Journey – relentlessly beautiful

Journey is an indie video game developed by Thatgamecompany for the PlayStation 3. It was released on March 13, 2012, via the PlayStation Network. In Journey, the player controls a robed figure in a vast desert, traveling towards a mountain in the distance. Other players on the same journey can be discovered, and two players can meet and assist each other, but they cannot communicate via speech or text and cannot see each other’s names. The only form of communication between the two is a musical chime. This chime also transforms dull, stiff pieces of cloth found throughout the levels into vibrant red, affecting the game world and allowing the player to progress through the levels. The robed figure wears a trailing scarf, which when charged by approaching floating pieces of cloth, briefly allows the player to float through the air.

The developers sought to evoke in the player a sense of smallness and wonder, and to forge an emotional connection between them and the anonymous players they meet along the way. The music, composed by Austin Wintory, dynamically responds to the player’s actions, building a single theme to represent the game’s emotional arc throughout the story. Reviewers of the game praised the visual and auditory art as well as the sense of companionship created by playing with a stranger, calling it a moving and emotional experience. Journey won several “game of the year” awards and received several other awards and nominations, including a Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media nomination for the 2013 Grammy Awards. A retail “Collector’s Edition”, including Journey, Thatgamecompany’s two previous titles, and additional media, was released on August 28, 2012. The game was released digitally for the PlayStation 4 on July 21, 2015.

Journey was the last game made under a three-game contract between Thatgamecompany and Sony, the first two being Flow and Flower. Development of the game began in 2009, after the release of Thatgamecompany’s previous title Flower. The 18-person development team for Journey was composed mainly of creators of the company’s previous games; co-founder Jenova Chen was the creative director and Nick Clark returned as lead designer. Kellee Santiago, producer of Flow and Flower, did not reprise her duties, concentrating instead on her role as the company’s president, and was replaced by Robin Hunicke.

When development began, Sony expected the game to be completed in a year, rather than the more than three it finally took. Thatgamecompany always expected needing an extension; according to Hunicke, they believed finishing the game within a year was “unrealistic”. Development ended up taking even longer than anticipated, as the team had difficulties paring down their ideas for the game and maintaining efficient communication. Over the course of development the team grew from seven to eighteen people. At the end of the second year, when Sony’s extension had run out, the game did not spark the emotions in the player that the team wanted. Sony agreed to another one-year extension, but development ultimately exceeded even that.

The stress of the project led to the feeling there was not enough time or money to complete everything the team wished to, which added to the stress and caused arguments about the design of the game. The developers ended up reducing the overtime they spent on the project to avoid burning out, though it meant further delays and risked the company running out of money as the game neared completion. In a speech at the 16th annual D.I.C.E. Awards in 2013, Chen admitted that the company had indeed been driven to bankruptcy in the final months of development, and that some of the developers had gone unpaid at the time. Hunicke described the solution to finally finishing the game as learning to let go of tensions and ideas that could not make it into the game and be “nice to each other.”

The game is intended to make the player feel “small” and to give them a sense of awe about their surroundings. The basic idea for the game, as designed by Chen, was to create a game that moved beyond the “typical defeat/kill/win mentality” of most video games. The team initially created a prototype named Dragon that involved players trying to draw away a large monster from other players, but eventually discarded it after finding it was too easy for players to ignore each other in favor of their own objectives.

The developers designed the game like a “Japanese garden”, where they attempted to remove all of the game elements that did not fit with the others, so the emotions they wanted the game to evoke would come through. This minimalism is intended to make the game feel intuitive to the player, so they can explore and feel a sense of wonder without direct instructions. The story arc of the game is designed to explicitly follow Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory of narrative, or hero’s journey, so as to enhance the emotional connection of the players as they journey together. In his D.I.C.E. speech, Chen noted that three of their 25 testers had cried upon completing the game.

The multiplayer component of Journey was designed to facilitate cooperation between players without forcing it, and without allowing competition. It is intended to allow the players to feel a connection to other people through exploring with them, rather than talking to them or fighting them. The plan was “to create a game where people felt they are connected with each other, to show the positive side of humanity in them.” The developers felt the focus on caring about the other player would be diluted by too many game elements, such as additional goals or tasks, as players would focus on those and “ignore” the other player. They also felt having text or voice communication between players or showing usernames would allow players’ biases and preconceptions to come between them and the other player.

The game was released on March 13, 2012 for download on the PlayStation Network. A PlayStation Home Game Space, or themed area, based on Journey was released on March 14, 2012 and is similar in appearance to the game. A retail “Collector’s Edition” of the game was released on August 28, 2012. In addition toJourney, the disc-based title includes Flow and Flower; creator commentaries, art, galleries, and soundtracks for all three games; non-related minigames; and additional content for the PlayStation 3. In September 2012, Sony and Thatgamecompany released a hardcover book entitled “The Art of Journey”, by the game’s art director Matt Nava, containing pieces of art from the game ranging from concept art to final game graphics. On July 21 2015, Journey was released on the PlayStation Network for the PlayStation 4; owners of the digital PlayStation 3 version of the game were able to download the new version for free.

Journey received critical and commercial success worldwide. After its release, it became the fastest-selling game to date onPlayStation Store in both North America and Europe. At the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo, prior to release, the game won awards for best download game from 1UP.com, GameSpy, and GameTrailers. After publication, the game was heavily honored at end of the year awards. At the 16th Annual D.I.C.E. Awards, formerly known as the Interactive Achievement Awards, Journey won 8 awards, the most honors received of the night (which includes “Game of the Year”, “Outstanding Innovation in Gaming”, “Casual Game of the Year”, “Outstanding Achievement in Game Direction”, “Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction”, “Outstanding Achievement in Online Gameplay”, “Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Composition”, and “Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design”); it was additionally nominated for “Downloadable Game of the Year”, “Outstanding Achievement in Gameplay Engineering”, and “Outstanding Achievement in Story”. Journey was selected as the best game of the year by IGN and GameSpot, among others. The soundtrack was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media for the 2013 Grammy Awards, the first video game soundtrack to be nominated for that category, though it did not win. Additionally, the game won the award for best music and was nominated for the best graphics award from IGN, and was selected as the best PlayStation Network game by GameSpot. At the Spike Video Game Awards, Journey won awards as the best PlayStation 3 game, the best indie game, and the game with the best music, and was additionally nominated for game of the year, best downloadable game, best graphics, and best song in a game for “I Was Born For This”. It received the 2013 Annie Award for video game animation. It won five awards at the 2013 British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards: Artistic Achievement, Audio Achievement, Game Design, Online Multiplayer and Original Music, and was nominated for Best Game, Game Innovation and Story. In March 2013, it won six awards at the annual Game Developers Choice Awards: Best Audio, Best Game Design, Best Visual Arts, Best Downloadable Game, the Innovation Award, and Game of the Year.

Journey received high acclaim from critics who praised the visual and auditory art direction as well as the emotional response playing with a stranger created. It received the IGN Best Overall Game Award for 2012 and Ryan Clements of IGN described the game as “the most beautiful game of its time”, saying, “each moment is like a painting, expertly framed and lit”. Jane Douglas of GameSpot concurred, calling it “relentlessly beautiful” and lauding the visual diversity of the world and the depiction of the rippling sand; Matt Miller of Game Informer added praise for the animation of the sand and creatures, saying the game was visually stunning. The music was also complimented, with Miller describing it as a “breathtaking musical score” and Douglas calling it “moving, dynamic music”.

Reviewers were especially pleased with the emotional experience of playing the game, particularly with other players. Christian Donlan of Eurogamer described it as a “non-denominational religious experience” that, with the addition of another player, moves beyond metaphors and becomes a “pilgrimage” to the player. A reviewer writing for Edge magazine said the emotional arc of the game hits with “occasionally startling power”, while Patrick Shaw from Wired said the game made him feel a “wide range of emotions… wonder, fear, even sadness.” Miller said all three times he played the game, “each time, without fail, individual moments… managed to give me goosebumps, and those moments have remained on my mind for weeks afterward.” Joel Gregory of PlayStation Official Magazine praised the game’s story for being open to the player’s interpretation, leaving an ambiguity that drew him in. The addition of an unnamed second player was described by Donlan as brilliant and as a “master stroke”, and Edge said it made for “a more absorbing, more atmospheric experience”.

The few criticisms for the game centered on its length and pacing. Clements noted that not all players would appreciate a game with a “deliberate, melancholic pace” and short duration, comments echoed by the Edge review. Miller noted the lack of a complex gameplay elements in Journey, and Shaw was disappointed that the game was only a few hours long, though Douglas said the length was perfect. Miller concluded the game could be compared to “a musical concert, a well-directed film, or a long-awaited book”, while Clements concluded, “completing Journey will create memories that last for years.

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