Comic-Con 2011: Journey Hands-On Preview

Journey made me smile. A lot. From a little smirk of recognition to a full stupid grin, Journey had me emoting in front of everyone as I played through the first level of the game on the show floor. That’s not to say that everything about the game fits with happiness. The ending of the demo, in fact, moves into a much darker place where fear and apprehension permeate before the inevitable fade to black. The smiles instead were a reflex to the fact that I was feeling so much emotion toward my interaction.

My micro adventure begins alone in a vast desert. The sand flows like water, rippling in front of my feet as I scamper, and drifting with each billow of wind. Movement is smooth, resisting as I climb the many dunes but sliding away as I surf down the other side. Fluidity is a massive element of Journey and it’s clear from the moment you take your first step.

I’m soon greeted by a group of small ribbon “creatures” that pop up from the sand, twirl playfully around me, then flit away in the general direction of a distant and looming mountain. I know that I could wander alone in any direction, but instinctively I follow the flying cloth.

We arrive at a small bit of rubble where a long piece of weave flutters in the wind. Holding circle allows me to release energy into the cloth, turning it aglow before diving into the rubble and releasing a swarm of rectangular ribbon shards. They surround and embrace me; my own trailing scarf growing in length.
This is the only meter of sorts in Journey. The length of your scarf determines how high you are able to jump and for how long you can float. The intensity of its glow also determines how much you can use this vertical ability. This was the oddest feature to adjust to but quickly became the most compelling reason to engage in the online component (more on that in a minute).

When the scarf’s energy runs out, I’m unable to jump anymore. I can’t think of a single game that restricts such a basic function of mobility. But yet, I’m not upset. The first reason is that I soon find more ribbons that grant me their energy. But more than that, I’m suddenly not alone.

Another desert wanderer has appeared on my screen and he or she (we look exactly the same with no way to indicate gender) runs up to greet me. There is no voice or text communication in Journey but using the circle button ability offers at least some form of expression. It also serves the practical purpose of recharging the energy of your fellow adventurer.

So how do you create a relationship between two traveling companions with no means of communication? You give them a reason to remain close. Jenova Chen, the Creative Director at Thatgamecompany expressed at a joint panel that he had always wanted to make a game where players are given proper incentive to hold hands and stay together.

In Journey, remaining close to your partner recharges both players’ health very rapidly, whereas allowing too much desert to separate you will end your journey together — likely forever. Because there is anonymity among players, there is no way to coordinate playing in the real-world. Only the game can select two players who are wandering the same area to come together. So you must decide whether you want to make your relationship last, or risk the sand alone.

This is where the smiles really arose. It’s difficult to properly express in words, being truly a must-play-to-understand experience, but even in the simplicity of its system, having a relationship structure such as Journey’s evokes emotions otherwise unavailable in other games. Yes, Ico pulled at my heartstrings as I tugged my ethereal to safety, but in the end of the day she was just A.I., she will be there tomorrow, and our relationship is as the game dictates it. With Journey, somewhere in the world, a real person is controlling the figure I see on screen. And how we choose to interact, cooperate, hinder, or outright abandon each other is something that will remain with us throughout the rest of our journey, even if the other person does not. No other game offers such emotional potential from cooperative love and elation to personal loss and rejection. All without written words, spoken voices, or facial expression.

My time with Journey was relatively short. After solving a few puzzles, both alone and together, my demonstration eventually came to end. But what I left with was affirmation for the emotional possibilities of game I’ve long been waiting for. The final verdict won’t be decided until the Fall, but I trust now that smiles of all kinds will be waiting for me then.

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