Journey vs. the Dark Side of Human Nature: Journey 1

“Violence is to be found in any action in which one acts as if one were alone to act; as if the rest of the universe were there only to receive the action; violence is consequently any action which we endure without at every point collaborating in it.” – Emmanuel Levinas

I’m too confident to look back as I clamber up a slope of dimly lit sand towards a ruined window. I know that the figure I’ve come to think as my assigned acolyte is following my gold-and-white cape like a reassuring beacon. The acolyte emits a small chirrup as it follows me up and through a high hole in the wall: this shortcut I’ve learned allows us to reach the final hallway of this treacherous underground passage.

On my last Journey up this mountain, I was with another white-cloaked veteran like myself, and traveling felt different. We strode steadily, nearly in unison, both aware the other had done this before. When one of us made a misstep, even an injurious mistake, a short double-tone chirrup was the only acknowledgement; presumably apologetic, mirrored back by the other. We knew these things could and would happen. We proceeded, carrying out the assigned tasks silently, like monks yet-again-enacting a long-practiced ritual.

In the shadowed depths, the acolyte and I had reached the final descent and could see two great mechanical serpents winding below. Having avoided them almost entirely so far, I wondered if the prospect of plunging right under their gaze would prove too fearful for my companion…

What to say about Journey? A breathtaking aesthetic experience. An exploration of unique style. A wordless narratve that can sweep you into emotional resonances–if you’re willing–that have seldom been reached in a game. A game that shows the culmination of a creative team that’s grown from innovative novices into visionary artisans of fine-tuned experience.

Lately I’ve been a little too taken with over-exaggerated similes that liken games to sexual experiences or trips on mind-altering substances. (Yes, I know how cheesy that is.) So here’s the pull-quote for this post: Journey is like being bound and gagged with silk ropes until you’re swaddled in fabric, then tied to someone else, and carefully brought to orgasm together.” I would be very surprised if this was the authorial intent — even had I used less provocative imagery. Still, this is what I brought out of my experience: themes of bondage, dominance, the paradoxical feeling of freedom and release from self that some submissives describe as the whole point. These things comprise an accurate backdrop to view at this game against. They are the facets of experience that make Journey an interestingly beautiful game to me, at the structural level, beneath the lovely particle engine and the carefully constructed expanses of sand and stone. They may also define the limits of what this game can mean or do, but that’s fine. Journey offers us a cool refreshment of a quality and type that we seldom get in other games.

* * *

I’ve been listening to wisdom about multiplayer online gaming for about twenty years. In the 90s that was on the newsgroups and then the MUD-DEV mailing list, both centered around the text-based virtual worlds that gave birth to massively multiplayer games like Everquest and World of Warcraft. In the new millennium, I went to the Game Developer’s Conference and listened to the most successful veterans in this arc of game development talk about the ins and outs of human behavior online–guys like Raph Koster or Rich Vogel or Gordon “ban ’em all and let God sort ’em out” Walton, and the ever-forward-looking Daniel James.

The communal outlook from decades of dealing with player populations online tended to be pretty grim, even as the flames of optimism in virtual-life still burned brightly in these developers’ hearts.  I once saw a talk on this subject where the first or second slide just said something like “Hell is other people.”  The fact that humans are bastards to each other online in pseudonymous, disinhibited virtual spaces isn’t news anymore — at least it isn’t to anyone who’s read the comments on a Youtube video or gotten within smelling distance of reddit.

Designers, producers, and managers of online games & communities were among the first to wade chin-deep into net-enabled inhumanity. They also have more theories about how to deal with and think about these horrors than anyone else, going all the way back to Richard Bartle and his four player types. What do we do about griefers, who can disproportionately ruin everyone else’s fun? Can “Killers” who want to beat down other players exist with “Socializers” and “Achievers?” What if certain playstyles dominate the game? These conversations go all the way back to the Black Rose Incident of 1990 and even earlier, the seminal Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat. They’ve produced solutions that lean towards allowing the mess of human conflict (symbolized by the PvP server) and ones that insulate players from each other (the PvE counterpart) and a mess of tools: Chat filters. Block lists. Intelligent matchmaking. Ways of working with COPPA restrictions.

I’m telling you all of this because it was going through my head in October 2010 as I watched Jenova Chen and Robin Hunicke show some of the early prototypes they and thatgamecompany had explored in the process of making Journey. Their talk was called “Discovering Multiplayer Dynamics,” and that’s basically the impression I left with; Jenova described it as their first foray into multiplayer, online interaction and the social side of games, and he expressed frustration a lot of what he found. Digital media don’t allow for the richness of vocal tone and body language, but  a lot of online social communication happens through text. Player characters in World of Warcraft weren’t looking at each other’s faces, but each other’s backsides; they focus on loot and enemies, not on each other. In playtesting, Jenova was annoyed that players were racing each other to (greedily?) grab resources, that players found it amusing when their partners met a grisly fate. He found that players didn’t want to share or protect each other; they liked squabbling, competing and hoarding. If he gave them destructive abilities or weapons, their first instinct was to use them on each other. He couldn’t get them to cooperate and interact in the way he was looking for: a way that would express a feeling of togetherness and awe of the unknown.

I have to admit I was a bit put off by Jenova’s dismay, and that’s probably because of the years I spent absorbing the existing wisdom of game-makers about virtual worlds. thatgamecompany had discovered these human-nature dynamics like others before them, but Jenova Chen was refusing to accept human nature. He wanted people to play his way, and not mess the vision up! Whatever, buddy, I thought, people have been doing this for a long time, found these things out and have been struggling with them. You can’t just say you don’t like it, this is the reality of how people act!

It was an arrogant dismissal on my part. When I played Journey I ended up having to eat those thoughts. I didn’t realize I was getting a glimpse of process from a man — or a whole studio — who didn’t just see a mountain to climb when looking at a mountain, but thought “you know, I don’t want a mountain there, it would be nicer as a plain.” They really did pull it off, too. Journey succeeds in evoking emotional qualities of togetherness, solitude, missing someone, struggling together, and humbled awe in the face of grandeur. Feelings of communion, of ritual importance. Flying  against conventional wisdom might seem like hubris to some, but sometimes it’s what Dan Cook calls “pattern breaks” — undoing the expected, deliberately twisting established systems, refusing to settle for “how it’s done.”

* * *

I first saw a live demonstration of Journey the next spring, when Kellee Santiago visited the NYU Game Center and showed an eager audience of students and local professionals what had emerged from thatgamecompany’s experiments. The game we watched her play is almost entirely recognizable in the final version of Journey that was released a year later. Players climb sand dunes and slide down the other side, subtly platforming on a long trek towards a distant mountain. Another human player appears in a valley bridged by crumbling ruins, and you can call to each other only using a single abstract, runelike symbol that also functions as your name in the system. (In Journey, all players are like Pokemon: uttering our own names again and again. Are we wild, or is Jenova Chen our trainer?) Players gather scraps of fabric to recharge a streaming scarf adorned with runes, but they don’t compete over this resource, or over the hidden secret-treasures that are tucked away in corners of the world. Apart from showing each other these secrets, and appearing in the world visually and aurally, the only way that players affect each others’ gameplay is by “speaking” in proximity, which also recharges the scarf.

I was expecting an unconventional take on multiplayer, but I was a little incredulous at the limited interaction. I asked Kellee a question which basically amounted to “so… that’s it?”  Even now I’m hoping I didn’t sound rude. Were there any other ways that players could affect each other, do things together? No, she said. That’s all.

It turns out maybe that’s enough. Or at least, enough for Journey to do what it does.

If you have played Journey, you know the mechanics I’m describing; maybe my bondage metaphor is even starting to make sense to you. In more “traditional'” multiplayer onlnie games, player attention focuses on textual interaction, the chat pane with its wealth of concrete communication. What’s more, players tend to say a lot of horrible things to each other in online games, or at the very least they could ruin the carefully-crafted mood. So Journey has stripped your abilities back, removed your power of human speech, so that you may chirp loudly or quietly, frequently or rarely, rapidly or periodically, but never with words. In Journey you have no hands! You can’t point, shove, gesticulate, or flip the bird. You are bound, gagged, muffled, grunting. You may communicate through the movement of your body — your virtual body — and you will find out how much you can express that way. (It’s more than you think.)

Players may want to compete over resources, so Journey has subtracted this element from prototypes as well. You have no possessions. All resources are there for you, and your companion; there is nothing to covet in thy neighbor. Journey refuses these economic elements of many games.

In cooperative games, some players may dominate, find solutions, direct other players. There’s no way to do this in Journey, not even with the “go here” markers of a game like Portal 2. For that matter, there aren’t really any puzzles to solve either. You simply move more efficiently or less efficiently over the landscape, together or alone: a minimalist speed-run with no victor and no reward, perhaps.

Players in other games hear each others’ voices online, and some of them react with misogyny, racism, presumption, disparagement of the young, mockery of accents. Sharing of personal information, even in written chat messages, can be disastrous. For the most part, Journey erases difference; we are all simply beings with no gender, no linguistic or ethnic differences, no histories that can be uttered. We bring less personal effects with us into this realm than buzz-cut soldiers to boot camp. The only marker of difference lies in how seasoned we are; is your scarf long or short? Have you attained the one mark of experience that Journey offers, the white-gold robe? (It’s a bit like Journey’s equivalent of an Oxford don’s robe…. and a strange Achiever standout on an otherwise achieveless experience.)

Some gamers want to mess with or kill each other, play tricks, or just best other players in competition. I once heard Frank Lantz say that the fabric of human society (and the mini-social-contracts that govern our behavior in games!) relies partly on the fact that even if someone picks up a deadly weapon like a fork, most of the time they can be relied upon to not stick that fork into their dinner companion’s eyeball. Journey is not about these aspects of human nature. You can’t really affect the other player directly. What you can do is experience the passage through this world together, and that may be enough as well. The most annoying thing you can do to your partner in Journey is one thing that couldn’t be removed, a type of avatar suicide: the inevitable disconnection, technical glitch or simple quitting that has some players watching their erstwhile partner crumbling into dust, or just going missing. For togetherness and co-experience, you have to at least show up, and that failure of human nature is hard to eliminate in a game.

Players of online games often want to play with their friends, support some of their co-players and not others, band into groups. Journey leaves us all anonymous and unable to recognize each other. Pre-existing relationships, friendships, lovers, all vanish along with our own contextual identity. None of these elements are totally new in the history of games, but their mixture in this game is a potent binding indeed.

To play Journey is to accept the excision of parts of yourself, at least for the time being. You become a smaller thing, with less ability to affect, speak, do than you have in other worlds. The feeling of smallness is something thatgamecompany was looking for, so that you might feel awe. Who are you, with these things cut away, bound up? Are you still the same player that trash-talks in a Street Fighter IV match, or have you been amputated into something different? Something more human, or less human? Can we still recognize each other, or is it that we might as well be bots?

* * *

Chris Bell, one of thatgamecompany’s designers, also worked on a similar but different project called Way. It was inspired by an experience getting lost, panicked, and late for a bus while in Tokyo’s vast Tsukiji Fish Market. An older Japanese woman recognized his plight and urgency, and quickly ushered him to the bus stop he was looking for, despite having no more than a word or two in common. For Bell, this was a story about empathy, recognition, and a shared positive experience. I was a little perturbed when Bell told this story at the Game Developer’s Conference. How does he know whether it was a positive experience for that woman? I mean, he was there and I wasn’t, so perhaps she smiled or made it clear. As a Japanese-American who spent part of my childhood in Japan, I read that story as involving the obligation and duty of a host towards a guest–not only that, but as the representative of your entire nation, which is playing host to a young man who’s gotten lost. To put it another way, Bell may have seen ninj?, doing good out of compassion and simply because it’s right, but missed the presence of giri, the more omnipresent social quality of “doing the right thing because it’s your duty.”

I’m not sure how much this matters. Does it matter that Bell projected his own hopeful, optimistic motivations onto a woman from a different culture? Clearly there was something in that moment which he recognized, he read, as meaningful enough to inspire him to make amazing game. To some extent, we never know what’s going on inside another person’s head, from their point of view, their cultural upbringing, their differences from us. Still, it’s a lot easier when you can actually talk to and ask them. Now Bell and thatgamecompany present us with the same dilemma: just as he couldn’t know what that woman was thinking, we can’t really tell how our companions in Journey feel about us or our shared experience. The best we can do is guess, interpret, project our ideas of what their chirrups and movements mean, and maybe that’s not too different from language anyway. I’ll let you know when I see how people react to and interpret this 3700-word blog post.

From recent days it looks like  some of us may not even be able to recognize each other as human without richer communication. A minor conspiracy theory has emerged among some players who suspect that Journey has replaced ostensibly human players with artificial intelligences, faking that feeling of “being together” with software. When so many commonplace indicators of humanity are removed (“you can tell we’re not zombies because we talk!”) how can we recognize each other? Apparentlyit may take more than the organic qualities of people moving avatars in a 3D space, as wonderfully expressive as that’s turned out to be. As for human strategy and skill, the linearity of the game is such that you can easily imagine a cunning program that acts just how you expect a player would — because players are all expected to trod a particular path and have at least a particular range of experiences, as well.

* * *

Journey has already been described by quite a few people as a linear experience (and a relatively short one) without a whole lot of choice. I don’t think this necessarily detracts from Journey‘s strong points, but it does become abundantly clear when you replay the game and find yourself experiencing the same things in a new way. I’ve played it four times now. As it seems happens with many players, my first experience was a little haphazard, with nearly a dozen different companions popping in and out. My subsequent journeys were undertaken alone, with another experienced white-robed player, and most recently with someone who appeared to be a newer player. (This is the experience I’ve narrativized at the beginning.)

You can only play Journey the first time once, and that may be the truest of your experiences. The second time through, you’ll probably grasp that you’ll always fall on your face, frozen and exhausted, at the same point in your ascent up a snowy mountain–whether or not anyone else is there with you. The third time, you might start to feel that certain dangerous areas have been carefully engineered to produce specific results: recurring problems for players who take the obviously marked route, proceed too quickly, or try to clamber into a safe bolt-hole at the same time as their companion. On your fourth playthrough, you may no longer perceive the trackless desert as an open space you get lost in, but rather as a bounded area with landmarks and an efficient route.  The most visually stunning levels, where you recapitulate the evolution of papery life in a gold-lit tower, or recapitulate your own travels by flying through a hyper-colored paradise at the summit of the mountain, are revealed as the most rote, routine and linear now that you’ve seen it before.

The sleight of hand involved in crafting an amazing interactive experience is part of game design — of any kind of experiential design — but like a magic trick, it loses some of its charm upon close examination. These crafted moments, the way they produce feelings that aren’t normally activated through games, are what Journey has already become known for and probably what it’ll be remembered for. They are not, however, what survives of Journey upon repeated play. Journey is not really a game of repetition–games that you can play again and again for different results, to improve your skill, to explore the system–and I doubt more than a handful of players will plunge in again. For those that do, however, the Journey that remains after you understand the “experience they wanted you to have the first time” is still something quite interesting: it is entrance into something that resembles an obscure monastic order.

The first playthrough of Journey may be akin to a religious conversion for some gamers who never realized they could feel this way with another person in a game. The overt religious symbolism is hard to miss, of course: a wandering desert people, a mountain with something mysterious and divine at the peak. A moving star that presages a birth. The doubt-ridden descent into the underworld and the reascent, even the martyrdom and resurrection. Deep bells intone as you fly towards your final destination, a cleft in the mountain where you walk into the light. Once you’ve gotten all this, and it’s become part of you, and you decide to repeat it, you’re basically re-enacting a ritual that you found important. You meet your assigned partner, another monk, and you both know what to do: next, we slide down this hill, we can move more quickly towards our goal if we jump together at this point, all right, now it’s time to get frozen, fall down and die, see you on the other side, ok let’s keep going. We willingly submit to the system’s control, demands, the mystery it creates, just as we practice submission to god.

There’s even a Playstation Network trophy for making it through most of the game with a single companion, which I suspect would either require luck or at least one skilled, replaying companion. With two white-robed players, who by definition have both played enough to find every secret rune, it’s more a matter of execution, efficiency, risk management. That’s an experience too, a more systematic experience — possibly even a more social one — even though it doesn’t involve the awe of the first-time player. Instead, we are now enacting an increasingly familiar, repeated ritual, sometimes teaching new acolytes, sometimes partnering with someone who also knows the ropes. We don’t even need to speak anymore, except for the mechanical reason of recharging robes, and those utterances resemble actual communication less than they resemble the delivery of the evening’s prayer book  from one monk to another. This, too, is a feeling that games haven’t explored in quite this way — although it is a little more reminiscent of the 23rd run of a World of Warcraft raid-instance with a seasoned crew of guildmates.

* * *

Like an experienced BDSM domme, Journey demands and exercises its control without compromise. It binds our hands and mouths to set us free from the expectations of open systems, from the unpleasant vagaries of others’ human natures–and our own. If we find Journey a liberating experience, we may continue to take a vow of silence in gaming, a vow of poverty as well, and re-enact our travels again. Like a wise elder or a bodhisattva, we can return to the world to help another, or just to see that the rite is enacted and the same story told again, with only minor variations.

Some people say that it’s when you’re tied up with a rubber ball in your mouth that you truly find out who you are; you are released from your transient, contigent self and reduced to your core humanity. That’s what I glimpse in how Journey reduces us to something more manageable, less messy, but perhaps also more elemental and primal. Our kernel is then squeezed for our emotional juices, and what comes out is a pure drop of awe, of feeling moved and transported. For a moment, in one game, that’s definitely enough.

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