Environment exploration has become a bit of a dinosaur in the eyes of modern video game designers. With single player campaigns desperately trying to cram as much action in as possible, traversal that doesn’t include gunplay or platforming can almost feel like wasted space. Once again thatgamecompany, makers of Flower and flOw, aim to get us to feel different. Their latest, Journey makes exploration the only means of gameplay. We at EG took to the desert during E3 to bring you our first impressions of this bold endeavor.
When we say that environmental traversal is the only means of gameplay, we mean that 100%. There are no platforming segments (although your wander-smitten nomad can jump), no guns, no narrative beyond what you make for yourself. The concept is – as all things sparking from the imagination of Jenova Chen – strikingly simple. There is a mountain far off in the distance, and your cloaked figure’s duty is to make it to the top. Although the way, you will pass through deserts, snow storms, and many other forms of weather and terrain. You don’t take damage, you just move forward.
The design goal, according to those staffed with the game at the show, is to experience the loneliness that can come with such a journey. You are a small figure enduring a hajj across gigantic environments, occasionally reduced to a blur amidst storms and haze. Faceless – beyond a concealed façade similar to Final Fantasy’s black mages – your only expressions are a floaty jump, various walking animations, and a pulse-like shout that will attract other players to your position. Yes, there is multiplayer, and yes, the gameplay remains just as straight-forward with multiple people.
There is little else to say of the Journey experience, as our brief allowance of time with the title didn’t quite give enough of an indication of its emotional impact. The controls are simple and work beautifully, an analog equivalent to the near-flawless sixaxis inputs of Flower. The presentation is vast and gorgeous, with realistically muted environments breaking visual monotony with terrain variations like sand dunes. The audio design barely exists as well, limited to surrounding weather effects, the flutters of your cloak and scarf, and the occasional ethereal shout.
While there isn’t an instant, for lack of a better word, “zen” feeling like we experienced in past titles from thatgamecompany, Journey once again exerts a powerful uniqueness through simplicity. As always, these kinds of experiences are the definition of a “niche within a niche”, but the unified audio and visual design promise to provide some seriously reflexive moments. Journey will make the first step onto the Playstation Network sometime later this year.