The first of five articles in which members of the Edge team discuss examples of inspirational game design.
Did you cry at any point while playing Journey? If so, you’re not alone. Upon the game’s release, I noticed several testimonials cross my Twitter feed of people who claimed to be moved to tears by Thatgamecompany’s latest project. But why? The game has gorgeous stylised artwork. Then again, so did Wind Waker. And as sublimely fun as Nintendo’s cel-shaded Zelda may be, it doesn’t put a lump in your throat. The music Austin Wintory composed for Journey is elegiac and stirring, but so is Jeremy Soule’s theme The Streets of Whiterun on the Skyrim soundtrack, and the idea of a player blubbering while traipsing through that Nordic outpost is crazy talk.
I have a theory to explain why some players cried – or at least felt deeply euphoric – while playing Journey, and it hinges on one of the interactions in the game that critics have consistently glossed over, consigning to minor footnotes in their commentary.
The jumping is where Journey breaks your heart. The jumping is why many players cried, even if they couldn’t pinpoint the cause. The jumping is the tiny, insignificant-looking wingnut holding Journey together, without which it would collapse into a heap of exquisitely airbrushed scrap metal. It’s not Thatgamecompany’s token nod to classic videogame interactions, settled on after staring blankly at an empty white board for two hours, unable to come up with anything more engaging to have players do. It’s not just a tool for poking around its stunning vistas and drinking in the sights.
Journey signals to players the centrality of its jumping by waiting a few beats into the story before enabling you to do it. The Legend of Zelda did the same thing when it opened with a sword-deprived Link. Even though you only had to walk a few short steps to the nearest doorway to grab the rusty beginner sword, the game’s designers italicise the moment by placing a frame around it. You feel empowered because just a moment ago you were helpless. The Legend of Zelda is a power fantasy that begins in earnest with the gift of a weapon. Surely it’s significant that the gift Journey chooses to offer players instead is the gift of levity.
Some critics have decried Journey’s design for being resolutely linear, claiming its parade of lavish set-pieces simply puts an art-house spin on the filmic template favoured by mainstream blockbusters such as Uncharted or Call Of Duty. Journey’s developers should’ve focused on leveraging interactivity in the way only games can, they argue, while neglecting to parse the game’s key interaction. Journey had to be a game. You have to press the X button for yourself and feel what it’s like for your robed avatar to leave the desert floor and drift back down like a fallen leaf surfing a breeze. To play Journey is to savour the most incredible inner lightness. Thatgamecompany aspires to move players not through moral choices or exploration, but through the art of locomotion itself.
When I saw people tweeting about starting their fourth and fifth playthroughs of Journey, I initially found the decision baffling. There’s nothing new to see or do. Why would you want to experience it again and again? It makes sense to me now. People weren’t returning to see the sights. They just wanted to experience that sense of lightness again, and the game’s jumping never feels less than perfectly satisfying.
I used to always see the lure of videogames in terms of an escapist fantasy hinging on a virtual expedition. Just like a book or a movie, videogames transport us to faraway places that most of us couldn’t feasibly access in real life. But the potency of the escape offered by videogames isn’t summed up in that destination; it’s how developers empower you to traverse that space.