Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) is an interdisciplinary centre for research/ creation in game studies and design, digital culture and interactive art


  back to blog

Another Journey – Third time’s a charm

Posted by Bart

Here’s the last of a three blog-entry triptych (I guess).  Anyone following discussions of Journey will have picked up on Ian Bogost’s great review by now (we really do need to talk more about reviewing as a genre in game studies) and I am also a sometime reader Michael Abbott’s stuff.  I think both of these reviews are about the interpretation of the designers or maybe the design in a kind of “what’s this game supposed to be about?” sort of way.  There is nothing wrong with that of course but isn’t this approach a little too textual and a little too author-centric for game studies?

My eye is drawn instead to a Motivate/Play blog post about Chris Bell’s GDC talk and here is a transcript of the talk on Chris’ website (you need GDCvault access for the actual recorded talk). The talk is about designing games to motivate the friendship of strangers. Bell asks,

How do we design so friendship will emerge? And what is friendship really? It’s impossible to completely define or quantify. Nor can it be forced between players. Their emotional connection has to happen as a spontaneous creation of the participants.

Journey does indeed excel as a game about  the relationships of strangers or more precisely it is a game that enacts a relation between strangers.  It is not just the idea or representation of a relation; it is a relation. This is especially clear as you move into the 3rd or 4th play-through and the otherwise brilliantly paced and emotionally manipulative cinematic epic-ness finally recedes.

I guess I am coming close to praising the brilliance of a game designer (instead of being annoyed at their hubris).  I am a major Chris Bell fan (and I had no idea he also worked on Journey – I already loved Way).  But let’s sober up for a sec…  oh but first – there will be spoilers below the break so don’t read on if you haven’t played yet.

First I have a baseline sample (I’ll call it a sample of convenience or simply – ‘food for thought’). I have played the game through three times, watched my daughter play twice, my son play once and sat with the whole family together playing bits and pieces (the rule was that I could watch but not talk or give advice).

It is interesting to note that for my kids navigation and figuring out where to go is still an important issue. The level with the rising water (?) and the jellyfish thingies proved to be especially difficult and also an excellent test of the patience of the companions.  In one case, they took off but in another especially poignant moment the other player stayed close and functioned very well as a visual guide when my daughter got turned around in the 3D space of the level (its easy to find yourself swimming down rather than up).

Another memorable moment occurs around the wind gusts and the grokking of the strategy to hide behind the stones until the gusts die down.  My 6yr old son discovered this by himself (which made him very proud) and then was even more excited with the companion followed him and seemed to learn from his example.  To us spectators, the image of the two figures huddled together behind a stone in a blizzard was pretty impressive.

The classic companion moments however, come when facing the dragons as you run from cover to cover hoping to avoid detection.  I am too seasoned a game player to care much what my companion did (especially in my first 2 play-throughs — in the third I acted more like the guide I was meant to be I suspect) but for my kids this level was very intense despite the fact that getting hit by a dragon meant very little in terms of gameplay — instead they were fixated on whether the companion would run off or wait and they read waiting as something of a sign of friendship or at least care.

I could go on and on with these stories and surely they play right into the hands of the designer’s conceit for the game.  I want to stop short of thinking about this as designing for friendship however and instead talk about this as designing for an encounter that may, in the perception of the player (and especially groups of players talking about what is happening on the screen), be interpreted as being about friendship.

I said above the break that Journey is more than a game about the friendship of strangers, it is a game that enacts a relation (an encounter) between players (people) that is mediated by aesthetic and procedural elements of the game. We might say the core of the mediation is what sociologists would call a “coordination problem” (there is something you need to do but you can not do it alone… this is the basis for human social order and the division of labour etc…) but the game Way is a much better example of that…  you don’t need to work with your companions in Journey its just nice if you do (there is more to think about in this design choice… how much to do make coordination actually matter for gameplay… arguably the less it matters the more some unintended perceptions may arise).

In any case, the social relation in Journey (even if you don’t interact with your companion) is actual since you are not reading about the journey of two companions but enacting one. However, the perception of the relation as being about friendship or not is imaginary (as it always is, even without fancy games). What is cool about Journey is that the minimalism of the encounter (the lack of verbal communication and context and social cues) creates something of an experimental space for a more active imagination of the encounter to take place and this for me is its great potential.  In this sense Bell is on to something and the game functions more like a dare or a provocation — “go ahead, I dare you to be friendly”

My kids’ capacity for imagining the dispositions of their companions is much greater than mine has been. Stupid gamer that I am — it is pretty easy, in the search for something to do during your Journey, to simply have a race (especially down the sand slopes – shades of snowboarding games – complete with jumps).  Or even just racing to each checkpoint only to get your comeuppance at the end with the death march up the mountain (does anyone know if there is a way to get up without dying?  that would be cool).

Of course my point in all this is that designer provocations aside, the analysis rests on close attention to the players and their idiosyncrasies, their biographies and their moods. The relations that are being produced in the game are projections, imaginative fancies, musings…  and that is absolutely fantastic but do we need to claim more for the game than this?  At one point my daughter was puzzled by her companion just sitting for an extended length of time – we wondered if she wanted us to do the same, was this some spiritual thing, should we “chillax” a bit?  And then I remembered that out avatar was doing the same thing while my kids were fighting over who should have the controller next or someone had to go to the bathroom — chillax indeed.

No actual friendships are produced in this game (not the least because actual friendship presupposes some sense of risk and vulnerability) but actual imaginations of friendships ARE produced in this game (and imaginations of friendships do affect actual friendships as in “why can’t you be more like or not like my companion in Journey”).

You don’t need Journey for this effect — MMOGs have a ton of this going on but even better are online multiplayer shooters like Counter-Strike.  Again – we have minimalist communicative resources producing intense emotional experiences. A former master’s student of mine, Graham Candy, talks about this in terms of the production of what we call micro-trust.  The building of friendship relations over thousands of iterations of short duration trust encounters in Counter-Strike play. The key to actual friendship though is that the game becomes simply a starting point or excuse for an extended encounter.

There is the possibility of this in Journey I guess — since if you wait until the credits roll you can see the PS3 handle and the Journey call sign of the people you played with. In principle I guess – you could follow up.  But that seems less the point of the game which as Chris Bell suggests is really about the kindness of strangers who shall remain nameless (I am actually not quite sure if there is some misplaced politics in that sentiment given a contemporary global moment filled with  ethnic and racial tension).

Its worth pondering the difference between the encounters in Journey (with their mediated Utopian overtones… starship Earth, sisterhood, promised land etc…) and encounters in Doug Wilson’s games with the Copenhagen Game Collective or Die Gute Fabrik.  Doug has written about his games B.U.T.T.O.N and Johan Sebastian Joust as minimalist folk games built around the production of social encounters (usually groups rather than dyads).  There is a clear motivation for the production of social effervescence (as Durkheim might call it) but I wouldn’t say Doug is daring players to be nice. Doug seems very conscious that the material-social conditions of his very physical games may produce very opposite effects.

I discovered this myself when trying to run a game of Joust with 6 yr olds boys…  or perhaps their version of social effervescence is meant to include bloody noses and a lot of crying 🙂  The game payed off better perhaps for a birthday party of 10yr old girls as they saluted the winner of each game by holding their controllers high in the sky. In short… it depends.

Joust and Journey gives us examples of a kind of social encounter design perhaps (although I would say that all game design is social encounter design or rather what I might call social imagination design).  The designers may desire utopian outcomes and may dream of engineering group hugs but this line of research/creation (for I hope to see more games that take this on) should still dance carefully around the “better games make better people” ideology. Intimations of friendship and other pro-social wonders depend greatly on the dispositions and situated contexts of the players and while that may make Journey an excellent game for thinking about relations with others the actual production of the those relations requires something else altogether.