Journey’s desert may well have been the ocean floor in some prehistoric epoch, but it’s long since dried out. Now it’s just confused. Strips of red fabric swim about in the air in tight formation, having vacated the remains of a ruined war machine like a school of clownfish emerging from a coral reef. Other fabric creatures take the shape of manta rays, jellyfish and, later in the game, even a mighty whale shark. Sand cascades steadily over rocks in one area like a jungle waterfall. The growing ribbon of your scarf curls and whips like a flagella. Even the cello in Wintory’s score slithers lazily around like a saltwater eel in no particular hurry.
Every aspect of Journey’s desert is designed to provide a tangible sense of water and buoyancy. The closest most humans have come to feeling weightless is the act of swimming. Journey references water and the ocean to evoke this sense memory while teasing us with the fantasy of experiencing the same sensation without the crutch of water. Like Dumbo – an elephant, one of the heaviest land mammals – realising he can fly without that silly feather clenched in his trunk.
The 1950s preoccupation with humanity colonising outer space and the rise of the science-fiction genre are fuelled by the same fantasy – to stump gravity, to achieve buoyancy outside of water. This is why every ‘80s kid fixated on Back to the Future II’s hover skateboard. This is why all vehicles in science-fiction hover, from The Jetsons’ family car to young Anakin’s pod racer to the Wipeout series’ sleek hovercrafts. In fact, the bulkier the spaceship we see gliding through space, the giddier we feel. Final Fantasy’s airships captivate us because the fiction of those tiny propellers holding such a mighty vessel aloft implies a similarly magical subversion of gravity.
Kids don’t dream of being astronauts in hopes of conducting tests on mice aboard cramped space stations; they simply want to pogo around on the moon. One giant leap, indeed. Followed by another, and another. Since most kids never get to realise this fantasy, we give them inflatable Moonwalks at birthday parties and backyard trampolines to soften the blow. And of course we give them videogames.??
The most satisfying jumping in games always has a sort of moonwalking levity to it. I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed the act of jumping more than I did in Crackdown, having collected enough green orbs to max out my agent’s agility skill. Each time I jumped, I felt like Superman vaulting buildings in a single bound. Though not as extreme, Halo’s jump has that same kind of arcing lilt. Flattening out the buoyancy of a jump, as Epic did in Gears Of War, is one of the most efficient way to darken a game’s atmosphere and dial up gravitas – in a literal sense, by amplifying gravity. Even the racing genre’s spectrum in tone boils down to developers’ decisions about if, and to what extent, airtime factors into the experience.
Psychology has proven that the behaviour of our physical body directly impacts our emotional state. Test subjects who were tricked into arranging their facial muscles in the shape of a smile were more likely to claim to find a cartoon amusing. In the same way, a game that effectively imparts a sense of physically lifting off the ground will engender in the player a sympathetic emotional response of uplift and inspiration. Journey’s leap has a frolicking grace to it. Not only do you lift into the air, but your character will occasionally even twirl playfully like a sea otter before drifting back to earth. You may even grin while doing it. It’s no accident that a smile – the very physical expression of happiness – involves a person’s facial muscles rising, defying gravity.
Super Mario Bros 2 lets you select between four characters, each of which is defined by its relationship to gravity. Even though Mario is the series’ hero, I could never bring myself to play as him or Toad, who both had fairly unremarkable jumps. Luigi had a ridiculously high Crackdown-style leap and Peach could defy gravity by hovering for several seconds if you held down the A button. Virtual jumping feels so good that it only took a modest stat-building incentive to get us bunny-hopping all over Oblivion’s Tamriel, just as it only took the promise of a slight competitive advantage to get players doing it compulsively in Call of Duty multiplayer. Jumping affects the emotional tenor of gameplay in the same way a well-timed key change does a pop song.