The Austin Chronicle

In Play

By James Renovitch, March 30, 2012, Screens


PlayStation 3, $14.99

On a 2012 South by Southwest Interactive panel, Jamin Warren, editor of gaming culture mag Kill Screen, described developer Thatgamecompany as making art "not for the person who bought the PlayStation 3, but for the person sitting next to that person." The company's innovative and experimental output serve as gateway games for casual gamers to engage with the somewhat intimidating world of hardcore consoles. The group's previous games have experimented in noncompetitive interactivity with very few barriers to entry. In FlOw, the player controls an organism that grows as it ingests other organisms. Its minimal, glowing ambience and unique, buttonless controls put Thatgamecompany on the map. Follow-up Flower was even more abstract. Players harnessed the wind itself and picked up flower petals as they explored an idyllic landscape. When the "Are games art?" debate was at its most heated, Flower was often paraded before naysayers as undeniable proof.

Thatgamecompany's latest release, Journey, follows the same tenets as its previous output: There is no dying and no killing, the emphasis is on exploration, and exposition is all but nonexistent. Players are dropped in the desert with a mountain looming in the distance. No instruction or backstory is given, only visual cues to help get the red-robed character up and about. The sand shifts realistically underfoot and glows majestically in the sun, supplying a surprisingly varied atmosphere. As you climb dunes, the sea of beige can seem endless, but as you surf down hills at sunset, the sand becomes blinding liquid gold. The music often uses little more than a simple cello to evoke an isolated mood, picking up tempo and a few more instruments in loftier chapters. The player can only emit a tone to interact with certain areas. Oh yeah: You can fly, too. If you look hard enough, you'll spot cameo "characters" from Flower and FlOw. These echoes to previous works subtly hint at an auteur theory at work here. Even though there are different programmers and artists at work on the three games, there is an undeniable ethos and aesthetic shared by the company's core members.

It only takes about two hours to play Journey from start to finish, but in that short time, the game can incite a range of emotions, from solemn loneliness to pure joy. Aztec-inspired animations weave an emotional tale in the process. Once the secrets of the titular journey are revealed, why would a player go back for more? The true genius of the game is the online, multiplayer feature. Throughout your travels, you'll run into other robed compatriots controlled by players online – but don't expect the usual headset trash talk associated with games heavy on firearms. Other than through vocal tones, there is no way to communicate with the other players. Two players are not needed to complete the game, but if you are lucky enough to stay with one player for the entire trip, the bond created is a thing of beauty. The final moments of the game become bittersweet as the ubiquitous tone sounds slide into something like good-byes and thank-yous, whether the other player intended them as such or not. It is this kind of interactivity that separates video games from other visual arts and sets Journey up to be a defining statement for the medium.

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