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.
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I pretty much agree with you 100% on Dear Esther. (Having not played Journey I can’t comment on that.) I was overall sort of let down by Dear Esther. I wanted to be able to explore more in a sense that wasn’t about movement: there were too many times I wanted to be able to touch something and couldn’t. I wouldn’t have cared if all I could do was look at the thing. I just wanted to have a sense I could examine stuff, I guess.
And the writing didn’t work for me. And the fact that it seems to be yet another example of “artsy indie games must be melancholy.” I pay attention to it, now, because enough people care enough about it that it’s part of the conversation, but I, for one, think it is interesting ideas lacking execution.
Although I don’t have a problem with the lack of interactivity in Dear Esther (I certainly had a brief ‘oh wow, there really is no other kind of interaction’ moment) I too wouldn’t have minded a means of exploring the environments and interacting with them a little more, if only to allow another way of piecing the narrative together through ‘findables’. But then again, I don’t know, not having that option means you just focus on moving forward, letting the narrative ‘flow’ over you, rather than rummaging through shit and combing every square pixel, which I feel like I do in nearly every game these days…
As I’ve already written Gregg (and I’m sure this was in the back your mind), I couldn’t quite get into Dear Esther. The non-interactivity is not the problem exactly – I don’t have similar issues with Dys4ia, for example – but just like you I found it difficult to get something tangible from the experience. I also now believe the environmental non-interactivity is part of the narrative; the absence of mechanics tells you something about your avatar.
I’m not sure I’d sign up with the theory that Journey is comparable to Portal 2 and At A Distance. I’ve not played Journey, but it felt to me they were trying to do pull off something very different. However, I think the line you draw with The Endless Forest is on the money, finding a connection with strangers in the absence of language.
I can’t agree with you on Journey, Gregg, though your arguments are fair and understandable. Dear Esther… well, I’m a little more on the fence about that one. I did give it a high score, but in retrospect I think that was more about relishing the beauty and appreciating the effort than actually enjoying the game.
Where I really agree with you on Dear Esther is the interactivity issue. Walking around can accomplish a lot, but I’d have liked maybe a touch of interactivity for depth. There’s a new game coming out… “Gone Home,” I think it’s called, that might match what everyone seems to be looking for: a slower, surreal mystery focused on gentle exploration, but with that interactivity that makes a game world feel alive.
Gregg, I haven’t played Dear Esther, so I have no opinion.
As for Journey though, you didn’t state anything I can honestly take issue with. For me the graphical beauty and the “journey as metaphor” were enough. There were moments during the more difficult sections when just trying to stay together with my companion were compelling in themselves. I suppose it was the fact that you were helpless to offer anything more than companionship that made those moments moving.
So I don’t really fault the game for not offering more risk/reward in the Dark Souls
vein, but I appreciate your disappointment. Here’s the solution: lower your standards! I kid!
@HM: Good point. There’s a certain eerie stasis about the island in Dear Esther which the lack of interactivity reinforces. The island felt like an amalgam or physical manifestation of the narrator’s garbled memories (hence the car wreckage in that ravine near the beginning, nowhere near a road) which he retreads like a ghost, a trapped soul, unable to affect his past. Or something. I don’t know.
Regarding my At A Distance and Portal 2 comment: you’re absolutely right, they’re not comparable. I was using those more as contrasting examples; that I relish the sort of multiplayer experience that arises from focused co-operative play. I was baffled by Journey’s multiplayer, I couldn’t work out what exactly it was supposed to be bringing to the table. I just didn’t get it. (Steerpike called me a heartless bastard in the staff forums but in my defence I have trouble keeping back the tears watching Wall-E so I can’t be that cold.)
I wonder how more co-operative elements would have panned out with the restrictive communication though? Personally I think it would have been fascinating to see how players form a vocabulary as they try to work through things together. Both Another World and Ico featured companions whose relationships were built on teamwork and co-operation, despite language barriers and only being able to gesture and holler at each other. Journey had the potential to recreate those kinds of dynamics — but between real people — but without the emphasis on co-operative play, without any dependency on the other player, I think it missed out. What if in Ico or Another World you didn’t need Yorda or the alien dude? What if they were as capable as you were on their own? The dynamic that made those games so affecting would be gone or scarcely exist. I think that’s what Journey’s multiplayer was missing for me. That dependency to make it matter.
@Steerpike: Gone Home I have heard of but know very little about. Am I right in thinking it’s being developed by the folks who worked on Minerva’s Den? The apparently brilliant DLC for Bioshock 2 that I never got to play because of 2K Support’s incredible incompetence and unhelpfulness?
@Botch: Honestly Botch, it’s not been easy writing these two articles. I can moan all day in person, I’m great at it, but on paper, and when you’re dealing with things that people love very dearly, you’ve got to be careful!
Anyway, thanks for the comments folks. I was a bit concerned I might have inflamed a few of you. I hope xtal’s okay…
While you do not “need” a co-op partner in Journey on a technical level (to complete obstancles, enemies, etc.), I needed my partner on an emotional level dammit! 😛
Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my comment in part 1, someone’s experience with Journey is heavily influenced by the players they come across. That can be bad, or pretty damn amazing.
When I got separated from my companion for the first time, after spending a few levels with them, I really felt the loss. And not because I needed them to get over the next sand dune, but because I missed having them by my side. My journey began to feel pretty lonely and slightly scary. It didn’t help that I lost them just as we left behind the sun and sand and entered much darker waters. I do not think I have felt more lonely in a game than I did at that moment. And that was pretty damn impressive.
I really wish everyone who plays Journey could experience it their first time with good companions that fit into their playstyle. It takes the game to another level completely.
@tanis: I think even if I’d had the right companion I still would have questioned why exactly I needed to be around them. There was nothing aside from the underused scarf topping up mechanic and the warm feeling of companionship to encourage me to hang around. Perhaps that speaks volumes about me! I think it’s certainly more of a testament to the many players, like yourself, out there that managed to find transcendent experiences in what was ultimately a very slight multiplayer component. I’m amazed (and kind of envious) that so many people pulled so much from it to be honest.
Very true. That’s what impressed me the most about the game. You do not need the companion, other than for, well, companionship. Which sounds like it wouldn’t work in a game, especially when you cannot communicate with the player directly, but it actually did for me.
The funny part is when I first started playing I did not want to meet another person during my first playthrough. I wanted to experience the game by myself at first, taking it at my own pace, and then maybe trying it online. I was a little annoyed when that first person appeared in my world. But in hindsight, I am so glad I did not go through with doing an off-line run first. It would have been a totally different experience and my thoughts on the game very different.
For the record, Journey is actually my personal GotY, because of that frst playthrough.
I too considered pulling the ethernet cable to play in solitude but I couldn’t bare the thought of closing the door on that entire (and purportedly crucial) element of the game, particularly for my first playthrough.
RPS just posted up their advent calendar entry for Dear Esther: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/12/11/magnificent-and-important-advent-calendar-day-eleven/#more-134144
Gregg, I think I saw an option on my medic gun to “provide soul where none may exist.” I’ll see if I can get it working for you.
Though seriously, I thought every player should love Journey, and I was genuinely surprised upon discovering your disappointment. I wouldn’t accuse you of bringing the wrong expectations into Journey, however, because I know a lot about your taste and that it is varied, and you are open minded, so that would just be ignorant of me to say. What I’d conclude instead I suppose is that you’ve absorbed certain prior experiences which have somewhat dampened Journey’s appeal, not necessarily by unmet expectations but your sophistication with other shared/co-operative journeys. C’est la vie.
I actually still haven’t tried either of these games yet, but I think your dissent is interesting. This is, basically, what I was worried Journey would feel like for me.
The interaction with other players was a huge part of the game for me. The first one I met took off rather quickly, never to be seen again. I met a few others who stayed with me for a while and finally on the third playthrough, I met a player who stayed from early in the game all the way to the end. It was thrilling. I was more experienced and was able to offer help when needed. My daughter was visiting recently and I wanted to show the game to her. We were in the bridge area and met up with another player. We did things together and got the bridge completed. It was time to move on together but I wanted to stop and preserve the save to play later. I sat down and the player kept coming back and waiting for me to go on. Finally he/she gave up and moved on. It made me sad and I wanted to explain. I’ve played the game four times and will be playing it again from time to time as it is always an enjoyable experience. I love Journey.
@Max: If you don’t get the soul injection option working you could always whip out the grenade launcher. That should clear things up. It did wonders last time.
@Amanda: I can only really recommend Journey on the basis that most people love it, I hope you’re one of the those people because it’s more than a little deflating when those credits roll and you’re left thinking ‘That’s it?’.
Tom Chick’s end of year lists are popping up and Journey was in at number three for most overrated game of the year “Not since Dear Esther has so little done so much for so many.” Zing!
See here for his full and inimitable rundown.
@Pokey: I remember reading about your experiences in the comments section of Steerpike’s review. I’m amazed how, even after several playthroughs, you still find it as affecting and enthralling! I’m wanting to get my girlfriend to play it from the beginning at some point. She tried playing it herself but continued from my existing game and got herself in a bit of a pickle. Basically she went through one of those portals that appear near the beginning once you’ve finished the game, and she ended up somewhere where she had no idea what she was doing. She got rather annoyed (thinking that was how the game was supposed to pan out), so between that and my view on the game she’s been in no hurry to pick it back up :-S
I read that Tom Chick review and the one thing it taught me is that you have to be careful about broadly using his reviews as buying guides. The most disturbing thing was how the comments devolved into a nasty mess. Of course, that’s the norm isn’t it. No wonder the adult world doesn’t respect gaming; it doesn’t deserve it. Long live Tap! And Gregg, the thoughtful dissenter!
Yeah, he’s definitely not for everyone. I tend to agree with an unusual amount of what Tom Chick says, at least on the games I’ve played which he’s written or spoken about. Of course, there’s plenty of things I don’t agree with him on but even then it’s always interesting hearing his angle. Having said this, the comments in that review were just… wow. Did you see his follow-up ‘Journey review FAQ’ afterwards? Interesting and funny.
His Halo 4 review got about 1500 angry comments after it went up on Metacritic and they were even more special/horrifying.
I love Tom Chick’s writing style. I tend to agree with his views, though far from 100% of the time; still, I’ll read anything the man writes just because of his prose.
Gregg, your thoughtful dissent, as Botch put it, acts as a great counterpoint to other views. I still think Journey is magical, but we have three fairly unique schools of thought. Personally, I loved Journey for its look and its themes, and I felt the multiplayer aspect was lovely but not the core of what made it brilliant. Others here at Tap, like Xtal, Pokey, and Tanis38, viewed the multiplayer as the essential element that made Journey what it was. And you were rather annoyed by it. So interesting, because they’re all valid viewpoints and all well-defended. To me, this is actually the sign that Journey is a remarkable game… that so much analysis, and so many differing viewpoints, can be discussed.
As for Dear Esther, I have cooled on it somewhat since I reviewed the game. I often find my opinion changes long after an experience is over. I like what Dear Esther tried to do, and I like that the game exists because I think this kind of experimental work – even if it’s not great in and of itself – is a mechanism that helps designers find new ways to make games. But in the end it’s not something I’d recommend heartily, like I would Journey. Instead, if someone asked, I’d say, yeah, when it’s $2 on Steam go ahead and buy it. Play for a while, or play to the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s something you should play, but not as a responsibility, just as something that’s part of the medium. It’s an experience but that’s it.
Gregg, my daughter did that too. I didn’t warn her about the portals that were open after I finished the game the first time and she went through the one to the snow near the end. I’m afraid it turned her off as well. I hope to get her to try again as I think she would love it.
I read that FAQ too. It’s all a stark lesson in people’s capacity to completely lose perspective. Tom is obviously someone whose focus is inward, which makes the complaints that he needs to be objective particularly ridiculous. Because he seems to be a bit of an outsider, his opinions aren’t bogged down with any “gaming culture” baggage. It’s a good palate cleanser from the Destructoids of the world.
Chick has a lot of opinions that go against the grain, but never without some logical reasoning involved, and for that I appreciate reading Qt3 no matter the particular angle. The Halo 4 review comments devolved so pathetically…it was just sad. Similarly, people complained that he disliked a good deal of Assassin’s Creed 3 but gave it a perfect score; another reason to look to words first and numbers second, if at all.
I look back on some of my scores and think ‘Did that really deserve a 5? Was I too soft?’ and most of the time I think ‘Yeah, you know what? I really enjoyed that’. I think Chick is right to use the score as a means of gauging simply how much he enjoyed something, as opposed to using it as some empirical all-encompassing absolute. Too much is placed on a number these days. I posted my Brink review in the Steam forums for kicks ages ago and… surprise! The score was the most contentious issue. Nothing was said about the 4000+ words after it. I suppose it’s easier to moan about a score than argue against individual points. Or easier still, not read the words at all…