Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Game Ramble: Journey

I've been getting interested recently in what seem to be known as Art Games, a loose genre of video
games that are trying to break out from some of the form's traditional limitations and achieve the kind of thing that you'd expect of an art form more than a work designed solely to entertain.  It's a fine line of course, and you'd have to be blind to miss the artistry that goes into almost any game these days, but I still find the whole thing intriguing.  The facet that's really caught my attention, though, is what this might mean for video game narrative, an area in which the burgeoning medium has undeniably often tended to let itself down.

The story of Journey, stripped to its bare bones, is actually no great shakes.  It is in fact, as the title hints, the traditional hero's journey; that is, it draws on the concept of an archetypal hero and narrative structure that mythologist Joseph Campbell famously identified as underlying much of world mythology.  The game's director, Jenova Chen, states this explicitly in the "making of" documentary included on the collector's edition, and there's even a diagram mapping Campbell's hypothetical stages to the game's levels.

So as core narratives go, Journey's isn't particularly interesting of in and of itself, especially considering that a great many video game plots conform to Campbell's model.  What is interesting is that Journey chooses to flesh out this skeleton by abandoning so many of the traditional tools of storytelling.  Nothing is spoken in any recognisable language.  The player character's design allows for only the simplest expressions.  There are other humanoid characters, but they never speak.  There are non-humanoid creatures, but they communicate, as the player character does, through tonal, whale-like noises.  You encounter glyph-like, symbolic drawings and it's possible to piece together continuity and history from these, but there's no actual text anywhere in the game besides the title and credits.

In the place of spoken or written language, then, Journey exploits some familiar alternatives - visual design, music, design cues - and uses them exceptionally well.  But it also does some things that are more subtle and hard to define.  It achieves much by offering small hints and leaving the rest to the player's imagination, a technique more common to books than gaming or its closest cousin cinema.  And it achieves even more by tapping into subconscious desires and fears: the heart-stopping feeling of flying, a section lit and decorated as though it were underwater and frequent moments of sliding almost helplessly down banks of sand are uncanny and powerfully dreamlike.

In fact, those words pretty much sum up what Journey's about.  It's impossible to describe quite how it all comes together in practice, except to say that the experience is much like trying to make sense of an extraordinarily vivid dream.  Most of your brain just sort of goes along with it intuitively, experiencing things in simple, emotional terms, while a small part throws up wild theories to try and make wider sense of what's going on.  And all of this relies on being experienced, on the act and the very notion of play.  Because so many of its narrative beats are emotional and because that emotion relies on player interaction, Journey creates a narrative that you can only intuit full meaning from by physically and intellectually engaging with it.

That, in my experience, is something new to storytelling, at least on this scale and with this level of success.  And it's not often that any medium offers a genuinely novel experience, or discovers new ways of telling stories, so I should surely finish by recommending that if you have a PS3 and haven't yet played Journey, you really should.  That said, it isn't perfect and, to my mind, it doesn't entirely succeed; there's a tension between the need to tell a story and the need to be a game that leaves some of the most interesting, and also some of the most basic, aspects of the narrative left flailing.  The very end, for me, was particularly disappointing from a story point of view.  But since I can't go into that without spoilers, I'll settle for saying instead that the fact that I'm still annoyed by it days afterwards is almost a recommendation in itself; I struggle to think of any other game that's frustrated me so much on narrative merit alone.  And the fact that I know I'll play through again, even knowing what's waiting, is testament to what a powerful, fascinating experience Journey delivers.

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