A Hero's Journey
Jenova Chen's mission to revolutionise multiplayer.
The first time it happens is thrilling. I'd spent a couple of evenings gliding across the shimmering deserts of the Journey beta, desperately seeking someone, anyone, to share the experience with online.
But I remained a lone, small figure in a vast, empty space beneath the mountain that looms far in the distance as the game's mysterious objective.
As with Thatgamecompany's previous releases, flOw and Flower, I was content simply to soak up the experience and admire what is the most beautiful game I've played this year (and do watch the latest episode of The EGTV Show below to see why I think that).
And then, all of a sudden, we were two. Bundled together into the sand at the start of a new section, it was here that the game's refusal to follow the multiplayer rulebook proved as exciting, charming and unsettling as I'd hoped.
"I think it's unfortunate that today's online games mostly rely on voice chat and text chat as the way to communicate, to be social," says Jenova Chen, the principle creative force at Thatgamecompany, currently perched thoughtfully on a beanbag in a tiny room at PlayStation HQ in London.
"The problem with that is, in a game such as Journey, the character is not a human; he doesn't speak. If the player communicates with language - English for example - that does not belong to the world here.
"When we design the game we want to create a social experience that means the player needs to care about the other individual. They have to be interested in that person, to want to communicate with them".
There are, of course, loads of multiplayer games where the experience is defined by having an "interest in" and a "want to communicate" with others. But not like Journey.
Chen explains: "We intentionally keep the player anonymous because if you can read a player's PSN ID, it's like "ILoveKillzone" and then immediately you start to think, this must be a Killzone fan, rather than thinking this is another character who is also on his path moving towards the mountain."
An online ID, a Gamerscore, a customised Avatar, an accent: all these things are clear markers of identity and a player cannot help but judge another based on them. The beauty of Journey is that you are forced to interact based on actions alone, with all other forms of communication stripped away.
The result is a surprisingly intense, raw experience that makes you consider the other person as, well, a person. Are they passive or assertive? Collaborative or selfish? Serious or silly?
In asking these questions of others, the game may by design cause the player to discover something of themselves, too.
"That's certainly our hope," acknowledges Chen. "If you do screenwriting, when you define a character, it's not about what they say, it's about what they do. In a game we have what they do. You should be able to tell what someone's like based on their actions. There's some beauty about that – not really relying on language, just action. You can actually communicate."
Against a background of the phenomenal popularity of social media, in which individuals share the most intimate details of their lives in words, images and painstakingly constructed profiles as a means of defining themselves to the world, is a truer sense of someone's nature actually revealed in actions alone?