Journey and Efficient Game Design

What kind of surprised me about Journey upon finishing it was how much it reminded me of Limbo – probably one of my favorite Xbox Live Arcade games.  The games have a ton of similarities and differences from one another, but my favorite quality in both of them is the same – how well they communicate to players.

Upon finishing Limbo I wrote on 1up about how it strangely reminded me of a lot of 16 bit games from the days before we had lavish cut scenes and voice acting.  It reminded me of back when video games had to communicate to players visually through nothing but what was there in the game.  I probably should’ve known this upon playing Flower, but Journey does a similarly terrific job of this kind of thing, and to great effect as well.

I’m pretty sure a lot of people playing games on consoles today have complained more than once about designers treating them like idiots with forced, exploitative tutorials and messages that pop up every time the game thinks you might be having trouble figuring out where to go next.  Whatever happened to making games intuitive?  More importantly, whatever happened to letting players experience the wonder of discovering and learning new things without having to be told?

What I like the most about Journey is that after a diagram pointing out the circle button on the controller, not a single word is used again throughout the entire game.  And yet, it is able to communicate a system for traversal, events, places, and feelings in ways more effective than most AAA games.

I will admit that mechanically Journey is a very simple game.  You only use one face button and there’s only just enough “game” present in the experience to create the tension necessary for the narrative.  But what  Journey does is still something I feel other games should try to learn.

The game doesn’t have to explain to you that the ribbon flowing from your scarf represents how much flight power you have.  You just see it and connect the dots as the power leaves it and as it grows bigger upon each upgrade.  Even the game’s enemies – what they are and how they hurt you, are effectively described by good set pieces and easily identifiable mechanics.

The first time you see an enemy in Journey you see it killing something, which immediately tells you that you need to get the hell away from it.  A lot of old games did this – displaying the danger before you can fall into it instead of stopping you for some kind of alert message.  That part was a driving factor for Journey’s narrative too.  I think anyone who’s played Flower or Shadow of the Colossus expected Journey to do what it did with the overarching story, but the way it communicates emotions through the game mechanics is truly impressive and kind of a breakthrough when you think about it.  I won’t spoil the game’s later parts, but there were moments during gameplay where things got pretty deep.

Journey and Limbo are both sort of like old school games in terms of how they talk to players, just brought into today’s technology.  Journey though is a rare chance to see that kind of efficiency in gaming narrative done in 3D.  It’s kinda sad that games now have all this technology they can use to show players so much, but they’ve come to rely more and more on telling.


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