Journey’s poetic, meditative multiplayer odyssey is a controlled and emotive experience, one that cleverly shaves off the common multiplayer mechanics and interactions that might otherwise jeopardise the singularity of its experience. You can’t talk to fellow players, or immediately identify the strangers with whom you are randomly joined. But by restricting that palette of interaction, Journey manages to cultivate empathy and cooperation, while straining out the impurities – a delicate act. We catch up with Thatgamecompany’s creative director, Jenova Chen, to talk about the route to release, emotional puzzle-solving and collaborative play.
Journey went through an iterative process. What did the early prototypes look like?
The early prototypes look like Flash games: 2D, side-profile or top down, while all the characters are just dots and moving round solving puzzles like the final game. But there used to be four players and the game was a lot more gamey. You’d be picking up keys to unlock doors, fighting monsters, and all these traditional game mechanics. But as soon as we moved over to the Playstation 3, we realised that a lot of things that worked in the top-down game no longer worked in 3D, so the game had to change quite a lot.
That was true of Flower as well – that you stripped back a lot of the more explicit game mechanics?
Right. Our goal is to achieve a particular emotional experience. The feeling is the most important thing, but we don’t necessarily know what gameplay mechanics will enhance that feeling. So in Journey we really wanted the players to have a strong emotional bond with each other. But then we had all these multiplayer co-op mechanics that weren’t quite working. In a typical MMOG, if one guy has to collect four flowers and another guy has to kill four boars, even if they are in the same area, they will rarely talk to each other. And so initially we tried to make the players depend on each other: asymmetrical co-op, where different people have different roles and you have to use each other and work together. But then we realised one thing: a true collaboration only happens when both sides are voluntary and a lot of co-op games force people to be in a collaborative situation. If you’re not voluntarily doing that, you tend to fight the system.
And that’s when we decided that forcing players to co-op was the wrong way to go – we wanted to give players the choice between doing it together or doing it by themselves. And that changed the game, because all of a sudden we couldn’t design a puzzle which requires two people to complete, because one person has to be able to do it. Once we decided that, there were so many more challenges for game design. For example, originally, you’d need two players to beat the level to go the next level – now one player can go to the next level and just leave the other behind. If you connect with someone, and they go on to a different level, should you still stay connected with them? If you disconnect, are you going to reconnect with someone in your level? That’s the whole innovation on the multiplayer lobby system – and that turned out to be the most challenging part of the design.
Thagamecompany creative director Jenova Chen
Did those early elements of challenge also undermine the emotional beats?
Yeah, if it’s very challenging, you’re set into a mood of problem solving, rather than paying attention to each other. Journey’s not about solving puzzles – it’s about sharing the same emotional moment together. The wind is blowing, it’s very hard to move forward, and you see this other guy being blown by the wind – you share that struggle, then you share the joy and the beauty together. Journey’s not really about overcoming difficulty, it’s more about going on an emotional rollercoaster with someone, and because you’ve gone through so much with them, it feels like friendship. And to prove that this has happened I want to show you the forum – the Journey Apology Thread. When you think of online play you think of people being jerks, but look at what they are saying here – they’re thanking the other player and apologising for leaving early. Most other games you’re not putting emotions into the other player, you’re shooting bullets at them. That’s why people think online gaming is very cold-blooded, but if you design the game correctly you can show the bright side of humanity as well.
You are quite dictatorial about preserving that fourth wall in the way that you restrict voice communications. Why are other games happy to let players engage with the fiction at the level they choose?
Because there’s no design or goal attached to the interactivity between two players. We had a very specific goal, we wanted people to feel a certain way. That’s why we spent so much time on things which nobody usually cares about. For example we hide the entire lobby system. Why do you want to start a lobby, join a room, check your latency, kick people, start a game? Those things are not designed for a human to consume, they are designed for hardcore gamers to consume. If you want to let your kid or your mum play Journey, you can just hand over the controller.
How important is it to enforce the integrity of your fiction like that? Some gamers take a delight in breaking it, after all – an example being the ability to exploit Skyrim’s AI by placing buckets over people’s heads and stealing from them.
Because the system is not compelling enough for them to behave within its rules. For example, if Journey’s characters could chat they would be talking shit online all the time. But we create a compelling system so that they don’t want to break it. The character doesn’t have arms or a mouth – the fact that we remove all those things means the players use the shouts to communicate and play under the world’s rules. We want them to accept that, without noticing that they’ve accepted it. If someone wants to break the rules, it means the world is not well designed. I played Skyrim, but I never used the buckets because I enjoyed what it was offering me. After I finished the main quest, then I started gaming the system. But I’m not really there, I’m just having fun with this interactive thing.
Journey has sought this rich emotional experience through implicit narrative and interaction. What do you think of the more explicit, cinematic efforts, as championed by the likes of Quantic Dream?
[Quantic Dream co-founder] David Cage is probably one my major allies in the game industry because we both care about emotional experience, and broadening the emotional coverage of games, because so many games are about action, horror or thrillers. There’s no romance or drama. There’s nothing about the meaning of life. So, definitely I’m a big supporter of David Cage – although he’s doing it with a much bigger budget than I am!