Journey and the art of emotional game design | Technology | The Guardian
As a design there is a clear intent – you've reached the end of the map, I believe the game succeeds – it makes me question my relationship. The compelling relationship between Joel and Ellie as they fend for In a nutshell, the evocative Journey is a third-person adventure in With a movie- length cutscene sequence at the end, MGS4 ended with a startling bang. But how about that ending? (If you've yet to finish Journey, read no further.) From freezing ice to soaring mountaintops in seconds. But was it.
Share via Email Journey: This mystical adventure, developed by Santa Monica-based studio thatgamecompany, represents one of those rare moments that make us question everything about the medium. I want to try and look at it from both a top-down and bottom-up design perspective.
I'm a design director at Codemasters and I talk to the game designers here about these different approaches quite a bit. In simple terms, bottom-up game design is concerned with the fine mechanics of the experience, where the function is king and the form follows later. At Codemasters this is of great importance due to the need to make the car handling experience perfect for the user. A bottom-up game designer thinks in abstract terms: If we look at Journeywhat are the bottom-up design elements that exist in the game?
The core mechanic is the fluidity of movement of the main character. In Mario games it's easy to imagine Mario as a ball, the way his abstract form — the collision sphere if you like — "rolls" and arcs within the environment.
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Nintendo's animators then do an amazing job of fitting an appropriate form to that function. Originally Mario's form, like many characters from the 8-bit era, was designed to fit within a pixel bounding area, leading to a short fat guy with barely distinguishable arms and legs. In effect, this form evolved to work within the rolling ball function while staying true to the original character design — a bottom-up approach. Journey has a similar feeling, to me. To give the player an incredibly natural, accessible motion, the artists have not bound themselves by a typical human form, which would demand certain behaviours.
The gliding and floating mechanics work because the cloaked figure, with legs that end in single points, is as fluid as the movement itself.
Another key element of design is the use of signs and feedback to help the player understand the game systems. The clearest evidence of signs within Journey are landmarks and collectibles.
The latter speak for themselves: The landmarks are more interesting. I think one undervalued aspect of Journey is the brilliance in the simplicity of the level design.
The very first scene presents the player with a barren landscape. The player has to rotate the camera in order to see something, thus teaching you a basic input through a natural process. The only point of interest is a hill, on top of which two flags capture our attention. Let's go there, then. It sounds ridiculous, but how many games have started with a beautiful, complex world where you sit there and wonder "erm, where am I supposed to go?
Where Journey gets this so right is through the architecture of the environment.
The world tells you where to go. Even if the player fails to comprehend it, the game directs you through the use of wind walls which blow you back. As a design there is a clear intent — you've reached the end of the map, but for a mainstream player the form of this feedback is subtle and believable — there are no invisible barriers but a gentle sandstorm that builds to prevent progression.
So you head toward the flags. On arrival, the camera rises to reveal the mountain.
Journey and the art of emotional game design
No need for an objective update, or a character telling me what to do next — the messaging and motivation is implicit in the level design architecture: I need to go to that mountain. The game is populated with these landmarks, and it's testament to the team's bravery that they stripped everything back to keep the player informed without compromising with non-relevant eye candy. The easiest feedback to think about is the character's energy scarf. When developing games, designers often think about game loops — cycles that involve setting a player objective, providing a challenge to overcome in order to achieve that objective, and rewarding the player for their triumph.
A good game loop reward enables the player to overcome more difficult challenges hence the loop is complete. Atomically, Journey has a simple micro loop: And of course, this growing ability is connected to the core mechanic movement since a player with a longer scarf is more manoeuvrable in the game world. This scarf, like the wind walls that prevent players from travelling in the wrong direction, is an elegant implementation of a simple feedback.
The scarf could have simply been a HUD element — a bar that grows and then drains on use, to be replenished on landing.
I imagine this is how the team tested the mechanic, but the creative direction, the top-down approach, demanded something much more elegant. So, the fluidity of the character is wonderful, the game has strong signs and feedback, motivation is implicit in the game world. These are all excellent characteristics of a great game, things players take for granted and things designers struggle constantly to implement in order to guide.
In my opinion, however, it is how these bottom-up elements are fused with Journey's top-down design that elevates the game. Top-down design involves creating a game that has a message, a meaning to communicate to the player.
I don't mean things like "kill the demon lord" or "rescue the princess" but instead something that makes us question an aspect of our life, or society, or the status quo. Games such as Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and the recent re-boot of Prince of Persia deal with issues surrounding love and sacrifice, but through gameplay rather than cut-scenes.
This gives the player time to reflect on the situation: Yet here she now is, dead, in the arms of the Prince, as the player walks down this corridor with the credits rolling. Throughout the game, the resurrection altar has been referenced, and it soon dawns on the player the choice they will have to make: Here is where I believe the game succeeds — it makes me question my relationship with a virtual character: I wasn't concerned about that buffoon the Prince, but more my connection.
Well the team at thatgamecompany and academics cleverer than me can probably tell you precisely, but for me the message is this: It's a sombre world at first, punctuated with symbolic gravestones in a desert of ruins, representing some catastrophic event from the past.
The game system of the growing scarf, while a beautiful touch in relation to signs and feedbacks, also connects the player with preparing for the future — you feel comfortable with a longer scarf, and as such when you replay the game seek out scarf pieces that in the past you may have ignored.
In the game, players learn from other, more experienced players through the innovate anonymous co-op mechanic, which pairs up participants randomly so that they can explore together. I remember the first time I met a "white" player. Immediately I was inspired and fascinated — how did they become white?
What have they achieved? And most importantly, what can I learn from them? The purity of the white character, matching the colours of the spirit Gods you meet along the way, provides a status for players to aspire to, but also inspiration for less experienced participants — they are a guide, an expert, a helper.
Journey Ending Discussion (SPOILERS) - Journey - Giant Bomb
They have been through the experience and have learned from past mistakes, just as the game asks you to do the same. The weight of expectation on Journey is huge. Because it's this game championed as an emotional tour de force, and a masterclass in things like game design and non-verbal communication, anyone coming in fresh is automatically expected to feel something.
And this colours the experience of playing it for the first time, because you're always wondering when the big 'wow' moments are coming.
And did you just miss it? Oh, was that it - the bit with the sliding? Expecting something from Journey runs very contrary to the whole Journey experience. The clue is in the name - you're here for the journey, and that's the wow moment.
It works as a whole, not a series of stand-out scenes, and the way you experience it personally is key. The reason the game had such impact is because no-one really knew what to expect from it in the first place, so that sense of wonder and discovery was very much intact.
A second or third playthrough is different, less wonderful, and even an initial foray into the world - after three years of additional hype - is tainted. It's no longer a console curio, or experiment in the once burgeoning indie space. Ironically, it's marketed differently, promoted differently, and treated more like a traditional console title.
Which it isn't, at heart. This means you're more likely to have seen friends using PS4's share functions to plaster your Twitter feed with pretty images of the game since it launched.