Everything in thatgamecompany's Journey is absolutely beautiful. The music is unique and moving with enough middle eastern tones to make the soundtrack recognizable from just a few notes. The graphics and the detailed visuals do things that I've waited for someone to do well; the dunes billow like a sheet of fabric, the sandfall particles fall and break apart like TV static, the ribbon and wind effects flow with a life of its own. From the downhill surfing animation, the tuck and roll, the cephalopod like flight, to the tiny foot prints left in the snow Journey is an example of visual arts mastery. The almost monochromatic color pallets are used to create rich environments. The story is simple and well told. The pacing through it all is well developed like so many powerful films. And The character designs have already inspired my own work.
Like I said, everything about Journey is beautiful... except the gameplay. The interactivity is not beautiful. Like so many indie games, the lacking gameplay and interactivity of Journey is the tear in the fabric of thatgamecompany's ambition and design aims. And like a rogue rip made at the outset of a tapestry, this flaw in Journey effectively unravels the work as a whole.
What Journey Is
Journey features simple gamplay that's very minimally designed. Players essentially navigate down a series of linear and straightforward rooms and hallways by walking, flying, or surfing. Throughout the game there are ribbon upgrades to collect and shrines to activate. No enemies. No powerups. Almost no challenge. Almost no consequences. There's really not much to do or learn in terms of gameplay systems.
Journey is a lot like the indie game Small Worlds (see video here). The majority of the interactivity in both Journey and Small worlds consists of just continuing to move forward to see more of the world. This interactivity makes up some of the simplest kind of exploration there is. There aren't ideas to explore, puzzles to solve, or systems to learn. You just move and observe. I greatly appreciate simplicity in art, but there are limits and rules on how to effectively convey a simple ideas. Presenting a short, simple idea or experience and then stretching this experience over a long period of time does not have the same effect as presenting the experience unstretched. Small Worlds succeeds in its simplicity because of its brevity. The whole experience can be completed in minutes. Throughout the play experience the high concept of Small Worlds is well conveyed through the simple player actions because of the ever widening 2D view players uncover as they explore. Understanding how Journey's high concept is conveyed through its interactivity is a more complicated issue.
Journey is like an amusement park ride. You start the ride and without much required on your part, the ride advances fairly smoothly and automatically until the end. I have a difficult time categorizing much of what you do in Journey as gameplay. Yes, Journey has a rule-based system. You can't lose or die, so there may only be one variable outcome (e.g. the ending). The game doesn't assign value to the length of your scarf or anything else you do. Yes, the player exerts some effort to reach the end of Journey, but the challenges in Journey are minimal. (Remember how important challenge is to a gameplay experience?) For these reasons the gameplay of Journey is downplayed.
What's wrong with game design that downplays gameplay, interactivity, and challenge? Nothing really. But when the goal of the work is to convey ideas and meaning, then we have to look at how downplaying any element of design affects this end goal. Because video games are complicated, downplaying something so core to what games are requires a masterful hand. Drop the wrong elements, deemphasize the wrong feature, and you can inadvertently take on all the cons of a gameplay experience and none of the pros. Underestimate what elements have the strongest impact in an interactive experience, and you can easily end up conveying mixed messages.
Thatgamecompany makes this mistake of underestimating the power of gameplay with Journey. The gameplay of Journey is obviously not a priority over the visuals, interactivity, and maybe even sound and story. This is what I mean when is say the gameplay is a vehicle to support the conveyance Journey's high concept. In other words, Journey is about observing a journey not participating in one. It's about the avatar's transformation, not the player's transformation. It's about going through the motions and walking the path, not about living the life. Like Fez, Journey uses elements of gameplay design not as the core of the experience but as a sort of backdrop; a method I feel only masters should attempt as it is a common pitfall for indie developers.
Here's the biggest problem I have with the utter lack of gameplay and challenge in Journey. What's beautiful about gameplay is that making informed decisions greatly reflect the player. By playing games, we can see a sort of virtual reflection of ourselves in the video screen. The more games challenge us, squeeze us, and otherwise force us to mold ourself to the game by learning the complexities of the systems and embracing the challenge, the more we're reflected in the game. By going through this process we come to understand the developers more.
Video game experiences are half-real; the real part is the players and the "fake" part is the video game fiction/world. The real part also consists of the real skill, real transformations, and the real journey that players go through to win. Overcoming real challenges is a type of journey that is core to video games. I'm not surprised that the removal of gameplay and challenge from Journey removed this real, compelling, and thematically analogous element. Seems like a gross oversight to make a game called Journey show you a journey than put you through an actual journey that tests your mind and body through gameplay. The decision to downplay gameplay not only affects the real and interactive part of the Journey experience, but it also affects the high concept thatgamecompany seems so focused on conveying.
Spoiler: This is a playthrough of Journey.
The High Concept
The high concept of Journey is a combination of traveling through a foreign land and embracing the anonymous benevolence of strangers. I got to listen Chris Bell, one of the designers of Journey, speak at GDC 2012 in his talk "Designing for Friendship: Shaping Player Relationships With Rules & Freedom." In the talk Chris detailed an experience he had with a stranger in a foreign country that inspired his work on Journey. His talk was inspiring, to say the least. From Chris Bell: "What if in a game about discovery and transformation you experience that transformation along side someone else?"
Thatgamecompany conveys this high concept by putting players through a game-like adventure where another random and anonymous player can automatically join you on your journey. With no voice chat, no PSN ID displayed, and no communication system besides the musical CALL mechanic players can use as a improvisational Morse code, Journey is designed to make players strangers to each other. Everything Chris talked about in terms of designing friendship is in Journey holds up. For example, Journey is designed to encourage a call and response between players. There's reciprocity in how CALLing recharges the power of flight. And there's some longing when players separate. I aruge that without gameplay as the core experience the co-op, friendship focused experience of Journey falls flat.
The entire experience of Journey is fairly straightforward and fairly scripted for that matter. There's little to do besides follow the straightforward path from beginning to end. Without gameplay, without skill-based play, without risk-reward, without interesting choices the range of player expression is extremely small. I did find a few ways to show off my platforming skills by landing on small pieces of level jutting out into space. But otherwise, the rhythmic use of the CALL mechanic was not enough. There's much more to my self expression than some vague, near meaningless chatter. I do love how some vagueness invites me to fill in the gap with empathetic interpretation, but I still want more, at least for an experience as long as Journey is. One of the best parts of any kind of team-based or co-op experience is observing and working with the strengths, weaknesses, and other quirks of others. In the world of Journey where every player is practically the same due to the lack of skillful play or choices with consequences, the potential richness of the co-op experience falls flat.
Chris Bell explained that because the world is barren that any random, anonymous player becomes the focus of your experience. Put another way, because there's so little to do in Journey, hanging out with the anonymous, co-op buddy becomes the most interesting thing to do. Of course you'll wait around for your companion, there's no reason not to. Of course you'll chatter back and forth as you travel, it helps you travel faster. Remember when I stressed the importance of co-unter-operative mechanics design in co-op games? Basically, it's good to have at least one mechanic or action players can do to work against the common goal. This option, even if players don't use it, makes any successful cooperation that much more meaningful. Being nearly forced to cooperate because of any explicit level challenges or, in Journey's case, a lack of anything else to do doesn't make cooperation an option for players. A little gameplay would have gone a long way here.
Many praised Journey for creating the kind of experience where players can develop a kind of Morse code and body language to communicate. I too enjoy this aspect of Journey, but again, without anything challenging or even complex to communicate about, the communication isn't stressed in any contextual way. Imagine even a simple gameplay scenario where players hide from the scarf consuming mechanical serpents. Imagine using the CALL mechanic as a callout to help your companion stealth safely. This kind of basic co-op game design is simple yet gives players the room to stress their team-skills. Unfortunately for Journey, whether your communication is good or bad, whether your companion is cooperative or not, your gameplay experience is largely unaffected. Overall, your experience with Journey may seem very unique, but, as is clear from multiple playthroughs and watching others play, the range of expression and experience is very limited.
I want to stress that while great in Journey, this kind of emergent, impromptu non-verbal, body language happens all the time in games. In Splosion Man, I created a sort of communication system using the self-destruct mechanic. As an impromptu game of "chicken" my friend and I would take turns seeing how close we could get to blowing ourselves up. In Phantasy Star Online (Dreamcast) players used the four quick response options and the smiley faces to make rustic motion comics to express themselves. In Metroid Prime Hunters I fought a few matches where random players found ways to get my attention and communicate with me by shooting bullets into the wall to spell out words. In LittleBigPlanet, I've developed dances and conveyed other ideas simply with the arm and face controls for Sackboy. In Bomberman Blitz and the online battle mode in Zelda: Phantom Hourglass players devised ways to express themselves by spamming the cheers and jeers sound bites (like CALL in Journey). The point is when you get humans together and they'll find a way to communicate. It's just what we do naturally. Yes, it's amazing. Yes, Journey's design attempts to highlights this kind of experience. But for being such a core part of Journey's high concept, they failed to provide a world where there's much of a reason to communicate.
What Journey is About
There is more gameplay in the level World 1-1 in Super Mario Brothers than all of Journey. In the hour to two hour adventure of Journey there is a lot of interactivity and exploration, but few gameplay challenges. There are some that will argue that Journey is not about gameplay in that it's not about achievements, collectibles, repetitive grinding, difficult challenges, competition, or the like. I agree. The truth is gameplay can still be very meaningful without any of these things. We have to be careful not to conflate common gameplay features from big budget video games with the idea of gameplay is at its core. Some say that Journey is an "experience." I think this statement is dodgy and vague. Gameplay is an experience too. Perhaps what some are trying to express is that Journey doesn't need to focus on being a game in a traditional sense to convey, promote, and highlight the ideas and experiences the developers most wanted to express.
Even if downplaying gameplay worked for Journey there are some basic mechanics and feedback design issue I want to point out. I didn't have a problem doing anything in the game. It's when I invited a friend, who isn't well versed with 3D games, to play through Journey that I noticed the issues.
As intuitive and simple as Journey appears, the camera controls and feedback are not very clear. Ba3D was a problem, which is the result of both camera and feedback design. Without hard shadows to help interpret 3D spacing, landing on platforms was very challenging for my friend. Between the always active motion controls and the right stick controls, the camera controls were too complex. The camera would often spin when my friend was flying thus completely disorienting her. Personally I like redundant controls, but not when they talk over each other instead of taking turns, so to speak. Furthermore, my friend wasn't always sure when she could control or not because there wasn't a strong visual feedback element that distinguished cut scenes from gameplay. She got turned around often and missed important scripted scenes like the first snake eating the cluster of ribbons in the underground section.
My friend said that Journey was a very pretty game, but I wasn't surprised when she also said that there's not much to do in the game. She's right. Even the "experience" of Journey isn't much of an experience. Remember how meaning is derived from complexity to create depth or from simplicity to create complexity? You can't give players a controller and not give them something substantial or meaningful to do with that control.
In the end Journey is a game of many parts. As much as Journey is about the visuals, the music, the anonymous co-op, and the story, Journey is also about the interactivity and gameplay. In this case, the gameplay is neither challenging, varied, wrinkly, or concentrated enough to be interesting. The interactivity is used as a vehicle to move the player through a very narrow experience. The biggest problem I have with downplaying the gameplay is such a design decision will ultimately place the core experience of Journey between two conflicting types of experiences. Without the interactivity, Journey would have great visuals, sound, and story elements with enough material and complexity for a short film (say 10-15 minutes).
With the interactivity, Journey expands what would be a short film like experience and makes it last about 2 hours. While the story, music, and visuals are all consumed and enjoyed passively, just by adding interactivity and gameplay to Journey the experience shifts to be more active and half-real. Simply the potential of something "real" has a way of out prioritizing the "fake" passive experiences. In other words, we experience the real skill building, the real challenges, and the real consequences of gameplay stronger than we do the passive elements. By downplaying gameplay, thatgamecompany created an experience filled with "real" flat interactivity to extend the comparatively smaller, more interesting passive content. To enjoy Journey, I have to continually push aside the shallowness and meaninglessness that comes from much of my interactive freedom because it's so much louder than the subtly conveyed passive content. My feelings are mixed like my experience with Journey. I want to praise thatgamecompany for their artistry, yet I want to put Journey on my most disappointing games list of 2012.
In the end Journey is more about being a movie than a game. Because it presents some game-like interactivity, the result is a muddy hybrid that's a weaker product than it would be otherwise. The best moments I had with Journey, the moments when the whole experience came together in clear focus, I have these same kinds of moments far more frequently in other, gameplay focused games. Journey is about as good of a game as anyone can make when gameplay isn't put first. This is the conclusion I've reached with my journey.
"Journey... this game is definitely about the destination" ~KirbyKid