Journey Hands-On Preview -- An Hour of Exploring, Floating, and Being a FriendBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Jun 03, 2011
When the scene fades up, a towering sand dune rises in front of us. Tilting the controller to pan the camera around us reveals endless, gorgeously flowing desert in all directions. Our character stands tall in along red gown that flaps and waves as the wind pours across the landscape. A bright white light extends into the sky from somewhere beyond the dune up ahead.
Taking that as our cue to proceed, and with the ghostly, Middle Eastern-inspired, minimally orchestral score sweeping through our ears, we climb the massive dune. As we reach the top, a staggering vista awaits us, and we have our first of many mouth-agape moments of awe as we gaze out across the sea of sand before us, the view accentuated by a dark, ominous mountain looming on the horizon with a beam of light projecting from its top. We take a deep breath, and then take our first leap into the unknown, into the world of Journey.
For anyone familiar with Thatgamecompany’s previous efforts, the PSN darlings flOw and Flower, you know they have a penchant for creating hypnotically fluid and engrossing experiences out of surprising subject matters (i.e. an evolving microscopic organism and the wind). As you can probably tell by the above scene, this pedigree is very much in tact, however this time, it has much more “gaminess” to it, and the result is something that is both familiar—a third-person adventure game—yet entirely new, due largely to the fact that it is a semi-open-world game that organically flows from being a single-player game to a multiplayer game to a co-op game without any effort on the part of the player. Don’t worry. It’ll make sense in a second.
Basically, you’re primary goal in Journey is to get from where the game opens to that towering white light on the horizon I mentioned earlier. That’s it. However, the path you’ll travel to get there will be a treacherous, albeit a hauntingly beautiful, one. I only played the first hour of the game, so I can’t tell you what lies beyond the desert landscapes and towering stone ruins that liter it, but there will be a variety of environments to explore and types of challenges to overcome over the course of the game. For now though, we have the desert. And while it is a massively open space, there are limits. You'll know you've reached the end of the map when a giant sand storm blows you back.
Since Journey doesn’t feature dialogue or text-based info of any kind, you’ll have to piece together what catastrophic event has befallen the game world and left in its post-apocalyptic ruin. Your character only has two actions: jump and sing. Each action has varying levels so tapping either with activate a small version of it while holding it down will unleash a charged up version. Singing is what you use to activate “switches” of sorts, or, if another player is close by, recharge their jump meter. It’s also how you “talk” to other players, since there is no voice chat or any other traditional form of interaction typically found in a multiplayer game.
After around 15 minutes of exploring some ruins, sand surfing down massive dunes, and generally losing myself in the game world, I spotted my first fellow explorer in the distance. As I moved closer, the traveler sang a series of notes to get my attention, or to insult me. That’s one of the beauties of the game. Since there’s no chat feature, you have no idea who the other players are that you encounter or what they are actually trying to say to you, so it’s up to you imagine. While I wasn’t exactly looking for a companion at that particular moment, it was nice to have another person to explore with for a little bit, especially when we reached a particularly long jump that I wouldn’t have been able to make had the other player not been there to recharge my jump in midair.
It’s worth explaining how exactly multiplayer works in Journey, because it’s one of the game’s most ambitious and compelling aspects. The entire game can be played as a single-player experience, however, if you’re playing online, it’s possible that you’ll run into other players along the way. No lobbies. No friend requests. Just pure chance encounters. You’ll only ever see one other person at a time, and each player’s game is their own, meaning another player won’t be able to pick up the collectibles or objects in your game, although they can still interact with the world in order to help solve puzzles or the like. It’s all part of TGC’s plan to change how people perceive the online gaming experience.
“We wanted to bring a new experience to online play,” TGC founder Jenova Chen told me at a recent press event. “We need to bring something fresh and new to happen between two people over the internet...Today’s online game is mostly about the power in your hands. How am I going to use my gun? How am I going to use my bomb? How am I going to use this thing on the other people? It’s not about me; it’s about the gun. When we do [Journey] we say, ‘Okay. We have to evoke this sense of awe and this sense of small so then the player wouldn’t think about, ‘How am I going to kill this guy?’ or ‘I’m going to jump on his head.’ But rather think, “Oh my god! It’s another human!’ That’s the feeling we want.”
On the gameplay side, the game is much more traditional that TGC’s previous efforts in that it’s basically an adventure-platformer with environmental puzzles thrown in for good measure. In my hands-on session, the only puzzles I encountered required me to sing to turn on a collection of stone markers. There were a few marker groups that revealed hidden panels with hieroglyphics on them that provided glimpses of the game’s backstory. There were also sets at the end of each new explorable area that would trigger a super tall being like me, only dressed completely in white, to appear and give me more picture-based backstory.
One of the big gameplay question marks at this point is the control scheme, specifically the camera controls. TGC producer Robin Hunicke says the team is actually still debating about whether to include thumbstick controls for the camera, since the game currently only supports tilt controls.
“The team has really gone back and forth about it…If we can come up with a way of incorporating an element that it feels like it’s singular with the design and the world, then we usually do. We try not to be just arbitrary about what we include or don’t include.”
Tilting to pan definitely took some getting used to, and it was a bit squirrely at times, especially when I wanted to turn around quickly to see my partner, but it also fits with the feel of the game, so it’s hard to say if I would have preferred thumbstick controls instead. Hopefully, there will be a thumbstick option if for no other reason than to ensure people don’t use the tilt controls as a way to dismiss what is easily one of the year’s most unique and fascinating games of the year.
If you're still looking for a way to comes to grips with exactly what Journey's overall intention is, here's how Hunicke elegantly describes it, “If Flower was a poem, then [Journey] would be a parable.”
Journey will release exclusive on PSN later this year.