"It's like hiking," says Jenova Chen, towards the end of a fascinating, bewildering, inspiring, and well-hidden E3 videogame presentation. "You're hiking along and you meet somebody. Maybe you like them and you want to hike with them for a bit. Maybe you don't like them, and you want to go your own way again."
Chen says "maybe" a lot. A kind of controlled ambiguity is probably his company's most crucial intellectual property, actually, with games like Flower and flOw already in the bag. These are disarmingly simple titles - mirror-land versions of flight simulators and Pac-Man respectively, not that Chen would ever stoop to describe them as such - and they earn a lot of their power from the carefully cultivated mysticism the developer gathers around it.
thatgamecompany refuses most interpretations of its work, just as it has refused, to all intents and purposes, to name itself. If it's a trick, it's a neat one: don't allow anyone to pin down what your game is about and people will always assume it's bigger, more mysterious, more profound than it appears to be.
Journey, the developer's latest game, is about multiplayer. Maybe. Hence the hiking analogy. Although it would crush Chen - maybe - to describe such a wafting, nebulous idea as Journey in the harsh parlance of the marketplace, the follow-up to Flower is a third-person adventure in which you explore a mysterious and quietly fantastical desert landscape, overcoming hurdles as you head towards your goal: a mountain with a fierce light shining at the summit.
Sometimes, you'll meet a fellow traveller, thrown into your game by natty back-end coding which kicks off when the two of you happen to be at the same geographical location at the same time. Wordlessly - there is no means of communication in Journey at the control-pad level, although, as you'll see, enterprising sorts may be able to track messages into the omnipresent flurries of sand - you'll decide whether or not you want to move through the game together for a bit. If you do, good for you. If you don't, good for you.
You'll never meet more than one stranger at any time. You'll never see a PSN ID. You'll never find yourself popping rivals' balloons in a battle arena, or teaming up for combo moves. It's, y'know, a bit like hiking, but hiking with Sellotape over your mouth.
Journey - and this is truly a first - was inspired by Chen's chats with an astronaut. Charles F. Bolden Jr flew three missions into the great beyond, apparently, but never got to walk on the lunar surface. Now there's a man who didn't read the small print. Bolden mentioned that what fascinated him the most about his experiences in space was how many of the astronauts who returned from the moon left the earth as "hardcore atheists" and came back changed, with a spiritual, and sometimes overtly religious component to their personalities and outlook that simply hadn't been there before.
Through some non-linear magic happening deep in his brain - the kind of thing which explains why Chen is a world-renowned game designer while people like me get excited about that fortnightly visit to Burger King - Chen started thinking about games that put you in the position of a worshipper, rather than a god. Games that made you vulnerable rather than powerful, that made you feel part of a wider and confusing world, rather than the chosen one who would bring order to a carefully chaotic landscape.
The result is one of the most intriguing games at E3, and certainly one of the most beautiful. Even without the mountain with that light at the top - an overarching in-game target that, as a plot device, goes right back to the book of Genesis - Journey would have a powerfully religious feel to it, albeit one that's not tied down to any specific belief system.
The game starts with your strange, hooded character, waking up in the midst of an endlessly rolling desert, with nothing but that distant spar of rock to guide you forward. From there, everything from your progress through to social interaction and onto any kind of interpretation is up to you.
If it's the most elaborate game Chen's company has tackled so far, it's also the most tactile. Journey grounds its mystery in down-to-earth concerns like the shifting of sands and the flapping of the protagonist's cloth robes. Both factor into the design of the game's puzzles in fantastical ways, however. Sand ripples in beautifully-rendered waves at the edge of boulders, and can be surfed or ploughed through to create little ridges - helpful, possibly, for communication, or picking up speed for a stunt of some kind - while the cloth plays a crucial role in platforming.
Players can collect little spouts of the stuff pouring out of certain rocks to stay in the air longer after a leap, and can even "tune" themselves to its frequency, via a button press, in order to run across it.
In one section, calling to mind both Zelda and ICO, neither reference quite capturing the exact feeling, three broad ribbons of material are all the player needs to get past a broken bridge to the pathway on the other side. Another hurdle down, another step closer to that haunting, shimmering goal on the horizon.
That's about it for the time being: sand, strangers and a mystery mountain. The result is a game that stands out - stands out so much, in fact, that Sony couldn't find a way to gracefully slide this shard of freeform mysticism in amongst the Coke advertising deals and 3D destruction derbies that characterised its E3 press conference.
While this is almost certainly thatgamecompany's most traditional game yet, it also, somehow, manages to feel like its most ambitious and experimental as well. The final product, if nothing else, should be a multiplayer experience unlike any other.