Posted March 21, 2012 by Joel L. (101)
With so many huge, bloated games getting released, it can be refreshing to play something that is lean and designed with elegance. That’s not to say that Journey is not vast or epic. In contrast to developer Thatgamecompany’s humble last game, Flower, Journey has an increased feeling of spectacle. But “feeling” is really the key word here. Rather than get bogged down by superfluous systems centered around busywork, Thatgamecompany crafted a beautiful game in which every action the player does is important.
It all starts with the setting. I think that a sign of a good video game story is that it throws the player right into the middle of a world. It is very true in Journey. The player initially awakens in a desert with dunes masking grand pieces of ruble and shells of a lost civilization. The world clearly has a history, but the game doesn’t usher the user along like a storyteller would. Rather, it scatters about visions and hieroglyphics that give hints of both the world’s past and the player’s future, but does so with such a mythic quality that your fortune is never clear until the situation foretold has arisen.
It is a setting of surprising diversity with the only constant being the granular terrain (not always sand) that, with poetic parallels, floats and flutters around much like the player. Yet Thatgamecompany understands that it is the interactions that matter most in a video game and so only the most vital inputs are available to the player. The simple controls feel almost limiting at first but, outside of the extremely rare artificial cue that takes away control from the player, Journey is all the more engaging for only including input that is thematically important to the game.
The first physical input that the player will likely use is the left stick to move around. It seems like a given, but Thatgamecompany relied mostly on sixaxis motion control in Flower. In Journey, joystick navigation is given the attention it rarely receives in other games. Each user’s journey will have numerous hardships and revelations that are highlighted by responsive movement controls. The simple act of climbing a sand dune gets more laborious as the player gets closer to the top, but if they keep at it the exhilaration of gliding down the other side is always worth the effort.
Movement serves a practical purpose too. Although the desert environment would appear to be a sign of massive level design, the player is limited to a set course. There are some soft handed tactics to keep the user on task like immediately apparent goals and the limitation of level features to explorable areas so there isn’t really a reason to want to wander off. However, the real leash is that the wind will start to blow which makes movement difficult if the player loses their way. It is a more forceful approach but it feels more like a natural player decision than an invisible wall ever did.
The next input is the X face button for ascension. This theme of ascension is integral from the very beginning. The most striking feature of the landscape for most of the game is a mountain in the distance and the implicit goal is to ascend it. Yet the player does more than climb the mountain. The level design is noticeably vertical with the aforementioned sand dunes as well as some challenges that closely resemble platforming. These challenges are tackled by a limited jump ability that is linked to the player character’s scarf that extends from their cloth robes.
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