Learning to Trust Again: Journey and Empathetic Game Design

I finally played Journey for the first time last night. Money is always tight around here and the idea of spending $15 on a two hour game seemed wasteful to me. With an after holiday sale and the discount afforded to me by Playstation Plus, I was able to pick up the game for a price I deemed reasonable. I'm glad I finally got to play it. I'm mad I didn't buckle sooner and just pay full price.

The beauty of Journey is how the game design forces you the empathize with everything happening around you. Early stages teach you to free bits of trapped scarves from ancient ruins while wandering through a desert filled with headstones. Soon you begin to encounter other players trying to accomplish the same unspecified goal as you. You begin to communicate without words and team up to create bridges, free scarves, and continue your journey to the mountaintop.

Journey Freedom

The environmental design and score add on another layer of emotional reality to the game. The beauty of the scenery and music is undeniable. These are breathtaking landscapes that slowly shift from sand to caverns to snow constantly reformed through light and weather phenomenon.

Yet, as the environment begins to darken and dangers actually emerge from the shadows, the joy of discovery takes on a more somber tone. The shift really happened for me when I encountered the first group of scarves I couldn't save. I could see them, trapped in a stone and glass tower, endlessly tormented by some glowing machine. I tried interacting through my bright white aura--enhanced by all the scarves who joined me on my journey--but nothing could free them. It saddened me. Then the light went away and the machines came after me.

Journey TributeAt first, I actually resented the help of other players in the game. This was my journey to complete and freeing that scarf or unlocking those relics meant I couldn't solve the puzzle myself. I wanted to ride the scarf dragon, but my unwelcome partner stole the experience from me. I abandoned him as fast as I could and moved onto the next stage.

This distrust and resentment became my own downfall. Another player was up ahead when the enemies first approached and attempted to warn me again and again of their pattern. I refused to take their advice. I watched in horror as my beautiful scarf, twice the length of my body and constantly flowing behind me, was torn apart by the mechanical beasts that trapped the scarves in the impenetrable tower.

Had I cooperated with my unintended partner, neither one of us would have been hurt. Instead, a far more empathetic player risked their own safety to guide me through the level and there was no way to thank them. All I could do was extend my aura and hope they read my mistakes as incompetence rather than fall adversity.

Journey CooperationEverything changed after that. I teamed up with whoever was nearby, stayed in constant communication, and crossed the finish line stride by stride with my new allies every time. Only when the path narrowed so much that we physically could not advance together did I reluctantly abandon our shared journey.

There have been a number of smaller games in recent memory that have tried to force you to think about your surroundings and your fellow characters. Limbo placed you in a child-kill-child world of death traps and massive spear-tipped spiders where your choice was fight or die. Dear Esther forced you to retrace your own steps and discover what happened in your life as you prepared for your inevitable death. The Walking Dead game literally made you choose who deserved to live or die as you couldn't possibly save both people in time. Even flash games like Dys4ia forced you to assume an entirely different life to explore a very personal story.

If this is an actual trend, no matter how small the games, I welcome it. We can use a healthy injection of empathy in our lives. Learning to trust other people, cooperate, and explore how our actions impact others is a good thing. Games like Journey might not be the most exciting experience you'll have, but they are strong and provocative ones that deserve attention.

Thoughts? Share them below.

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