flOw = an experimental version of Pac-Man
Flower = a refined, perfected version of flOw
Journey = an online-enabled HD combination of Wind Waker, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.
These comparisons may not be entirely accurate, but it's the closest way I could convey the changing trajectory of thatgamecompany's design philosophy. Journey is the most ambitious (and potentially revolutionary) undertaking from the independent studio, yet it also draws the most similarities to what many would call "traditional" games. Like most every other game, there is a humanoid avatar, controlled by analog stick. You jump. There's platforming. There's also an incredibly evident game-like goal: to reach the top of a mountain, looming in the far distance.
At its core, Journey can probably be best described as a platformer, with a clear objective: get to the end. However, thatgamecompany isn't simply focusing on a goal -- instead, the experience is geared towards its title. Players are dropped in a gorgeous psuedo cel-shaded desert world. The character designs evoke Wind Waker, but the mesmerizing cloth and sand physics make the world feel even more alive. Like Team Ico's games, there is an incredible sense of loneliness to the world: there's no life, no foliage to be seen. There are remnants of a world lost, with a beautiful tranquility.
The technological focus of flOw was water, while Flower was grass. Journey harnesses the power of PS3 to render sand and cloth, the two "elements" you play with. This isn't just a cosmetic effect, though. As the wind blows, you'll be able to catch and ride waves of sand. You'll be able to jump onto blowing flags, and weightlessly hover in the sky. The hands-off presentation we saw had creative director Jenova Chen carelessly jumping from flag, to flag. As in Flower, your character has a mysterious ability to transform the world -- each flag changed color to a crimson hue with each step. As each flag lit up, what looked like a destroyed ship opened up, with bits of cloth flying in the sky, forming a bridge that led players to the next area. It's simultaneously mysterious and clear: immediately, you'll know what the goal is, but you can't help but want to unravel the mysteries of this world.
Journey is simultaneously a single and multiplayer experience, with players encouraged to draw their own stories from the environment. Straying off the beaten path hides secrets, hidden areas that feature mysterious idols and glyphs; Chen refused to explain the meaning of these symbols, saying that doing so would ruin the entire point of the game -- exploration. Occasionally, players will be able to encounter others who are also on their own journeys. You could choose to ignore them (and they can do the same, as well). However, should you choose to continue to journey together, you'll be able to share a cooperative (or competitive) experience. The multiplayer option wasn't demonstrated, but we could immediately think of a few shared experiences: racing on sand waves, working together to solve puzzles, guiding a lost wanderer to the "right" path, etc. It's all up to what individual players want to do.
For better and for worse, Journey is shrouded in mystery. There are many unresolved questions -- How will online work? How will I be able to communicate with other players? What kind of variety can we expect? -- but, there's a lot of time left before its planned 2011 release. While Journey may be the most game-like game from thatgamecompany yet, there's the potential for it to become something completely more.