Not so long after my outing with S:S&S EP I planned to have a day with Journey. It was a lazy and quiet Saturday morning, my girlfriend was at work, my cup of tea was still hot, the sun was shining (behind closed curtains of course) and my surround sound system was cranked up and ready to go. I might still have been in my pajamas.
At the EG Expo in 2011 I played one of the opening areas which involved drifting around rippling sand dunes and swirling atop crumbly sunbaked ruins by collecting tickets that powered my scarf giving me more ‘jump juice’. What really thrilled me at the time was the fluidity of motion; moving around was utterly delightful. This shouldn’t have been a surprise given thatgamecompany’s previous game Flower, but nevertheless it was something else to look forward to in addition to my (misguided) notion that the game would involve plenty of exploration and problem solving with others, think Shadow of the Colossus’ open world with the co-operative camaraderie and focused environmental puzzles of Ico, only online.
As I progressed through the game I started to realise that it wasn’t an open world and there were few, if any, real puzzles, including jumping puzzles. The online element was there but it didn’t serve any tangible mechanical purpose, it just felt like a cute addition (and I know how that sounds in contrast to the many anecdotes I’ve read and heard about — it’s widely regarded as the defining element of the game).
My first encounter with another player was short-lived as they rocketed ahead and out of sight. My second encounter lasted a little longer and involved a serial chirper (to be fair they probably only chirped a few times). Moments later — and to my relief — I lost them in a sandstorm. I remember quickly clambering up onto a tower-like structure looking out across the desert to see if my chirping nemesis was anywhere to be seen. Thankfully, they were not. In fact, running away and hiding from other players was probably more fun that accompanying them. My third encounter was by far ‘the best’ in that they didn’t chirp very often, didn’t dash off without me and didn’t drag their feet. They were just there. After thirty minutes or so of continuous play they sat down for a moment then literally disappeared like Obi-Wan right before my eyes. So that was that. It’s worth pointing out that my natural inclination was to just bugger off and stop faffing about with other players entirely because, aside from topping each other’s scarves up when in close proximity, there was no other obvious reason or benefit to stick around, they were just a distraction; a self-imposed escort mission. At least Yorda actually needed me and I needed her.
Journey‘s online component was scarcely co-operative and more ‘cohabitive’ than anything else, very similar to Tale of Tales’ The Endless Forest (a kind of ‘online multiplayer screensaver wander ’em up’ featuring Princess Mononoke inspired mystical forest deer — well worth a look). Whereas The Endless Forest was more of a world to dink around in with no specific goals, a place to while away your time, Journey was a much more directed experience with your mountainous goal (no less) staring you down and overlooking nearly every area in the game. As such it felt like a wasted opportunity to have an online component that amounted to little more than following each other around and chirping or sitting down occasionally. I could see so much more potential for real drama and a genuine sense of connectedness. I only need to think of my experiences with At A Distance and Portal 2.
Going back to the movement though — the thing I enjoyed most about Journey — as in Flower, there were a handful of set pieces that really capitalised on it, my favourite of which was ‘surfing’ through the ruins of a shimmering golden city. I wanted more of that, in the same way that I wanted more of that level in Flower where you fly down a blustery canyon dotted with wind turbines. Another highlight came after the tedious ascent up the snowy mountain, the minor fall before the major lift — a seriously major lift — into the hurtling bright white light of the afterlife, or whatever it was at the end. When Journey opened up and embraced, in my eyes, its greatest strength, it was glorious, but those moments were infrequent and short-lived (and kind of had to be given how spatially immense they were), which is a real shame. If anything, they just made me want to fire up something like Pilotwings or SSX or Nights, and I haven’t even played those before. Some months later Zineth showed up to scratch that particular itch. Disappointingly, when I attempted a second playthrough to fly and glide effortlessly through the early stages with the greater pool of jump juice I’d amassed, I noticed that the length of my scarf had been reset and I would have to collect all the runes again. That was the last time I played it.
But that’s the thing, Journey as a whole felt short-lived. It was still morning when I finished it and, while I don’t subscribe to the idea that games should be any longer than they need to be (on the contrary, I think most should be shorter), for me there just wasn’t enough in Journey to make me feel like… well, like I’d been on a journey. It felt more like a brisk jolly; a trouble-free and effortless jaunt through a number of (very) pretty environments. It was often a case of doing nothing more than trudging forwards, through sand or snow, with or without a chirping stranger. Without any concerted attempt to resist my passage, Journey’s journey felt limp and devoid of the sorts of emotions it was trying so desperately to elicit in me. In truth, I’ve had greater and more gruelling journeys in a single session with Dark Souls and witnessed more compelling online and co-op elements to boot.
Believe it or not, Journey did stimulate my senses; it was often jaw-dropping, and at times, yes, exhilarating, but as that initial wide-eyed wonder wore off there just wasn’t that much else for me. For some, wide-eyed wonder is enough, but I honestly expected more; more exploration and discovery; more challenge to give the journey some weight and significance and sense of reward, this could have taken the form of increased enemy encounters and some genuine puzzles, some could possibly have involved — even required — another player to help, opening up other routes and things to discover; mechanics to actively encourage companionship and teamwork, rather than haplessly bumbling around together as if it really mattered; alternative endings based on your actions, your discoveries, your route through the game and whether you finished it with another player, to encourage repeat playthroughs. And what about permadeath? A game of this length (and one revolving around reincarnation) would be a prime candidate for it. Imagine if enemies were deadly and had to be distracted by you or your companion to get past. Imagine how intense the journey would feel as you got further and further, the prospect of death threatening your every step as well as your companion’s. Imagine losing them at that late stage, but also imagine surviving and making it together against all odds. There’s a reason why Dark Souls does journeys better than Journey. That was the sort of game I expected and wanted Journey to be, but as I drew closer I realised it was just a mirage, an illusion, a tantalising figment of my imagination.
Unlike Journey, my expectations for Dear Esther were somewhat in check. Yes, I heard that Dear Esther was deeply moving so that was probably the kiss of death right there, but I knew it was a lonely walking exploration game where you were given pieces of narrative and expected to put them together as you progressed, and little more. For some time I thought it was non-linear but shortly before playing it I was told it wasn’t. Like S:S&S EP, Dear Esther enforces a particular pace. By that I mean: you walk slowly. Very slowly. In Dear Esther, glacially slow (and this is coming from somebody who played as a heavy in Brink). This is exacerbated by the intimately and beautifully rendered island that you’re required, but more importantly compelled to explore. Dear Esther is perhaps the first game to ever make me feel lazy too. I’d see a spot in the distance and think ‘Oh Christ, I’ve got to walk all the way over there? It’ll take me at least a minute or so and what if there’s nothing there? Then what? I spend another minute with my finger on W just getting back here? …I better check it out, just in case.’ And this was kind of how it went throughout the game. Your only way of interacting and even that felt like a pain in the arse at times.
Then there was the melancholic writing which often felt overwrought and unnecessarily obtuse despite the fantastic acting and pitch perfect delivery. I seem to remember a few metaphors being stretched beyond breaking point too. By the end of the game I had no idea what was what, who was who and how I was supposed to form any foundation on which to build some semblance of a cohesive story. I understood that the narrative was supposed to be fragmented and confused but I found it so off-putting, as if it was resisting interpretation rather than embracing it. Dear Esther was driven mostly by its narrative, which I just couldn’t piece together in a satisfactory or satisfying way. That’s my biggest issue with it. I didn’t care about its ‘lack of gameplay’ or whatever you want to call it, Dear Esther was never about that, it was about the enigmatic island and the fractured tale told by a distant narrator, all underpinned by Jessica Curry’s haunting soundtrack. At the end it wasn’t a case of ‘Wow. Brr. That was powerful.’, it was a more a case of ‘What just happened? Where do I start making sense of this? Can I make sense of it? Should I play it again? I’m too thick for this’.
Since my first playthrough, I’ve loaded it up again to have another crack at it, to hopefully gain a few more pieces of the puzzle to try and slot or mash together, but then I’ve started walking forwards again… slowly… and then… argh, all the way to the Quit button. Maybe another day. Definitely another day.
I can’t deny the very particular spot these games occupy in my heart. They sit close to Grim Fandango in that they’re so clearly labours of love and I dearly wanted to enjoy them as much as others seemed to have, but for various reasons I just couldn’t. S:S&S EP irritated me too much (most likely to do with the translation to PC), Journey didn’t offer enough to raise it above its sterling production, and Dear Esther’s unreliable narrative left me scrabbling about in the dark for answers that probably weren’t there. I’m glad I played them, and happier still that they exist. I recognise and appreciate their uniquity and beauty, and understand to some extent why many regard them so highly, unlike, say, GTA IV. Despite my misgivings however, I want to return to them, to witness them again without the uneasy weight of expectation. Thankfully they’re short enough that I can afford such a luxury. We’ll see how that goes. Who knows, I might even change my tune.
Speaking of tunes, here’s I Have Begun My Ascent, one of the many glorious tracks from Dear Esther.
To contact the author of this heresy email firstname.lastname@example.org or, y’know, leave a comment. Be gentle.