What We Know:
Journey is ThatGameCompany's third game for the PSN, after flOw and Flower. It's a whimsical adventure through a ruined civilization, with one very interesting premise. You'll meet other players taking their own journeys along yours. We learned more about how the game plays and the backstory of the world in an extended demonstration at gamescom.
What We're Seeing Now:
At times it feels like Jenova Chen, co-founder of independent developer ThatGameCompany, is constantly coming up with the most ludicrous game concepts possible. They just keep getting accidentally green-lit.
"You play a floating petal on the breeze. Inside a plant's dream." This was probably the random thought which, when verbalized, led to the excellently atmospheric and relaxing PSN title Flower. The developer's third title, Journey, has an even stranger premise. "A man made of cloth explores ruins of an ancient civilization in a desert as he journeys towards a distant glowing mountain."
Of course, Journey seems to be so much more than that. You'll find the same eerie, yet weirdly comfortable atmosphere that was present in Flower, but with more emphasis on exploring the game's desert environment for clues about what event 2000 years in the past saw the destruction of such a civilization. This will be achieved without a single word of dialog or text box, we're promised. It also sounds quite optional. If your personal journey is one of ignorance and haste towards the end goal, it's possible to miss hidden areas containing the world's backstory.
That sense of wonder and of discovering the world around you is what Chen is ultimately trying to replicate with Journey. With Wikipedia and Google Maps all the information about the world around us is at our fingertips. The world in Journey is unmapped and enigmatic. It's hard not to wonder why giant walkways jut from the sand and where that set of giant stone steps lead.
Of course, it helps that the game is absolutely gorgeous. Sand flows realistically while pieces of cloth billow satisfyingly in the wind. The world is made up of warm yellows, oranges and reds as you look towards the distant horizon. This horizon line is where you'll find your ultimate goal, a mountain bathed in light. You're not told you need to go there. You just know.
While Journey is very much a single player game, it is enhanced with a multiplayer mode. As online multiplayer is something ThatGameCompany has never done, Chen was eager to try and tackle it with his third title. As you explore the desert you will see other players who are also exploring the same area. It's up to you to ignore them or try to communicate. As there are no words (and no headset support) your only method of conversation is to sing at them.
There will only ever be one other player inside your game at a time. Chen didn't want the desert to be overrun with players as it would ruin the atmosphere of the empty and desolate environment. This means that meeting up with someone in your world feels special. Chen was keen to state that the game can be completed on your own, but it will be a lonely experience.
Your singing ability (a short chime that is reminiscent of many sounds in Flower) is one of the few actions you can perform, alongside jumping. With these you'll take part in the actual gameplay of Journey, which involves taking advantage of the cloth that is found all over the desert. Because the main character is made of the same material, he reacts to any cloth he comes across, allowing him to float and access higher, harder to reach areas.
Solving simple environmental puzzles might unlock some new sections of cloth, or give you material fragments. These form a scarf around you, allowing you to fly for a short amount of time. Singing near these fragments will draw them towards you.
Other non-player characters do exist in the world, and we met up with a figure which reminded us of No Face in Spirited Away, except both his cloak and mask were a brilliant white. When asked whether Hayao Miyazaki was an inspiration for the game, Chen said that quite a few people had been making a similar comparison between White Mask and No Face, joking that perhaps he should change the design before the game ships. At least, I hope he was joking.
Once again it looks as if ThatGameCompany is creating a mysterious, atmospheric world which I can't wait to explore. Journey's stunning visuals, along with its realistic sand effects and simple yet engaging gameplay means that its nebulous 2011 release date is painfully far away. Perhaps once the game is finally available you and I will be taking the Journey together.