Sony's recent PlayStation Experience event was a noisy affair. Held in a cold London warehouse stuffed with the sound of gunshots and explosions, you could barely hear yourself think. The PlayStation's upcoming portfolio certainly knows hows to make a racket.
But through a dark corridor and up a flight of stairs existed a tiny oasis of calm. Above the hubbub, That Game Comapany's Jenova Chen and Robin Hunicke perched serenely on achingly trendy seats, ready to talk about their new game. In its own small, unassuming way it was the most captivating thing I saw all day. Journey stole the show.
There's a sense of logic behind Journey that's immensely satisfying. In many ways it's subversive, deliberately flipping contemporary design on its head. But it's not awkwardly, obstinately so. And it's not pointlessly contrary, either. Indeed, there's a clarity of thought to it that makes you wonder why some of the ideas here haven't been done before.
So while the games downstairs barked constant instructions, "Go here!" "Do this!" "Follow this big arrow!" - Journey draws instead on your curiosity. At the beginning of the game, looking out over a vast expanse of misty, rolling sand dunes, you notice a sky-piercing mountain with a feint light emitting from its peak. You immediately want to go there. It draws you in without the need for waypoint indicators, mini-maps, or any other such clutter. It's incredibly elegant design.
So Journey is about just that, reaching the peak of a distant mountain. But it's also about exploration and companionship, communication and loneliness too. And, in case that all sounds a bit pretentious for you, it's about surfing gracefully down sand dunes and soaring high into the air. Those parts alone, controlled by the gentle sway of a controller, look immensely satisfying.
Everything in Journey has been stripped back, re-thought and redesigned with an eye on accessibility. Moving through the world and traversing the sandy rocks and bridges speckling the landscape is achieved with the minimum of inputs. The controller itself moves the camera, while clambering up ruins demands nothing more than pointing the analogue stick in the required direction, it's effortless.
And utterly, utterly beautiful. The character model alone is gorgeous, seemingly hand-drawn, a cloaked figure with a scarf and cape billowing behind, the fabric flapping to reveal dainty, pin-like legs. Lost, tiny, ungendered and vulnerable, your avatar in Journey is a world away from the male power fantasies on offer elsewhere.
The subversion continues. Journey is a social experience, but not one that offers the trappings typically associated with it. There are no lobbies, there's no matchmaking, another player will simply appear in the environment alongside you. There's no voice chat either, nor any cumbersome PSN id identifiers floating above heads. In fact, at this stage there is no intention to let you know who you are playing with at all.
The analogy adopted by Chen is typically infectious. He talks about hiking up a hill in a windy expanse, suggesting that you are far more likely to engage a stranger you meet at the top than greet one among the throng on a busy city street. Voice chat, or more than two players at a time, would only spoil the effect.
Instead, communication takes place entirely within the confines of the game. Constituting one of scant few inputs, you can issue a call accompanied by the emission of a unique icon that differentiates your beautifully imagined character from others. But that's it. The only other form of communication comes in the subtle patterning of your cloak and scarf, layers of detail added when you gain abilities like improved flight.
If that all sounds a little vague and un-game-like then that's perhaps because Journey is at this stage. It's a collection of wonderful ideas coupled with some of the most staggering art design you're ever likely to see. But despite this, Journey still looks like being Jenova Chens gamiest game yet. A story is promised, alongside different environments and co-opererative challenges. There's talk of enemies too, though what form they will take has not yet been revealed.
Ultimately, it's the sheer weight of possibility that impresses most. Journey is game design approached with a clear mind, not willing to repeat the mistakes of others, but brave enough to forge out in its own direction. Its impossible to come away from seeing it, even in this state, and be anything other than completely infatuated. In the space of thirty minutes it convinced me that everyone else is doing it wrong. Everyone. Its that powerful.
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