Listen to the perfection that is Journey's soundtrack while you read!
For those who aren't regular gamers, or just missed the news, the game Journey was released yesterday for the PlayStation 4. This release was a purely visual update to a game that originally released a number of years ago on the PlayStation 3, and has been the darling of many gamers ever since.
While you won't be finding code-related insight, or explicit UX advice I've gained from playing through Journey many times, I felt that not writing something would be doing a disservice. From the first time I picked up this game years ago, it's been a constant source of inspiration and the most identifiable source of my pervasive interest in zen-like simplicity.
What sets Journey apart from your traditional, "flavor of the year" Call of Duty blockbuster game? Journey falls into what many would call the category of Games as Art. It forgoes the expected ideas of health bars, combat, customizable equipment, and largely even a traditional narrative. It's in this simplicity that Journey shines and becomes genuinely memorable.
Journey in a Nutshell
The point of Journey is self-explanatory. Travel. In particular, travel to the giant, shining mountain top that is ever-visible on the horizon. While you start your Journey alone, you will quickly encounter other travelers. Some games will see you meet and travel with a single player the whole way through. Others may encompass meeting and departing as many as seven or eight different partners!
There is one constant between you and any other player you meet: You can't speak. The game takes away your ability to communicate verbally, replacing it with a single chime, somewhere between a bell's ring and a bird's chirrup. You can make tiny chimes, or hold a button to release a big chime! If your partner can't see you on screen, the edge of their screen will glow in your direction, so they know you're "speaking".
Each time you chime, a small symbol appears in the air. This symbol identifies you, and stays the same for the length of your current Journey. If, as you play, you suddenly notice your partner chiming a new symbol, it means that you somehow lost your prior traveling partner, and have met a new one!
From a gaming stand-point? Largely, yes! You walk along your Journey, interspersed with tumbling, falling, sliding, and even bursts of flight! The controls stay simple, the rules never suddenly change. With that in mind, I can happily confess that I have played Journey from start to finish, over and over again.
The magic of Journey is the way it comes together. The love and effort put into every part of the game by designers, developers, testers, musical performers and more melts into a simple and enduring story. Even if you're aware of the complexities needed behind the scenes, the experience is equal parts observation and interaction that involves you deeply with this world.
For all the complication it strips away, Journey is the most moving game I have played. When even many books and movies provide great highs and lows on their first or maybe second time through, Journey regularly impresses me with lingering emotions. Whether the jubilation of flying, swooping, and spiraling with a new companion, the sapping loneliness and bone-deep chill of a solo mountain climb, or any other rainbow of experience, the game never settles for enough.
This impact, in my mind, is possible because we don't have to sort through layers of complexity and unnecessary effort. Within the hour or two that encompass a game of Journey, I can be keenly aware of my environment, the players I meet, and the trials and victories we experience. After a few hours of most games, I'm just aware of a blur of unfortunately named competitors that I've repeatedly butted heads with. All good fun, but also largely forgotten within ten minutes.
Media as a Mirror
Not every website form or app store success needs to hand you a great insight about yourself and humanity. I'd actually consider that quite the step backwards in productivity, for all it's philosophical benefit. When a universal idea of simplicity allows, even encourages, better experiences, though, it would be an utter waste to ignore that idea's potential.
So many services and products offer to connect us today. Better social algorithms, more intuitive interfaces, and a pile of other distractions all promise us they'll help find our soulmates and lifelong friends. I regularly pile on new things to learn as a web developer and professional, assuring myself they'll help me get ever further ahead.
On a recent Journey, my wife had the fortune of traveling the length of the game with a single companion. They chimed along merrily through the deserts, ruins, tunnels, and mountain sides, never losing sight of each other. Then, right at the flurry of the climax of the Journey, she lost sight of her partner for a few moments. When he reappeared and chimed loudly, she nearly cried. She thought she saw another symbol, another player, and had lost her friend at the last possible moment.
A moment later, he chimed again, and we both began began laughing. It was still the same traveler, her companion, urging her forward to Journey's end.
Those little moments remind us what of we feel is important. We tend to lose those under layers of complexity, shiny new features, abstract ideas, and the endless torrent of modern distractions. So whether you design websites, communicate with people, broker business deals, or anything else, take a moment. Ask yourself how much value is behind every bit of complexity and challenge you hoist upon yourself and those around you.
Finding the 'simple' alternative is rarely easy, but I'm willing to bet it would make a world's worth of difference.