Friday, March 16, 2012

Journey's Unique Multiplayer

Multiplayer in video games is a very interesting thing. For some games, it's the one of the primary draws. This is especially true of racing games, sports games, fighting games, and shooters. In those contexts, it's competitive, the various players are working against each other and only one player (or team) can win. I typically am not a fan of that type of multiplayer, but there has been a title or two in days past that have drawn my attention.

Multiplayer can also be of the cooperative variety, where the different players assist each other to accomplish tasks. In some games, the cooperative multiplayer is separate from the single-player part of the game. Sometimes that means a separate set of missions. Sometimes that means that the cooperative part is stored on a separate save. However it's done, multiplayer has always something that the player opts into. A choice is made at some point, they either select a menu option to take part in multiplayer or they tell their friend to pick up the other controller and join them.

Journey is a very unique game in many ways, but one of those ways is in its approach to multiplayer. For one, the only way to opt out of the multiplayer would be to forcibly disconnect your system from the internet. You see, after you have completed the introductory section, which literally teaches you the five things that you need to know about for the duration of the game, the game will find another, random player who is at the same point in the game as you and decide that you will play together. A white mark will appear on the edge of the screen that is typical of so many games to indicate that there is something of interest in that direction. When you turn the camera to it you will find someone else who looks almost exactly like you.
Your clothing becomes more detailed as you accumulate trophies and the gold accents crawl up it.
If you didn't know it was another player you might think it was an NPC. You can't type or talk to each other and aren't shown the other player's name. The only ways that you have to communicate are through your actions, which are limited to movement and singing. Some accounts I've seen so far have talked about how they communicated with the other player. One such account said that they adapted to echoing two short chirps for "Ready?" and "I'm ready."

It's a very interesting experience. On my first playthrough I had two companions with me for my journey. The first went away after the first section but I got a new one just as I started the second section. Working together, flying around, and solving puzzles together made it a unique experience, like two children playing together even though neither can talk yet. We explored and made our way to the top of the mountain together. Sometimes we would go our separate ways and get separated, eventually not being able to see each other. If that happened, one of us would sing out a loud note which would inform the other of our location, and the other would respond and we would move towards each other.
Deserts are only in the beginning of the game.
In my second playthrough, I wanted to spend more time exploring. This meant that I would often run away from my partner to look at things, and they wouldn't wait for me. I wouldn't have waited for me either. So I spent a good amount of time in the game without somebody with me. It completely transforms the experience. It makes you feel alone. The world in Journey is not an inviting one. At it's best it's neutral about your presence and becomes hostile towards the end. Having somebody else there with you, to experience what you're experiencing, makes the entire gameplay experience different.

Furthermore, since there's no way to talk to one another, you can't harass the other player. You can't grief them. You can't inconvenience them. There aren't any tasks that you can't complete yourself, so you can't even let the other person down. Those who do fear potential harassment, at the end of a playthrough, after the credits roll, the game does tell you the names of everyone you played with.

One thing that I find particularly interesting is that as you gain trophies (the PS3's version of achievements), your character's robe becomes more ornate. Because of this your robe acts as a sort of indicator of your knowledge of the game. None of the trophies have a prohibiting skill requirement, they're pretty much all about finding things. So if you see someone whose robe is particularly adorned, then they know where much of the game's things are and just might show you where they are. In fact, as of this writing, I'm one trophy away from having all of them, and that trophy requires that I spend a week not playing the game. Once I have that, I'll have earned the platinum trophy and I plan on going through the game showing other players where things are, and hopefully they'll pass the knowledge on themselves.

Playing Journey has been a fascinating experience in more ways than way. It has really challenged ideas that I've had about multiplayer, storytelling, and achievements. I'm very curious about how the concepts used in it could be put in other games. Could Journey's anonymous multiplayer be put to good use in other games, such as cooperative shooters? What about a game, such as a shooter, where you "sign up" for various missions and the game picks a random partner for you to play with. Turn off the friendly fire and the ability to communicate and you could potentially have a rewarding experience. It's an interesting thought, and it's something that I really hope to see some day again in the future.