[Design Spotlight]: Journey

A few months ago, I was wandering the internets and happened upon a nifty beta video for Journey, a minimalistic adventure built by thatgamecompany. I made a mental note to check it out later, but promptly forgot about the title, and so when it released I was none the wiser.

If you’re not planning on picking this one up (PS3), and you’re not averse to spoilers, there’s a stunning walkthrough you could check out (just under 3 hours total). For those without heaps of free time, a brief summary instead: Journey gives you the barest three controls: running, jumping, and a single “ping” of music to signal other players and interact with the world. We’re going to learn something about design from it.

Natural Storytelling through Good Design – There is no user interface, no meters, maps, or log to mark your objective in any way. No words, no text, no dialogue. Periodically, the lore and backstory of this ruined world is revealed through murals and glyphs. All goals are given visually. When you’re unsure of what to do, there is always the mountain looming on the horizon, beckoning you. Nobody told you, but the goal is clear — you must reach the mountain. And so the game becomes quite literally about the journey.

Journey uses a clever blend of environmental effects and dynamic musical cues to tell the story. The eye is naturally drawn to the next point of interest (a ruined building, a flock of kite-dragons), and building upon natural human curiosity, a chain of goals is made. Inclining angles and subtle increases in wind resistance (beautifully animated) keep the player going generally in the right direction.

Emotional Storytelling through Good Pacing – Though Journey may look tranquil at first, the setting of each segment creates a pacing that draws upon your emotions. From quiet curiosity, to scenes of vivid danger, to complete awestruck wonder as you skim across a liquid gold sea of sand. I won’t spoil the ending, but it was by far the most emotional moment I’ve ever experienced in a game (even just watching). The ebb and flow of action/tranquility makes for some well-paced scenes that tug at your heart.

Interactive Storytelling through Good Multiplayer – Another creative feature is the subtle multiplayer, when another player will join you on your journey (seemingly at random, as directed by the game engine). Though you’re free to leave your newfound friend at any time, there is an overwhelming sense of comradery, and people tend to stick together as long as possible. You can’t communicate with them, other than your simple musical “ping”.

One scene involves battling the raging winds, fighting off the freezing cold gale as you ascend the mountain. Your cloak is encrusted with ice. The cold saps your energy, and you must stay together to keep warm. In the playthroughs I watched, people will more often than not go back to rescue a companion who was blown back into the snowdrifts. It’s powerful.

Applications – Why Does This Matter?

We could probably go a lot deeper with this and discuss whole different paradigms of interactive storytelling, but instead I’d like to focus on modern MMO quests. I’m also going to keep this as brief as possible.

[Application 1 – Natural Storytelling] – Design the terrain and visual line-of-interest such that you don’t actually need obvious sparkles and glaring “Click me! I’m a quest objective!” signs. Well designed objectives should be readily apparent. For example, instead of a questgiver standing around moaning about how his wife was captured by bandits, you see the wife get taken, and you automatically know what to do (if you so choose to help). You give those bandits what for! Instead of quests being “tasks” to complete, each quest then becomes a story. Not all stories can be simplified to this point, but many should.

[Application 2 – Emotional Storytelling] – Questing has long been noted for its certain mindlessness and reward-driven nature. Without changing too much, we can still add more emotional value to them! Something as simple as climbing a mountain becomes emotionally powerful when the wind and snow is trying to drive you back. Sometimes simply pacing action and non-action better may yield emotion. Some examples:

Determination – give the player some natural opposition, they will become more determined to achieve the goal. Like the wind, it’s not necessarily making the goal harder, but rather giving some tactile challenge that you want to overcome.

Fear, Shock – a surprise enemy, or an enemy that is ‘hunting’ you can really bring out suspense. A scout that passes you while you lie concealed in a bush, a massive beast that you hope doesn’t see you…

[Application 3 – Interactive Storytelling] – And finally, get out of the notion that quests must be either solo or raid content. Forced teamwork is usually obnoxious, but when you design it well, people will naturally want to work together. Obnoxious teamwork is a boost in statistics that must be turned on in order to optimize each other’s damage. Beautiful teamwork is that which requires no external incentives to participate. You can promote beautiful teamwork by putting people in a dangerous situation together, where simply the fact that another player is nearby is comforting.

Journey teaches us some great principles of storytelling. Do we need complex quest systems to tell a story? It seems not. By integrating some basic human nature into the design, perhaps we can get people to care more about the quests they pursue in MMOs. This spotlight’s already too long, so I’ll leave the rest of the discussion up you, the visitor. And if you get a chance, give Journey a look.



2 thoughts on “[Design Spotlight]: Journey

  1. Hi there, I’m certainly going to have to give this game a whirl (assuming it’s out for the PC) as your review has really grabbed me. One aspect I’m eager to try would be the interactive storytelling party based on human nature – my favourite memories of Left 4 Dead (1 & 2) are when players made amazing sacrifices or heroic rescues that seemed to transcend the horrific nature of the game.

    • There’s good story, and then there’s good story that leaves a residue in your mind after you’ve put it down. While games don’t have to change your life or anything, I want to see more of those moments that “transcend” the medium, as you put it.

      Jenova Chen at thatgamecompany is kind of my surrogate hero right now.

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