I went to GDC this year again and didn’t blog about it because occasionally I do feel like if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. (Whatever, it was fine, mostly.) I will say though that I continue to see a lot of the same talk, which is some dude standing up on stage talking about how it’s possible to make “personal” games and still make money, and just…wow, you mean to say that you, an awkward straight white cisgender man made a game about your awkward straight white cisgender man life and managed to find a bunch of other awkward straight white cisgender men to sell your game to? Really??! Color me surprised. It’s not as if that’s the demographic of most games, or most indie games, or anything.
Anyway, so I am a terrible person who tends to assume that if a large number of players like something, it’s awful. (This is where I do that fake-sneeze thing and say “Mass Effect” instead of the sneeze…I don’t know now to write that elegantly, though. Actually, I have the GDC flu that was going around, so I don’t know how to do *anything* elegantly right now.) And I had heard that the new game from thatgamecompany, Journey, was good, and then I spent a lot of GDC hearing from people whose opinions I respect that it was really, really good. I think it was when Leigh Alexander insisted that I either buy a PS3 or come down to NYC to play the Journey on *her* PS3 that I felt myself start to be like, “oh, wow, so this game is probably kind of bullshit, huh?”
And it’s not bullshit or like well it is but it’s not Journey’s fault. It’s just that there are like three things to that game and they are:
The visuals are actually great, really really great. I didn’t know sand could be so awesome, truly. But I’m pretty sure we’re all trying to get past the notion that games should be sold based on their graphics, right? Or do we just say that when we don’t actually like the game, I can never keep track. Anyway, the idea that the game is the bestest because it’s pretty feels a little thin to me, especially since I’m currently playing through Uncharted 1 right now and the facial expressions on everybody are blowing my mind and that game is like sooooo old. (Uncharted is also probably the most effective thing ever to convince people that jetskis suck. Which… they do, they pollute the air and the water and the vibrations kill coral and shit. Now that I write this, maybe Mass Effect’s shitty Mako is secretly a campaign to get people to stay away from 4-wheeler recreational vehicles?)
The story of Journey is straight up the hero’s journey or the monomyth or whatever you want to call it. For example, you could call it Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings, or Ender’s Game, or basically most science fiction, most fantasy, or just in general most stories told by and/or for awkward straight white cisgender men. I do think the story is an important part of why people seem to respond so well to Journey because, much like Portal before it, it’s the kind of story that makes you feel a bit like a smartypants and you “get” it and so then you feel understood by the game because the game told you a story you already know. It’s a basic idea that is paced well and fully executed in under three hours. It’s a movie plot, and a simple one, and hooray for you for figuring it out and finishing it in one sitting.
The actual thing that makes Journey different or new is the multiplayer, and this is where I just start saying, “really?!” over and over at you, the collective “you” of the game industry. The online multiplayer of Journey involves you playing with another person who like stands next to you and can whistle and like gives you energy to float when you need it. I guess. As far as I can tell, this limited interaction with another living human being makes the game unique and meaningful and personal for a lot of players? Despite the fact that um the last time I checked what is meaningful about connecting with another person is not their physical proximity (which the multiplayer relies on and rewards) but rather my ability to *communicate with them*, which Journey completely removes, short of the little whistle thing I mentioned already. Which means that people are flipping out over the fact that someone finally managed to make an online multiplayer experience that doesn’t guarantee a million new submissions to FatUglyorSlutty.com, basically. Not to go all old-meme on you, but don’t be afraid to to dream a little bigger, darlings. Fuck.
I really liked Journey, which I realize is not coming across here. But it’s one of those games that’s so focused on universal appeal, it’s very difficult to get any sort of personal meaning out of it (for me, speaking as one person). The only time I felt really connected to my little Jawa person (yes really, you’re a hipster Jawa, complete with leggings and oversized tunic) is during the cut scene where the Jawa gets hir little scarf for the first time, and as it was sort of glowy-forming around hir neck, the Jawa looks over hir shoulder like “the fuck is going on?” and that felt like (A) a realistic sentiment to have in that scenario and (B) what I was thinking already. So I had a nice little bonding moment with my gender-non-specific hipster Jawa there. Otherwise, you’re playing as a chess piece moving from set to set, and if you know what the monomyth is (or uh have consumed any popular nerd culture ever) then you know how the game is going to play out pretty quickly. It’s definitely a good advertisement for videogames, in that I think my mom would sit through a playthrough and find it to be nifty. And as I said, nobody can verbally harass each other, so gold star there? There was a singular moment where the pacing of the gameplay did have me holding my breath and then releasing it in a gasp, so it’s not as if there’s no “there” there. So yeah, play it, but I would ignore the people telling you it’s like proof that games are meaningful or whatever hyperbolic ridiculousness. They’re just blinded by the sand graphics.
Meanwhile, my spouse, because he knows me, was like, “have you played Anna Anthropy’s new game, dys4ia?” and when I said no, he just said, “oh, you should play it…I think you’ll like it.” This is all he ever says to me when he thinks a game is really great, because he knows how I get when games are overhyped to me. (Um see above for an example.) So I loaded up dys4ia not really knowing what to expect, and in some ways it’s actually very similar to Journey. It’s short, it’s about the experience of playing it, you can’t die or fuck it up. But rather than telling me a story I already know, or telling a story that “everyone” can relate to or understand, it tells a part of Anna’s story. Rather than feeling like the story is trying to make me feel understood, I came away with a better understanding of another person. *This* is what it looks like when you make a game that’s personal, in that it’s about a specific person, not “personal” because it’s boiling down a human experience into the narrative equivalent of baby food.
You should play it…I think you’ll like it.