Missed Connections

Message boards for the Playstation Network game Journey tend to light up every so often.  They are filled with threads with contents such as “If you were the person who played with me tonight, thanks for being there!”   Or “I missed your username at the end, but if you’re reading this, thank you so much for helping me in that second area!”

It is in this very strange way that Journey might be one of the most significant multiplayer games in memory.

(Journey is a game where describing it cannot be done without anecdotes, but there is a genuine sense of wonder in the game that comes from the discovery of new environments.  If you don’t want to know and plan to play the game, feel free to do that and come back.  If you’re not interested but are curious or want to be persuaded, press on.)

Journey’s multiplayer works simply and perhaps frustratingly, depending on what you’re hoping to get from it.  As you travel throughout the game, you will occasionally come across other players.  There’s no reasonable way to create a situation where the game will match up you and a friend or ensure you’re not playing with the dumb kid who goes by WeedMasta420 as their online handle.  The interesting thing about Journey is how little that matters.  The person who might be the bane of your existence in Call of Duty is a comrade and partner in Journey and the game plays that to a great effect.

The only way to interact with someone in Journey is to chirp.  Depending on how long you hold the button, it can be a small half-beat sound or a twirl and a big circle of energy enveloping you.  This is your only source of communication.  There’s no consistent way to make the same sounds, as it chirps in a melodic sequence to sound more like singing than talking, so a simple two-press chirp to signify a “Thank you” can sound downbeat or upbeat depending on the tone the song takes.

My first interaction with someone was early on in the game.  I was just starting to grasp the mechanics and was futzing around in the first puzzle area when I heard chirping coming from a distance and seeing someone twirling as they surfed down sand dunes against a sunset.  With two people, you can recharge jumps by simply standing next to each other, a perk that makes a lot of the puzzles much easier, so we tore through the first few puzzles easily enough.

At some point in the middle of the game, you traverse through an area by surfing down a large hill of sand.  We both stood on the edge of the ruins, looking down at the hill, when my partner let out a loud chirp and jumped in.  No translation was necessary, he was saying we should race.  Even while racing down the sandy hill, we managed to get close together occasionally, and our scarves would glow to indicate that we were recharging our jumps.  He chirped quickly and jumped up on a bridge connecting two buildings while I didn’t realize what he was doing and continued on.   I saw the bottom border of the TV screen get white and realized he was probably just behind me and decided to meet up with him at the next area.

The following area was different from the deserts before.  The player is presented with a dark screen that resembled the ocean floor more than sandy ruins.  I wandered forward for a few minutes and eventually fell down a hole to large, dark valley.  It was dark enough that I could barely see my own player character.  The game wanted me to explore the fairly new mechanic of constantly jumping up magic ribbons that, in the dark, look not unlike tall patches of seaweed.  I walked along the dark floor just chirping and hoping my partner from a few minutes prior would see me and come help. 

After a while, I hit the end of the area and needed to jump up to continue.  I started walking backwards, chirping out of habit more than necessity, when I saw a small light coming from the top of the screen.  The partner I separated from before was standing atop the ribbons, chirping in response to my messages.  Using the context of where he was, I was able to escape.  When he fell off a cliff near the end of the game, I felt actually sad and desperate.  When I reunited with him at the end of the game, I felt happy as we flew to our goal.

This is what makes Journey so unique.  It’s not the artstyle or the graphics or the “art” of the game.  It is what the game does with the imposed limits of multiplayer that allows it to creative interesting narratives.  Despite never directly speaking to this person, knowing who they are or what they sound like or anything about them, I felt emotionally wrapped up in their welfare.  While I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing Gears of War with friends, the Mystery Science Theater-style atmosphere of that kind of co-op is fundamentally different from what Journey tries to do. 

Despite how “progressive” (though, perhaps “different” may be a better word) the multiplayer in Journey is, it is unlikely to be something that can be reproducible in other games.  Having a lack of communication in almost every other co-op environment would not foster any sort of emotional connection, it would simply make for a worse gameplay experience.   The question of why it works for Journey and not for other games is hard to answer, but it may simply come down to Journey being a lighter gameplay experience.  It gives you a better chance to get immersed in the game and less chance for an uncooperative partner to make your experience worse. 

Taking away even just basic communication, a partner that is not giving 100% can be functionally worse than playing alone in most games.  In Gears of War, for example, an AI bot will shoot (perhaps incompetently, but earnestly) at incoming and flanking enemies.  A co-op partner that is merely playing around or choosing not to actively fight can leave you open to more danger.  They are failing to participate in the primary directive the game design sets out and makes the game functionally worse.  Without voice communication, you can’t help or coordinate.  With voice communication, you may find your partner (uncooperative or otherwise) is actively offensive to your sensibilities.  Sure, there are plenty of setups that make Gears of War fun and you can be having fun even without ideal circumstances, but there will never be a sense of total immersion or attachment in the way the game presents its co-op.

Journey is simple enough that a partner cannot really affect your experience negatively.  There are enemies/obstacles that, at worst, will get your partner hurt and not you.  You can solve puzzles, alert your partner to new discovering, and simply make progress without them bothering you.  You can assume the best intentions even if they’re hopelessly incompetent because, as far as you know, they’re an earnest partner in your journey.

This probably does not affect any game going forward.  It is unlikely that what Journey offers in terms of new multiplayer experiences can or even should be replicated.  Perhaps it exists better as a one-off before people learn to draw penises in the sand or find ways to get around the lack of voice communication somehow.  There could be a future for this sort of “Best Assumption” multiplayer in games like Dark Souls, which use the idea well enough already.  Or this idea could have a conceptual dead end since, really, how far can you take the idea of anonymity as bonding?


(Artist Brian Belida's interpretation of Journey)

Either way, that Journey’s multiplayer can succeed so brilliantly is hope that future risks can be taken with online multiplayer, even if it is created by imposing limitations on what we consider standards for the space.  That it creates the equivalent of Craigslist’s “Missed Connections” on gaming message boards may be an unintended consequence, but it is something you’re unlikely to see with such sincerity in games like Modern Warfare 3.