Thursday, December 16, 2010

thatgamecompany's Journey - An Online Experience Like No Other

Some games are so good, they just make me want to sing, so pardon me while I warble a bit before the actual preview...

Gonna take a Sentimental Journey,

Gonna set my heart at ease.
Gonna make a Sentimental Journey,
to renew old memories...

OK, I'm done, the judges have spoken and I got unanimously booted off the island (without a boat or a paddle, mind you). You may remove that cotton from your ears and read on.

One of the biggest and best embargoed surprises at Sony's holiday event last week was thatgamecompany's Journey, a downloadable PS3 exclusive that just may be one of the most innovative online experiences ever created. Taking a cue from the beauty, simplicity and ease of play found in flOw, Flower and Cloud, the game combines open world exploration, platforming and puzzle elements in an elegantly simple, yet extremely lovely package. While the build on display was only playable by the two tgc staffers present, it was immediately clear what was on display just might rewrite the book on Internet play. In a way, tgc has created the safest online multiplayer game in the world... and a gorgeously rendered one at that.

tgc's Kellee Santiago was my tour guide through the game's world and the first thing I noticed (well, next to how darn happy and healthy the tgs folks at the event looked) was the game world's amazing sand. Remember the first time you saw those rippling water effects in Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance and went "Oooooooh" for about a minute each time you got near a new puddle? Well, Journey's sand tops that by a few thousand miles. It's nearly a living thing, reacting to your avatar's steps, gently rolling in breezes like golden waves and sparking like bits of soon-to-be glass in the sunlight. The game world is indeed massive and isn't just a big empty desert space. There's a massive tower seemingly dozens of miles away that needs traveling to and your nameless character is a magically endowed being that can float and even "fly" for brief periods. Cloth also comes into play as a game mechanic as your character can react with any fabric in the environment from billowing flags to torn curtains hiding secret areas.

There's an overall story here that's actually not told through long-winded cut scenes or loads of text spooling out as you play. In fact, go in expecting an 'epic' of some sort and you may be mildly disappointed at the intentional, more personal scale the game takes despite such large scope. A more organic, silent treatment is in effect, with the visuals shifting to point you where you need to go and simple yet slightly tricky methods of getting from point A to point B (and onwards). For example, you may need to "activate" a group of fluttering banners, which will react to your character's incantation and drift upwards to form a bridge between a previously impossible jump. There were a few other puzzles like this and from what Santiago mentioned, I gathered that one player can indeed get through the game alone. However, other elements of the game offer the chance to get other live players involved and it's here that the game goes off into genius territory.

Unlike other multiplayer focused open world games, Journey can only be played by TWO players on screen maximum at a time. While that's rolling around in your head, it gets even better. There are NO floating screen names, NO voice chat, and NO other way to communicate with another player except through a "song" like conversation chime and your game-related movements. This means that each player will have a completely unique experience with their Journey as random players drift in and out of play sessions. You can enter a game for a few minutes and come across someone in need of help with a puzzle, give them a literal lift and move on or spend a few hours exploring and uncovering secrets at your own pace. I can only imagine the heads exploding in other game studios where an idea such as this was shot down as being too boring or a waste of time. Thankfully, the staff at tgc went forward and even more thankfully SCEA and Sony Santa Monica took to the game and are giving it lots of love.

As soon as I saw this new take on the not -so MMO in action, I had to smile inside as well as out. This means that anyone of any age anywhere can play the game and NOT worry about who's on the other end of that connection. By eliminating all but the most basic form of communication the game allows, tgc has effectively lit the path for other online game developers to follow. Pure gameplay and great game design go a much longer way in driving the experience than wasting time dealing with online troublemakers and Journey, I think, is going to be a pioneer in leading the way for other developers (at least I hope so). Then again, I'm also hoping tgc manages to keep this feature all to themselves and expand it as they create new game experiences down the road. It's clear that they're going to be around for a while.

If you haven't guessed from the trailer above or the screens below, Journey is an extremely beautiful game to look at (and definitely a grand play experience). Fans of Team ICO's work or anyone who loves the paradox of stark simplicity yet visual depth will absolutely love the art direction and how everything just fits perfectly together. It all looks plain at first glance (or in still shots), but as noted above, that sand steals the show while the rest of the game world takes your breath away. I got to see an equally stunning cave portion of the game that I first thought was a wintry level packed with deep snow, but it was just the amazing lighting lending a 'colder' tone to that new interior level. Animations for the characters are realistic and flow naturally - you truly get a sense of place and timelessness in the game's sparse yet rich world. I'd pay good money just to see the look on the faces of the "games aren't art" crowd as they're silently shut up, then shut down by this wordlessly weird yet instantly playable artistic gem.

I didn't get to hear much in the way of music in the demo (well, the Killzone 3 and Playstation Move Heroes builds were right next to the area where the game was demoed, so parts of the music and sounds went unheard with all that blasting happening a few feet away), but if tgc's other games are any indication, fans will be clamoring for a soundtrack before the game is even released. The sound effects were excellently implemented, however. there's a minimalist style at work here that's bound to get the game noticed by all sorts of awards-giving peers, that's for sure.

My ONLY minor gripe, and I'll say this as long as brick and mortar retail stores are open, is that the game will ONLY be available as a download. Granted, it IS an online game experience, but I could see some sort of tgc games bundle on a blu-ray with all their games plus a bunch of bonus content selling well to users who don't have PSN accounts yet but might want to give the service a shot in a free format (with an upgrade to one of Sony's paid services if they love what they play). Heck, if tgc can port Journey to the PSP (or do a standalone version) at some point or make good use of the very underused PSP to PS3 Remote Play function, it would be even better for those of use who want to play while traveling. Imagine sitting in an airport, laundromat or bus station, playing away and suddenly hearing a musical tone as another player you can't see wants to join your wordless session? I say instant hit, especially is it's a PSP2 launch title. But I'm not a bean-counter or analyst, so what do I know about the games business?

Anyway, 2011 is definitely going to be the year many, many PS3 owners get to go on a Journey that won't soon forget and thanks to tgc and Sony, they'll want to keep coming back for more. Speaking of more, expect more updates on this innovative masterpiece as soon as more info rolls in.

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