Category Archives: Video Games

Tell Me A Story – Journey

To create a story that is entirely dependent on its witness, that uses no human language in the telling, is truly something else. Thatgamecompany’s Journey is something else.

I’ve played Journey an uncountable number of times. While my initial playthrough left me in quiet tears, each subsequent play brought a new kind of emotion to the table. In one, I lost my partner in a snow drift — sorrow. In another, the hooded figure journeying with me quit and dissolved into nothingness — abandonment. In still another I never encountered anyone — desolate loneliness.

But nothing in my Journey experience so far has hit me as hard as my latest travel through the world of shifting golden sand, when someone else — another figure in a hood of white, with the longest scarf I’ve yet to see — made himself accountable for me. Without question, without missing a beat between our initial meeting and that first hopeful “shout”. Someone else took responsibility for guiding me through the snow. Someone else, a stranger, looked at my stumpy cloth and decided that they would lead me on, watch over me, and stick close enough to hear my feeble cries as the wind and ice wore us down.

It’s one thing to have an unknown companion make the conscious, deliberate choice to follow you to the ends of the earth. It’s quite another to have him become your self-appointed protector. And this, this is what changed the story for me irrevocably, for I know that when I next venture into the game I will seek to protect a “baby scarf,” should I find myself journeying alongside someone with a shorter length of cloth.

Journey can’t be called a visual novel or a choose-your-own-adventure game, though it can be thought of as a soft cross-breed of the two. While the game relies on several short scenes to convey backstory and move the action along, they are neither long nor abrupt, weaving seamlessly into the tapestry of gameplay. These are no long-winded CGI cutscenes but brief “visions” conducted by the player’s character, the nameless red-robed figure.

While there is no way to articulate in-game, there are more abstract ways to communicate. Other than a few simple pictorial directions in the opening minutes, the game chooses to communicate with you through chirping bolts of animate cloth. These wispy flying fabrics will often lead you in the direction you should be headed, sometimes picking you up to carry if you’re too sluggish. The presence of cloth often indicates a puzzle that needs to be solved with  a “shout,” the noise your hooded figure makes to activate special stones and revive “dead” cloth.” Other than this, interaction with the environment is completely open. You can fight back against the raging wind or take shelter behind protruding monoliths, make a straight path through the desert or stop at various oases to collect glyphs that elongate your scarf.

There is no right or wrong way to play Journey, and as such there is no right or wrong way to interpret where it leads you. Director Jenova Chen designed the game this way, leaving everything cracked wide open for translation. But that doesn’t mean there is no story. Journey is trying to say something, but what it is depends entirely on how the player reads the elements of the game. Placed onto a character blank with complete control over player-environment and player-player interaction, the stories that are spun are individual — completely unique.

So how do you tell a story without telling a story?

It’s all there. The exposition begins when the player realizes they are working towards the mountain in the far-off distance. Rising action begins with a steady pacing across the desert, then complicates as the environment changes, dumping the player into abandoned subterranean networks and pushing them up the frigid wind-scourged mountainside. The climax, the bittersweet release from your anguished trek, arrives in a heightened burst of sound, clear blue sky, and the ability to freely navigate the final level according to your whims. Birth, life, death, and that moment before the soul passes from the physical world — that ethereal “something else” — form the backbone of the tale. But what happens between this slender framework is undefinable, ever-changing and unquantifiable.

The story players adapt to in Journey is raw and real. It touches on the primal instinct to seek companionship, to avoid loneliness. Through explorations and glowing visions the player learns they have been placed in the wreckage of a fallen civilization, a desert of tombstones and tattered cloth. How they cope with their ancestor’s fate, as well as their own, is a string of decisions that are theirs and theirs alone. Players can choose to guide, be guided, work in tandem, or simply float along in self-reliance.

The experience Journey provides overflows the senses, so much so that someone has even created a Tumblr dedicated to sharing Journey stories. None are alike, but all carry the same breathless tone of wonder, the same softly intimated emotions. Based on their interactions, some assume the gender and age of their companion, an interesting twist as this ascription of defining traits colors their viewpoint and the way they transcribe gameplay. Immediately noticeable is one prevailing feeling: love.

Players talk of “falling in love” with the hooded figure that clings to them, of looking up to the one guiding them. People write of not having the heart to abandon another player, of becoming anxious when their companion falls out of view. Journey can be a love story, or a tale of utter abandonment and solitude. As human beings, though, we seek and place great stake in love — so love, naturally, is the core on which co-op gameplay is built.

Love. Love for someone whose name you don’t know, whose face you can’t see and whose voice you can’t hear. Love for a complete stranger, someone who you have no obligation to help and who has no obligation to help you. The sort of altruism Journey inspires is love in its purest form — the simple, unbiased desire to assist and accompany another being. No promises are made and no rewards are offered. There isn’t even a points system. All players know about each other is that they are human; gender, race, age are all unknown, removing all basis for judgement. What little of each other’s personality that can be gleaned comes from movement and the clear, ringing “shout.”

My own story ended with my white-robed guide carefully positioning himself before me as we made the final upward climb. His scarf, delicately fluttering behind him, flickered over my own robes as the wind whipped around us, granting me just enough power for a few more feeble jumps. When we fell, we fell together. When we were revived, as we twirled through blue skies and crystal waterfalls to the final mountain peak, somehow I lost him. Desperate, panicked, I flew up and down those kelp-like cloth structures. In the final moment, in the clutch, I had lost the one who protected me. He had led me to hidden glyphs, sheltered me from ice and those laser-firing serpents, and in those climactic moments of triumph I was not with him.

But there, at the top and just before the entrance to the mountain, beyond all of the pain and suffering we had endured, was my white-robed friend waiting for me. He chirped joyfully until my feet touched the ground, and then he circled me once, twice, three times. In his “shouts” I felt, or almost heard, him singing to me. He was proud to have been there for me, proud of me for making it — I could sense in the way he kept stopping, turning, waiting, making sure I was beside him as we walked into the blinding light.

Minutes after the credits ceased to roll, we had found each other on PSN. I received a message: “Safe travels, little one…”

A game that inspires love, real traces of human love, creates a story that bleeds beyond its own boundaries and lingers long after the console has been turned off. You are not watching scripted characters dance through a complicated plot. You are watching yourself, cloaked in red and gold, interact with others seeking the same end. The plot that unfolds is unscripted, organic. Real. True.

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“Wear your hottest outfit.”

Yesterday afternoon an unnamed enthusiast for my work tweeted me this link and told me to apply. Maxim is holding an open casting call for a “gamer girl,” presumably to be the face of the magazine’s gaming department.

“If you’re both a girl and a gaming enthusiast, you could have the one-two punch we’ve been looking for!” the posted ad squeals. “We’re currently on the search for a Maxim Gamer Girl who loves gaming like Mario loves avoiding his plumbing responsibilities.” If the words casting call haven’t thrown you off already, this weird and completely off-the-mark Super Mario reference should. The icing on the cake is the direction at the bottom: “Wear your hottest outfit.”

Maxim, it seems, isn’t looking for a girl to write about games. They are looking for the fabled “Gamer Girl” that is the stuff of dreams, the chiseled-from-ivory Galatea that haunts the introverted male gamer’s fantasies. The girl who is all that and a gil sack, a buxom beauty with the skill set to crush the rankings in an FPS and fly through turn-based battles like it’s second nature. But by placing this emphasis on appearance, Maxim has assured that they won’t be getting a writer of substance. They will get a “Gamer Girl,” alright. What they won’t get is a gamer.

Now I’m not saying all girls who carry their PlayStation Vitas around in their purses are ugly and fat (I take my own to the gym with me). I’m a firm believer in subjective beauty, so this is a moot point to make. Maxim, with its outdated game allusion and demand for something with sex appeal, has more than likely weeded out a large majority of the women who can intelligently write about games. Not because we don’t think we can stack up to a supermodel fellating an Xbox controller, but because “wearing our hottest outfit” is an inappropriate measure of our abilities. My boobs can’t write a game review, but my fingers and brain can do a real bang-up job. And while I have nothing against the women who will undoubtedly try out for this gig, I have to question Maxim’s goals.

I’m not going to play the sexist/misogyny card because I know the staff at Maxim isn’t stupid. They know what they’re after, shooting into a pool of attractive young women and hoping to come out with one who knows a lick about video games. They will find her, too, but whoever she is must know that priority one is her image. Quality of content comes later.

If Maxim truly wants a video games writer who is female, then why not ask for writing samples? If my Twitter feed is any indication, the ridicule from both guy and gal games writers alike over this should be a good indication of who and what won’t be present in the candidates that proffer themselves. Any writer worth their salt knows that you need to look and act professional in order to be taken seriously. Posing in silk lingerie with a Wii remote positioned suggestively near delicately puckered lips isn’t the picture of credibility. But good, solid, thoughtful content is.

I understand that sex sells beautifully in this market, and Maxim’s audience isn’t the same as that of Game Informer or Kotaku. I can’t get too riled over this because the magazine’s is all cosmetic fluff and image-oriented. What does rile me up is that by looking for a “gamer girl” in their “hottest outfit” they have dealt another blow to the crazy misogyny and bad behavior that is already sneaking around the underbelly of the industry.

I am a firsthand witness that this nonsense is still going on, and perpetuating the stereotype of the sexed-up attention-starved ever-eager “Gamer Girl” just hammers home the idea that most women in the industry — namely the journalism sphere — are indiscriminate harlots. If we are even the slightest bit open in our presentation, friendly in our communication, some take it as a sign that we are “asking for it,” and when we refuse the damage comes in the form of whispered rumors and upturned noses.

To be blunt, it shouldn’t matter what any of us do in our personal time, so long as we conduct ourselves with appropriate decorum at work and put a solid effort into what we do. Being a games journalist comes with a hefty amount of responsibility, which is why Maxim’s criteria for one most certainly won’t yield them the best of results.

Maxim will find what they are looking for, guaranteed. But whether or not the rest of the industry will take their correspondent seriously is contingent on the weight of the content they produce, not their cup size.

UPDATE: Five minutes after this posting went up, Maxim removed the lines “Wear your hottest outfit” and “First come first serve, ladies” from the bottom of their ad.

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