Friday, 23 March 2012


As an extra review for this week, I'm doing a review of the art exhibit/platformer game - JOURNEY - and so thought I would take the time to do a little retrospective of the two other PS3 titles by the same developers - thatgamecompany.

I'll go through them in chronological order, starting with their 2007 release, FLOW.

Flow is a top-down 2D strategy game where you control a little microbial fish/sperm and evolve yourself by consuming other, smaller microbes and avoiding bigger, nasty microbes. It was a very artistically-styled game, with audio effects delicately chiming in as you progressed. Controls were simple - and the presentation didn't bombard you with help text and Heads-Up Displays (HUDs) - which is rare and was very nice to see.

It began in the sort of environments as shown above ^^^ - where you were this fish-type floating creature and you guided yourself around levels until you were the biggest fish-sperm in the ocean. There was an almost "natural" or intuitive quality to the levels, you could tell that you weren't big enough to take on certain floaty things - and you were helpfully egged-on by sound effects until you eventually ate everything up. It was a very serene and pleasant experience.

The levels then progressed so that there was a greater variety of things floating in your vicinity, and a greater number of tricks required to beat them. From simple things like having to swallow them at a certain point in their floating pattern, or when you had powered up by eating a lot. Although fairly simplistic, the game wasn't trying to offer anything more. It was sort of like the game Snake on mobiles - there isn't any variety in gameplay features but the fun of floating around and beating levels in good enough.

Flow was well-received by gamers - the Flash version of the game got 100,000 downloads within its first 2 weeks of release and the PS3 version was the most downloaded PSN title of 2007. The style was colourful and elegant, and the controls were simple enough to get non-gamers interested. The developers then followed Flow up with one of the most beautiful titles ever made - Flower.

Flower was released in 2009, and stunned audiences upon release. Never before had a studio released such a fantastic display that straddled the line between gaming and art. The gaming community was united in its praise for the graphics - this could be one of the best tech demos ever created - and the impressive use of colour and animation.

You started off each level in Flower as a single stalk in a field. Every stalk of grass is animated, and blows around in the wind to absolutely stunning effect. You are then given  control of a gust of wind, and use it to blow the petals off the flower head and send them swirling through the field. There are then a whole bunch of other flowers in the field - and by swooping over them you combine their petals with your own until there is a giant, swirling mass of coloured petals that you control by the end of the level.

The game utilises motion-sensitive controls, so tilting the controller left and right swirls the group of petals left and right. Pulling back causes the petals to rocket upwards and swoop over in a loop - with each and every petal detailed and animated. Oh yes. They really did. Both petals, grass and backgrounds are drawn and displayed beautifully. If you ever need a game to silence an art critic who disapproves of gaming - forget Braid, that's still a platformer - show them Flower.

The game actually has a strange story played out through the advancement of the levels and small cutscenes at the beginning of levels. There's a very strong environmental/green message to the story, and  during the second half of the game you are tasked with activating wind turbines and smashing dark, metallic, industrial structures. It alludes to city life killing the planet and causing suffering - which is solved by getting millions of players to use 8-chipped superconsoles to burn through the night displaying the game on 500-inch super HD screens? Logical. OK so the artistic message doesn't quite work but it's still frikkin gorgeous and immensely fun to play through - technicolour swirling around, trying to catch the wind (cue Donovan track).

Then we move on to Journey, released in March 2012.

Journey continues thatgamecompany's trademark style - stunning visuals - refined, orchestral soundtrack - simple play mechanic. This time you are an unnamed, robed figure who wakes up at the start of the game in a desert and looks towards a distant mountain. Through directive cameras, the game indicates which way you should head, carving a path up one side of a sand dune and then sliding down the other side. You make your way to a large arena, where the first of the "puzzles" begins.

The puzzle mechanic in Journey concerns lift - i.e. how high you can reach. You can initially only jump a tiny amount, but through manipulation of the environment you gradually unlock the ability to get higher and higher - and the game allows you to move forwards. You can spend as little or as long as you like carrying this out - Journey is much more about experience than challenge. 

It is in this area that you learn of the game's new unique feature - one of the most novel co-operative modes ever implemented. In the game world, there are other real players who are just working through a Journey in the same way you are. Their actions affects your game world and your actions theirs. You can, if you so choose, sit back and let the other traveller take over. You can just race away and ignore the other traveller totally. If you want, you can stick with that player for the whole Journey - It really is up to you. And there's no chat function, no in-game messaging, no stats, no experience levels. Just players, interacting with the game and passing each other by on their own adventure. It's a wonderful mechanic that allows for some very unusual and touching elements of co-operation and communication between players - you have to try it to fully appreciate how it works.

The very small amount of communication possible is achieved through "shouting" - tap the circle button for a little yelp and hold it down to let out a loud, harmonious tone - or mix it up to create a strange, almost speech-like noise. Weirdly, as you experiment with the shouting function - which also acts as your main tool for interacting with the game world - you will often find that your online companion will start to "shout" back until the two of you are almost chatting. It's essentially baby-talk, yes, but it's novel to reduce your lines of communication down to semi-random noises. It feels almost personal..... as I said, it's quite weird.

You play through a few different types of environment during the duration of a Journey too - there's an underground, dark levels where you slide through sand in a sort of artsy racer game - there's a snowy setting where your character really feels the cold - and then there's the finale where you finaly ascend to the summit. 

The Journey can take as long as you want it to really, but most players will reach the summit within around 2 hours. So it's short - very short. The fun is then in going back - beginning a new Journey and seeing what else you can discover, what you can do differently, how else can you interact with other players - and just experiment!

There's a few challenges set as trophies - such as sticking with the same player throughout - so these add some focus and replay value to the game. It's certainly worth 2 or 3 playthroughs (just finished my 2nd at time of writing) and when it's release price was £10 then you really can't go wrong.

This is about as refined as you can make a game before it gets classed as an interactive movie or an art exhibit. It manages to be both compelling and beautiful - with gameplay so easy and enjoyable that you won't be able to resist just starting one...more....Journey.

There's really no other game like it - as unique as it is intriguing. Journey rewards exploration and experimentation and is much deeper than you may initially think.

To top it all off - it's cheap enough for it to be worth giving a go - and trust me, it's worth giving a go.

thatgamecompany have a wonderful gaming philosophy and style which shines through all 3 of these titles - and they stand out as some of the defining games of this generation. 
Well done.

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