As I noted in my previous post, my partner’s brother surprised us last month with the Christmas gift of a PlayStation 4. This machine has surprised me in turn by rekindling my interest in video games, more than a year after various events left me feeling deeply ambivalent about the medium and much less interested in writing about it. (I did, during this time, launch a different blog, where I write about books and movies and conferences such.) After a long break, I feel like I have a few new things to say about digital games.
I in particular feel very pleased with the many ways that PS4 games have demonstrated new ways of approaching networked multiplayer games, a topic of everlasting interest and much-historied heartbreak for me. Several years ago I pledged to permanently dial down the attention I gave to solitaire video games, but my success with this initiative has proven varying, at best.
To my frustration, I found multiplayer gaming on my long-preferred platform of the Xbox 360 a non-starter. With the exception of shooters, which I don’t really enjoy (my flirtation with Team Fortress 2 a sadly brief anomaly), I never saw an Xbox game with a truly viable multiplayer mode, even though so many tried. (I even launched a startup trying to singlehandedly repair this fault, and it, too, foundered.) I had more fun playing Hero Academy on iOS, at least for a while, until its asynchronous turn-pacing began to grate. And over the last three years or so I’ve enjoyed phases of temporarily waxing interest in Guild Wars 2 on my Mac, but found that playing it “properly”, as part of a focused and organized MMO guild, demands far more attention over a much longer span of time than I feel able to invest.
All this left me with no idea that the situation on PlayStation would prove so different! I have written about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, so far the only PS4 game I’ve sampled which lacks multiplayer activity as a core mode or mechanic. Well, no, not quite: We did feel compelled to purchase Fallout 4 as soon as we could — but have not felt compelled to play it much, yet. When I do fire it up, I recall how Fallout 3, in large part, made me originally swear off single-player overexposure, and I cannot resist the call of the far more immediately interesting and thoroughly networked games installed on our console.
I hope to write individually about the many novel multiplayer angles I experience through this new exploration, but I feel I should begin by revealing that I have — at last! — played Journey, first released by Thatgamecompany in 2012. From there it swiftly became part of the canon, where I do believe it will live a long, long time. Zarf described its famously subtle multiplayer mechanics in a Gameshelf post from the end of that year, so I knew about that going in. I also knew how the game limits your direct communication with other players to only the controller’s ⭕-button, which makes your character emit a glyph while sounding a musical note. (I read this as the character speaking their name out loud. Names, and the speaking of them, resonate throughout Journey’s such-as-it-is story.)
The approximately two-hour experience still left a deep and I dare say permanent impression on me. Many days later, I remember key details of my journey very well, and two things strike me about them. First, they belong to me alone, among all the players of Journey, even though in broad strokes we all took the same trip. And this fact was made possible entirely through the way Journey’s multiplayer mechanic works.
At one point, not long after finding one another, I watched my anonymous companion struggle to scale a tall obstacle that I’d already figured out. I hopped back over to the proper launch-spot and proceeded to hoot desperately and run in circles until they got the point and came over to me, whereupon I demonstrated how to properly flit up to the building’s roof. (The character-creatures, monastically robed birdlike critters, possess a resource-limited flight ability. Its optimal application takes a little practice.) They followed, and we moved on together.
At another, as we scaled up a featureless canyon, my friend started “chattering” by spamming their talky-button. I found I could harmonize a bit by hitting my own speak-button to every eight of their squawks — my creature seemed to speak at a lower register than the other — and thus did we pass the time in song, of a sort.
Later, exploring an open area strewn with smaller, broken structures lying in deep snow, we each started off in different directions and quickly became thoroughly separated. I considered backtracking to find my friend, but it seemed like the right point in the story to have some hubris-fueled loss handed to me, so I kept going, alone.
I can’t remember how we found our way back together, and I suspect the game just quietly forked our world in two, reconnecting us both to other wanderers as they happened to stumble around respectively nearby corners. The game does reveal, in the end, the PlayStation identities of everyone you traveled with, and I felt surprise to see a half-dozen names after my own playthrough.
Finally, at the very end — and I don’t really consider this a spoiler, since the characters’ overt objective is obvious from the start in both presence and its role as ultimately unimportant MacGuffin — I noticed my companion lagging behind a bit, so I waited for them to catch up, expressly so we could walk into the light side-by-side. Doing it any other way would have felt dreadfully wrong — and it felt like a tidy closure to the earlier low point in the snowfield. (The unlikelihood that the same real person drove my in-game companion during both scenes didn’t seem to matter.)
Journey does have a story in the more typical sense, delivered wordlessly in both cutscenes and in the playable environment with an aesthetic reminding me strongly of Gerald McDermott’s picture book Arrow to the Sun, with graphics inspired by Puebloan art. I looked up its animated adaptation while writing this post, and laughed at its shocking visual resemblance to Journey. As beautiful as that surface is, I will always better remember the titular experience that it delivered, much more than the vistas it showed me.