An incredible thing happened last night. I had an amazing gaming experience the like of which I have never experienced before. I've been playing games for over three decades, which is officially a long time, so any new experience is not an insignificant achievement. And this particular thing that happened blew my mind.
The game I was playing was Journey. It's the new game from US developer Thatgamecompany. Previous games from Thatgamecompany are Flow and Flower. They make interesting, beautiful, unconventional games, so that's what I was anticipating with Journey. And I wasn't wrong. My prior knowledge of the game was limited. It looked distinctively stunning. Visually intriguing. See for yourself:
But other than thinking to myself 'Ooh Journey looks rather nice I definitely want to play it', I was pretty clueless as to what was in store. 20 minutes into the game and I was equal parts calmed, impressed and captivated. Journey is a game without instructions. It's up to the player to discover what to do and where to go. Thanks to clever game design, it's a completely intuitive - and empowering - process.
So I was already more than happy to be playing Journey when I noticed something that - ultimately - marked the start of my amazing experience and journey proper. It was another nomadic wanderer like me. Up to this point Journey's seemingly never-ending desert landscape emphasized a sense of isolation. To see another cloaked figure was a surprise.
Although there was nothing to indicate this was anything other than an AI character, there was something inherently human about it. Something in the behaviour that simply cannot be emulated through any amount of complex programming and hard code. I knew I'd met someone else playing Journey. At first I was hesitant. I like playing games on my own and actively avoid online interactions with other gamers. Especially strangers. It's just not something I enjoy.
We both headed in the same direction (because there's only one direction to be heading in Journey), but we deliberately and politely kept our distance. I got the sense this anonymous player shared my own belief that 90% of gamers encountered online are complete assholes. For a while we were two lone wolfs traipsing over sand dunes. But it became apparent that the journey would be easier together. And that neither of us were assholes. With mutual respect we began walking, jumping and flying side-by-side. A very real bond was formed.
And so it went. I don't want to give anything away by talking about specifics, but for the next two hours we experienced the journey as true companions. If one of us advanced faster than the other, we would wait for our friend to catch up. Staying together was as important as completing the journey. There was no way either of us was going to abandon the other and go it alone.
In over 30 years of playing games I've never felt such a strong emotional bond with another character - whether controlled by a living person or an algorithmically constructed AI. I thought Ico and Yorda had something special, but this takes affecting character connection to a whole other level of giving a shit. We shared very real moments through the TV.
When the journey was over (and Journey is absolutely the perfect name for this game), I sat watching the credits with a massive smile on my face. I imagine tackling Journey alone would be incredible. But playing it with another person was unbelievable. Mind-blowing. Thinking about it now as I'm writing this is still giving me chills. Other games talk about co-operative play, but very rarely do they ever manage to make players let go of those selfish and competitive traits that are so inherent in gamers. But Journey does just that. And it's a truly unique and beautiful and amazing experience because of it.
Journey is exclusive to PlayStation 3 and is scheduled to be released via the PlayStation Network on March 13/14 in the US/UK respectively.