to set the game in the chameleonic desert ultimately came down to Journey's primary directive: To create an online game where people could share the experience with one another. Although players can experience Journey effectively totally alone, ultimately the studio hopes that the multiplayer experience will be truly meaningful. It's the great age of connectivity, yet most online games are more like team sports, and Thatgamecompany was intrigued by the idea of an online game that was not a traditional empowerment fantasy, that wasn't about players using weapons or other powers upon one another. That singular goal drove all of the game's design decisions; the smooth backdrop of a desert would make it easier for players to focus on their fellows, rather than to become distracted by a visually-busy environment. Journey's silent protagonist doesn't even have arms: "Arms might create the expectation of physical interaction or combat," co-founder Kellee Santiago explains. What the team wanted most was to create the sense of awe that comes with adventuring toward the unknown -- and to enhance the sense of loss and loneliness that might make players long to seek one another out and collaborate, even in a silent world where interaction is limited to musical "shouts." "Looking at photos of two people in a desert, I already [experience] a feeling of longing," says Chen. "But if eventually [players have] to go to the mountains, then a different terrain would happen." Thus one of the game's most fascinating achievements becomes the subtle and delicate transformation of desert land into so many visually distinct and often stunning arenas, using only color, light and the shapes of the crimson fabric that populates the world. "We're a very small team, so if we spend all this time on the sand, we have to apply it to the rest of the game," notes Chen. It's pragmatic minimalism; if players don't know what they are meant to do within the game, the direction is in the title itself. And although the game is sparse at best in terms of direction and instruction, the process of learning the world and experimenting is naturally intuitive. "We see emotion as nutrition, and a healthy human should have a wide variety," reflects Chen. He says Journey is something of a response to an age in which pursuit of accessibility has meant that any information is Google-able, hints abound, and goals and sub-objectives are stamped with flashing beacons. "The problem with entertainment at large today is that I think there's a lack of wonder," he adds. But Santiago says accessibility is still a key goal of the studio, hence Journey's simplicity, its cues from theme park design, and the fact it's nearly impossible for players to feel actually lost. Most key to the experience of this game, however, is its universally-relatable narrative of a pilgrimage through the unknown, where power and pleasure can be gained and then lost, and the hero is tempered by adversity. It's the universal archetype of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, or monomyth, which is essentially based on the concept of a protagonist leaving home to endure challenge and return with a new power. As Chen explains: "It's a narrative structure found among all of these mythical or religious stories and folktales whether in Eastern or Western culture... the Hero's Journey is a common film script concept." "I thought, we know we want to make a game that makes two people connect... in a big company people like to do these trust exercises, send people out to do physical, dangerous activities and afterward, people will have a bond," Chen says. "But I felt, if it's just a difficult situation, the emotion wouldn't really reach a high moment. So we were thinking what if we actually put two players going through the entire hero's journey arc?" "The hero's journey essentially is a narrative structure of any life transformation," says Chen. "[Journey] is very much a classic parable of life... that was totally intentional." That sentiment is clear in Journey's narrative, the spectrum of emotions involved in personal evolution enforced by the unexplained game world and its gold-lit artifacts and mysterious relics, open to puzzle and interpret. But might the climate that birthed what Chen sees as a teenage empowerment fantasy also make a non-traditional game like Journey hard for modern gamers to understand and relate to? "Our hope was, like making a Pixar movie, it needs to be magical, imaginitive and fun for the younger generation, but it needs to have some relevance, some deeper meaning for the adults," he says. "When we approached this game we were working to two particular extremes... for the mature adults about the meaning of life, and then for the younger generation we wanted to make it like a very magical work that is exciting and filled with adventure. "I think a lot of players will stop a game [when they wonder] what they are supposed to do, but hopefully they will start to journey into the adventure and get carried on by the feeling," Chen adds. On the inevitable discussions about "what it all means", Santiago is positive: "Hopefully, if they are asking those questions, then shortly after, the answer can be, 'I don't know, but that's okay.' We definitely had moments where we wanted to tell the story, but also to leave it open for interpretation for different types of people," she says. In the three years from idea genesis to launching Journey, Chen and Santiago say they experienced their own version of the Hero's Journey through the game's often-challenging development. "I feel proud," Santiago says of the long-awaited launch, "because I remember through the last three years, all of the questions and the doubt and the fears that we had about making this game... it's really scary to make a game that is different, and I really think Journey as an experience puts a lot of faith into its players, that the players are going to determine their own experience." "I'm just glad we pulled through all that, to present Journey as it is today, which I think is a very pure expression... that to me is the most I've ever hoped for, because we get to really find out how people feel about it," she adds. In that regard, Thatgamecompany sees its games as experiments -- not in that they are unsure or unplanned, but in that the studio creates without necessarily knowing how players will react or receive its work, whether its ideas will be affirmed or whether the team will be surprised, and in what ways. But Journey must be viewed as an inarguable success. It's a symphony of the very emotions its creators intended, it's a shining example of innovating and creating beauty within design constraint, and it's that rare breed of game storytelling that strikes the ideal balance between guiding you and allowing you to discover your own story.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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