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Journey preview: Souls searching


I laughed when I first saw the scarf worn by Journey's main character. I couldn't help it -- the flair it adds to the enigmatic avatar renders the figure distinctly more charming than spooky. The scarf serves a more functional purpose, too: It's a gameplay meter, measuring your character's ability to fly. The scarf depletes as you fly; fill it back up -- and even lengthen it -- by completing puzzles and discovering secrets, among other things. There's actually a variety of scarves to be collected and equipped throughout the gameworld.

Scarves, however, are not the focus on thatgamecompany's third PSN-exclusive, Journey. The focus, creative lead Jenova Chen told me at a recent press event, is to enable unique online experiences. "Everyone's on a journey towards a goal, and everybody travels through a similar landscape," he said of the game. "And at some point, their paths cross each other, and then they could be playing together."

Gallery: Journey (12/10/10) | 7 Photos

While Journey is an online co-op game, Chen explained that his team is intentionally excluding voice chat and person-to-person matchmaking features. "The experience is about a personal, spiritual journey towards somewhere, and we want to keep the player's identity as a human being -- rather than say, 'I'm Leeroy Jenkings! I'm cool!' or whatever. It's more about a genuine experience of encountering a human being, and traveling and sharing the journey a little bit."

The basic gameplay concepts of exploration, flight and discovery were outlined the first time we saw Journey (back at E3). The focus of this preview session was online play, and I watched as Robin Hunicke, one of the producers, piloted one avatar around the world while Chen took control of another. Robin took off in search of hidden glyphs as Chen, virtually miles away, worked on solving some puzzles that would lead to fixing a bridge they'd eventually need to cross. The ultimate destination in Journey is the mountain in the distance, and the players' shared goal is to overcome obstacles on the path to it.

As Chen explained, players of varying experience levels could approach the same areas in different ways -- for instance, a veteran player might have "maximized" the scarf (through side-exploration) to fly across the enormous gaps in the bridge that otherwise require solving puzzles to cross. Chen demonstrated as much, leaping into the air and flying across one gap, Matrix-style. He then jumped down to the ground, where Hunicke's character was completing the first objective that would fill in the same gap, allowing her to cross on foot.

I watched, taking in the ambient noises of the gorgeous, clay-colored desert. The sounds mixed pleasantly with the occasional jingle of one of the players completing an objective, and, like thatgamecompany's previous efforts, Journey seemed to be a relatively calm gameplay experience. So I asked Chen to show me something different, perhaps a bit more hectic.

"The experience is about a personal, spiritual journey" - Jenova Chen

"It's a roller coaster," Chen teased. "For example, later in the game you'll actually go through an underground ruin [pictured above]. This seems to be a calmer area, but it actually tends to be pretty difficult later." He also confirmed the existence of enemy characters. "Most of the challenges are from the environments, but there are actually some enemies," he said, before adding, "But I don't wanna talk about enemies, 'cause that's not the cool part."

The "cool part" to Chen, it would seem, is trying to evoke certain emotions in the players. This ethos applies to all aspects of Journey, from gameplay to netcode. When I asked about the possibility of adding voice chat in the future, Chen gave me an unexpected answer. "I actually started designing this game with voice chat, but then very soon it takes you out of the game," he recalled. "It becomes like a party. You and your friend: 'Hey check this out!' and it's not kind of this soulful experience."

Chen offered a similar reasoning behind the game's two-player cap: Journey is an experience of discovery with another human being, he claimed, comparing it to a hike in the woods and the awe of nature. "If you add one more [player], it would be a very different game."

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