Thursday, December 27, 2012

Why naming Journey G.O.T.Y. is a sign that the gaming industry is broken

I'll leave it to the Freudian scholars to discuss what the imagery in Journey could suggest.

I've been sitting on my reflections about Journey for a while now. The game has been out for almost ten months and the critics' reviews have been so universally positive that it seems almost petty to argue a dissenting opinion now. But when IGN recently named Journey its 2012 Game of the Year, I found that I just couldn't keep quiet about my concerns with both the game and the journalistic coverage of the game any longer. I believe that Journey and the overabundance of praise it has received are indicative of some serious problems with the modern gaming industry.

I first played Journey back in October as part of the Extra Life marathon, and even though I hadn't expected anything spectacular from the game, I was in fact so underwhelmed by the experience that I could hardly believe this was the same game which I had heard so much buzz about. Thinking that I had perhaps misremembered  the hype, I immediately went to check the reviews:
"Journey is an unforgettable experience. Even when the details fade, the emotions that it evoked will stay with us for years," GamesRadar
" will be meaningful to you in a way that a bigger, louder, flashier game won't." The Escapist
"Every element, every mechanic, every single little thing works in seemingly effortless concert to deliver a game that is experientially beautiful from surface to core," Giant Bomb
"By the alchemy of developer thatgamecompany's skill and vision, it is also unique, exciting, mysterious, and utterly lovely, with mesmerising landscapes and stirring music," GameSpot
"I haven't been more captivated by a video gaming in years," Game Revolution.
"Miss out on Journey, and you'll deny yourself one of the greatest gaming experiences on any platform to date," Playstation Universe.
"This is interactive art. This is how it's done," Destructoid
Had we all actually been playing the same game?

In 1981, Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech in which she gave a very cynical definition of consensus. "To me consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects—the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead." I am not often one to align myself with conservative politicians, but in this case, Thatcher and I share the same suspicions of popular unanimity. And I can't help but suspect that Journey is the proud and foolish emperor defiantly strutting around without any clothing, and developers and critics are being surprisingly complicit in allowing the deception to go on.

If gamers and game makers want video games to be treated as a respected and respectable medium, then it is up to us to speak with the greatest candor in our reviews and to judge each game with an unapologetically critical eye. But "critical" seems hardly the word to describe what's being said about Journey. The Escapist, one of the most popularly acclaimed game review websites in the world, described Journey as, "remarkable," but went on to say "it's not something you can commit to words, really, it's something you have to feel." Unfortunately, it is exactly the job of journalists, critics, and scholars to be able to break apart a game and interrogate how the pieces come together to create the feelings that they do. Can you imagine if Roger Ebert  or Anthony Lane justified their reviews about a film in the same way? "Scorcese's latest film is remarkable, but it's not something you can commit to words, really, it's something you have to feel."

So what about Journey makes it so enigmatic that reviewers feel the need to describe using an abundance of baffling vagaries, like "extraordinary," "evocative," "mesmerizing," "unforgettable," and "transcendental"? Why can't its essence be put into words? Why is it "a game best not explained at all"?My skeptical interpretation is that Journey is a game that the industry wants to love, but the game is so lacking in depth or sophistication that reviewers are hard-pressed to discuss the game's supposed merits in any detail.

* * *

In Journey, you take control of a mysteriously robed character with no name and barely a face. At the game's opening, you find yourself wandering a vast and seemingly barren desert landscape with no express purpose or goal, and your only 'compass' in the game is an ominous mountain ever-looming in the distance. Gameplay involves collecting ribbons which empower your movements, jumping, and a fair bit of aimless running about. The big innovation of Journey seems to be that you interact intermittently with other players, also cowled and nameless like yourself.

Together forever? But I don't even know your name...
This interaction with others, however, is strictly limited. There is never more than one other player in your game world at any one time, and although they freely move about your game world (and you about theirs), your only form of communication is limited to a few musical chirps. This deliberate effort to keep the game world enshrouded in mystery seems to be a design decision geared toward enabling the player to construct a wide variety of interpretations about their experience. However,  the way this actually plays out in the game is to push the the player into enacting a rather narrow game of follow-the-leader. Even though you cannot communicate with one another, built-in to the core of the game's design is a mechanism that rewards players for sticking together throughout each level: being in each other's presence keeps your ribbon-powers fully charged, enabling you to jump higher and glide longer.

Although there is never any instruction from the game telling players that they ought to follow one another, in the absence of any other guidance about how players are expected to navigate the world, the compulsion to follow your companion is a shockingly powerful one. When I had the chance to watch a large group of college students play Journey together as part of an assignment for a class, five different players took a turn with the controller and each and every one of them steadfastly followed their companion. None strayed from the other anonymous player's side. None explored the world on their own. It was as though they were tethered to this companion with a leash. Even as the course assistants told them time and again that they didn't have to follow the other player through the game, they unwaveringly continued to do so.

Unfortunately, this core component of the "experience" of the game ill-suits a theme that is ostensibly about taking in the beauty of the world around you and discovery its secrets. Rather than encourage each player to discover parts of the game world through their own intuitions and curiosities, the game tethers players to one another, which results in them worrying more about losing track of their partner than they are interested in exploring the world around them.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with privileging the social over the individual in a game, the decision to limit players' ability to communicate to a series of undifferentiated chirps seriously undercuts any pretense at true sociality in Journey. Players can only learn from another player by mimicry and following. They cannot bounce their theories about the world off one another or ponder together where they are going and why. Neither has the ability to expand on their nearly non-existent knowledge about the game's universe because on their interactions with others.  Both players come together in Journey less because their experience is enriched by each other's company, but rather because the game's designers have laid out a journey with only one path that every player has to blindly follow.

Of course, every game relies on a player's trust in the design in some fashion or another, and it is generally to the player's advantage to trust in the game. After all, the game must teach the player about what actions he or she is expected to perform in the world, as well as teach the player about the obstacles and enemies that need to be overcome. Think about a game like Super Mario Bros. There are no explicit instructions within the game, and yet, players quickly learn to jump on enemies' heads and avoid pits, largely because of how the player actions are rewarded.

Pointy spikes make it clear that the rules have changed.
(Image from
In the few instances when the rules in SMB change, the game visually cues players that something has changed. For example, spinies cannot be killed by jumping on them, but the pointy spikes on their backs give players a clear visual warning that these guys are not like the squishable goombas they've encountered previously. Never in the game does the player encounter a creature resembling a goomba that kills the player who jumps on it. In other words, the game does not betray the players' trust in the rules it has laid out for him: do as the game instructs and expect to be rewarded, with points, with powers, with victory, etc.

(Warning: spoilers follow from here on out...)
Journey similarly relies on the player's trust in the game. Players more or less follow a path of sparkly visual breadcrumbs laid out by the designers in order to guide them to the next stage of the game. But whereas in most games, following this path leads to climax and victory, Journey unapologetically abuses the player's faith in designer. In Journey, the game is leading the player's character to his death.

Discussions of Journey are largely evasive about mentioning this death. Of course, it makes sense that reviewers would want to refrain from revealing a major plot point, and some have even gone so far as to say that "knowing how your journey evolves over time before you’ve even taken it would rob that first time through of much of its awe-inspiring beauty." But the conspiracy of silence around this plot point--the only concrete plot point of the game--has the unfortunate consequence of making it difficult, if not impossible, to have any kind of critical discussion about how Journey holds up as a narrative and as a game. I am breaking that silence now not because I want to ruin Journey for those who haven't played it yet, but because the character's death and the betrayal of the player are at the heart of why Journey's is a spectacular mess of a game.

The character's death is a gross abuse of the trust between designer and player that I described above. Journey exploits the player's faith in the rules of the game to unwittingly transport them along the road of martyrdom within the story. Players follow the path laid out before them because they are given no alternative routes for advancing to the next level, they trust in the designer's breadcrumbs despite the increasingly harsh and unpleasant terrain within the game world, and then they ultimately meet with a death that seems neither inevitable nor unavoidable given the conditions that exist within that world.

That death is actually the result of completely irrational behavior on the player's part if you view those actions only from within the context of the game world. Your character is, after all, trudging up a harsh, wintery mountain peak with neither purpose, supplies, or known destination. Given those conditions, it would be a rather glaring inconsistency if the player's character didn't die undertaking such an obviously foolhardy task. So why do it? There is only one answer here: players only perform these actions for reasons that are external to the world in which their character inhabits. That is, they march to their inevitable demise because they know Journey is a game, and they follow the rules of game play accordingly. There is no causal explanation within the game's story for why your character has undertaken this dangerous and fatal journey, and I find this be one of the single most egregious immersion-breaking oversights in a video-game to date.

A second flaw in Journey is the fact that even though your character has no rational basis for climbing the mountain, the game does ultimately reward your character for dying. If you've read any of the reviews of Journey, you may have noticed the abundance of vague circumlocutions used to describe the game: it's "a personal experience," or its "emotional" and "spiritual." These reviews are not simply alluding to your character's death, but to the fact that that death is followed by an ethereal being resurrecting the character into a carefree, heavenly afterlife.

Regardless of your opinion about whether or not there does exist a life after death, the presence of this heavenly stage in Journey sits uncomfortably with the previous levels, both thematically and mechanically. Thematically, the presence of an afterlife in the story strips Journey of many of its pretensions at being anything more than your dime-a-dozen winner-take-all type video game plots. The trials and tribulations of the previous stages suddenly possess little value in and of themselves. Rather, it becomes practically impossible to see these previous stages as little more than means to an end, and that end is the pretty awesome experience of being a carefree, all-powerful being who effortlessly floats and bounds through a shimmering paradise.

Mechanically, the game is a house divided against itself. The exhilaration of the heaven level significantly diminishes any desire to replay the game (to be reincarnated, if you will). The early stages were dull and slow-moving and the world is much too small to warrant further exploration. There simply isn't anything interesting or memorable to find in a second play through. Once you've been to the afterlife stage, you've tasted the best the game had to offer, and you got there not because you gained any mastery over the game, it was a reward provided simply for being patient enough to see the game through to its end. Because your ascension to a super-being is assured rather than earned, it makes it seem all the more arbitrary that the designers have denied you these powers right from the start. What purpose, thematically, mechanically, or philosophically, does it serve that players must trudge through the early levels of the game rather than soar? Requiring your character to journey and die before taking the fetters off of the game play mechanics conspires to put the desirability of taking a second journey on par with going to the dentist.

* * *

Few games are every truly perfect in their execution, but how is it that a game which I've argued is structurally and thematically inconsistent, is being described as "a masterpiece" by so many different reviewers?

Perhaps it's because Journey does a wonderful job of tapping into the player's (and game critic's) narcissism. The game is so narratively sparse that players must invent their own story if they are to make any sense of the game. Why am I here? Where am I going? What's on that mountain? These questions have no answers, and the world only has as much depth as the player is willing to invent for it. Thus the players who seem to enjoy this game the most are the ones who put the most effort into making up their own story. After all, who doesn't enjoy the stories that they, themselves, make up?

But even though some say empty walls in a gallery constitute art because they allow viewers to construct an infinite number of interpretations about it's meaning, I think such exhibits are better as simple thought experiments than actual viewing experiences. Likewise, I find the mile-wide gaps in Journey's story to be more of a gimmick rather than evidence of artistry.

But there is another possible reason for why Journey is getting such unreserved adoration from the press. Swirling just beneath the surface of all the praise that Journey has received are the ongoing debates about the maturity of video games. Can they be art? Can they be intellectually sophisticated? If so, why are the blockbuster titles so often little more than hyper-masculine, puerile blood-baths? Earlier this year, when Atlantic writer Taylor Clark made the damning claim that the preponderance of commercially successful games are about as intellectually sophisticated as a Michael Bay film, despite the outrage of many gamers at this remark, it was hard for anyone to deny that there was more than a little truth behind that accusation.

In an age where the titles of violent, first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo are household names and every mass shooting provokes some segment of the public to look toward video game makers for an explanation or apology, the gaming industry is more desperate than ever to improve its image. Developers and gamers want to be able to say that they're not, in fact, catering to the lowest common denominator of taste. They want to be able to say that they're making art, and to be able to say that with a straight face. Journey, then, arrives just in time to answer the prayers of an industry that feels that its back is against the wall.

Journey is a commercially successful game with no guns, no violence, no sex, no foul language, no adolescent humor. It's a game about nothing and everything, about life and death, about faith and resurrection. By comparison, Journey overflows with intellectual precocity. But "by comparison" is a poor standard for measuring the merit of a game. A game should be evaluated against itself, measured by how well it fulfills its own unique purpose. So why are most reviewers stepping back from interrogating Journey on its own terms?

If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that critics are afraid to touch Journey's spiritual themes with a ten-foot pole. Most reviews seem to talk around, rather than about, the story in Journey. They describe the game as "emotional" rather than saying that the game is pregnant with religious imagery and allusions. Or they describe Journey as a "personal experience" rather than actually analyzing the game play and narrative structure. Perhaps this lack of analytic heft is a weakness of video game reviews in general, but compared to the 1000+ word, multi-page essays that some blockbuster games get when they're reviewed, the comparative brevity of many of the reviews of Journey speaks volumes. That silence is actually the sound of a thousand game journalists all nervously looking the other way.

Superficially, Journey may look like a game changer, but I worry that it's actually a sign of just how vapid our industry actually is when Journey has become our poster child. Journey is a game that provides players with little opportunity for meaningful interaction either with the world or with other players, it presents little challenge, perversely uses players' implicit trust in the game's designers to force them to guide their character down a path of self-destruction, and it grants them a spectacular reward at the conclusion which wrecks the game both thematically and mechanically. Such a deeply flawed game has no place with 20+ perfect scores on Metacritic, let alone being named as anyone's Game of the Year.

However, the most painfully ironic part of it all is the fact that thatgamecompany prides itself on "push[ing] the boundaries of interactive entertainment," and "expand[ing] the range of emotions video games can communicate," and yet the experience they have delivered in Journey is one which demands that players stay within the boundaries and stifle their curiosity. Structurally and thematically, Journey manipulates players into blindly, silently, and unquestioningly following the path that someone else has laid before them. And that it does so with such efficacy that the entire gaming industry has become hesitant to probe beyond the game's shiny veneer is a worrying sign that our industry is terribly broken.

Do you think Journey is a work of art or all hype? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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