While we often see the evolution of artists working in old media, ever-shifting technical terrain tends to obscure videogame makers' aesthetic trajectories. In Thatgamecompany's pathbreaking and gorgeous games for the Playstation 3, we get the rare chance to watch these artists at work against a fixed technological backdrop
Artists' aesthetics evolve and deepen over time. You can see it in their work, as immaturity and coarseness give way to sophistication and polish. In most media, an audience witnesses this aesthetic evolution take place within the most mature form of that medium.
Between 1930s and the 1950s, for example, the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko's work evolved from mythical surrealism to multiform abstractions to his signature style of rectilinear forms. Different motivations and inspirations moved Rothko during these two decades, but at every stage of his artistic career, the painter's work could be experienced as painting, as medium on canvas. As flatness and pigment on linen.
Likewise, the contemporary American novelist Ben Marcus has explored his unique brand of experimental fiction in three novels, and his style and effect have changed and deepened as his writing career has progressed. Marcus's 1995 novel The Age of Wire and String uses a technical perversion of English that the author coerces into fantastic and nearly inscrutable tales of rural life. The 2002 follow-up Notable American Women refines his semantic surrealism into a more legible narrative, but one in which language itself remains untrustworthy. And in this year's Flame Alphabet, Marcus reaches a new summit, a book in which language kills from the inside out. Once more, an artist births and refines experimental style, but carries out that evolution within the standard form of the art in question: the offset-printed hardback book.
Aesthetic evolution need not move from lesser to greater effect. Since 1999, M. Night Shyamalan has practiced his signature brand of filmmaking, in which supernatural situations end in dramatic plot twists. But between The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Last Airbender (2010), Shyamalan's artistic success faltered even as his films continued to perform well at the box office. Decline notwithstanding, all his films were still printed to celluloid and projected onto anamorphic widescreen cinema screens.
In painting, literature, and film the public can see an artist's work evolve (or devolve) because that work is accessible to audiences in their native forms. Archivists or scholars might dig into a creator's sketchbooks or retrieve early works, but such museum work is not required for the ordinary viewer or reader to grasp the changes and refinements of work over time. This perception of creative progress is a part of the pleasure of art, whether through the joy of growth or the schadenfreude of decay.
In videogames, it's far less common to see a creator's work evolve in this way. In part, this is because game makers tend to have less longevity than other sorts of artists. In part, it's because games are more highly industrialized even than film, and aesthetic headway is often curtailed by commercial necessity. And in part, it's because games are so tightly coupled to consumer electronics that technical progress outstrips aesthetic progress in the public imagination.
Where there are game makers with a style, it has often evolved over long durations. Will Wright's discovery and later mastery of the software toy simulation, from SimCity to SimEarth to The Sims; or John Carmack and John Romero's revolutionary exploitation of new powers in real-time 2d and 3d graphics in Commander Keen, Doom, and Quake; or Hideo Kojima's development and refinement of the stealth action games of the Metal Gear series, characterized by solitude, initial weakness, cinematic cut-scenes, and self-referential commentary.
These styles evolved over decades, and they did so in the arms of financial success and corporate underwriting. Structurally speaking, they are more like Shyamalan than like Rothko and Marcus, the latter two artists having struggled to find their respective styles outside of the certainty of commercial success.
In independent games, wherein we must hope that aesthetics drive creators more than commercialism, creative evolution often takes place in tentative ways, in forms far less refined and mature than the videogame console that serves as the medium's equivalent to the cinema or the first-run hardback. Experimental titles may take their first form on a PC or a mobile device as humble experiments. If very fortunate, as have been game makers like Jonathan Blow (Braid), Jonathan Mak (Everyday Shooter), or Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel (World of Goo), those games might find their way to the Nintendo Wii or the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3. But today, the artists who work in game development for its beauty before its profitability typically don't get to choose the most public of venues in which to experiment and come of age artistically.
Thatgamecompany's new title Journey is an exception. The game is the third in a three-deal exclusive that the studio's principals signed with Sony right out of grad school at the University of Southern California. Thanks to the Sony exclusive and the oversight of Sony's Santa Monica studio, all three of the games the studio has produced have targeted the PlayStation 3 from the beginning. This is not a remarkable feat for a Rothko or a Marcus--such artists simply pick up the generic media of canvas or page and work with them directly. But the PS3 is tightly controlled and its development kits are expensive. The machine sets a high bar, too--a complex multicore architecture with streamlined co-processors meant to enhance speed and throughput for specialized tasks, especially vector processing for graphical rendering.
Thatgamecompany's work thus offers us an unusual window into the creative evolution of a game maker, one in which the transition from green students to venerable artists took place before our very eyes over a short half-decade on a single and very public videogame platform.
Flow, Flower, Flowest
During graduate school, thatgamecompany's creative director Jenova Chen became obsessed with the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow, the psychological feeling of being fully involved in an experience. Csikszentmihalyi's book on the subject was published in 1990, but a definition for the phenomenon is often cribbed from a 1996 Wired interview: "Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." In musical terms, flow means being in the groove; in athletic terms, we call it being in the zone. Flow is a state of being, one in which a task's difficulty is perfectly balanced against a performer's skill, resulting in a feeling of intense, focused attention.
Chen devoted his MFA thesis to the application of Flow in Games. In his interpretation, flow can be graphed on a two-dimensional axis, challenge on the horizontal axis and ability on the vertical. He then identifies a space surrounding the line that extends from low challenge and ability to high, which he calls the "flow zone." This zone is nestled between anxiety above (too much challenge, insufficient ability) and boredom below (not enough challenge, too much ability). Different players, argues Chen, have different flow zones, representing higher and lower capacities for each.
Chen contends that to reach broader audiences, games need to fit a wider variety of flow zones, either by expanding those zones, or by adjusting the game to better match a specific player's zone. The latter could be done implicitly through automated adjustment, or explicitly via player choice.
To illustrate this principle, Chen and several USC colleagues made a slick, abstract online game aptly titled flOw. In the game, the player controls a microorganism in a pool of water. Eating loose bits (or the bits of other, smaller creatures) grows the player's creature. Two types of orbs allow the player to dive deeper into the murk, where the enemies are slightly more threatening, or to rise to a level above.
flOw was the game that led Sony to sign Chen and his collaborators, including fellow USC students Kellee Santiago, Nick Clark, and John Edwards. The PS3 version, released in 2007, is really just a fancier and more beautiful version of the Flash original.
You can see what Chen was aiming for: flOw was meant to allow players to move through the game at their own pace, either adjusting challenge by diving deeper, or by adjusting ability by devouring more creature bits. But there was a problem.
Even though the game ticked the boxes Chen had theorized, the player controlled the creatures by manipulating the pitch and yaw axes of the gyroscopic sixaxis controller. This awkward interface couldn't be tuned by player or by machine. The strange and surprising exertion the game demanded was further amplified by its mildly hallucinogenic, throbbing visuals. Chen's theory of flow in games hadn't taken account of the interface and environmental elements, but only the game's system.
Another factor contributed to a dissonance between flOw in practice and flow in theory. In creating his model of flow zones in games, Chen didn't adopt Csikszentmihalyi's approach, but rather simplified it significantly. For Csikszentmihalyi, flow does not exist between anxiety and boredom; those states correspond with high challenge/low skill and low challenge/medium skill, respectively. True flow does not exist all along the line bisecting the two axes, but only at its top-rightmost corner, where both challenge and skill are highest.
The combination of these two factors reveal the game's flaw: Being in the zone or in the groove may seem like a type of hallucinatory, out-of-body experience, but it's really a practice of awareness so deep that it moves beyond conscious decision. flOw externalized the quietude and smoothness of flow into the game's visual aesthetics, which are truly striking. But the experience itself suggests a misinterpretation rather than an embrace of Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is not a matter of planning and comfort, but one of deep, durable expertise.
Thatgamecompany's 2008 follow-up, Flower, could be called a three-dimensional, representational version of flOw. Instead of a multicellular creature, the player controls the wind, blowing flower petals through the air with the pitch and roll axes of the sixaxis controller. By flying near other flowers, the player's wind gust can pick up additional petals, and the groups of petals can be used to unlock or "enliven" dead zones--restoring life and color in a world dark with industry.
If flOw erred on the side of behavior, Flower steered too far in the direction of environment. The game is so lush and beautiful, with its wafting grasses and rosy sunsets that the repetitive petal-collecting experience detracts from an otherwise idyllic experience of visitation. Where flOw proved violent and delirious, Flower became overdemanding and distracting, a nuisance of a game getting in the way of the experience of its gorgeous computer scenery.
Like Goldilocks's porridge, Journey finally reconciles these two poles: neither too anxious nor too distracting. The game finally admits that the application of flow in games is best left to those that allow mastery at the highest levels of skill and challenge--games like basketball and Street Fighter and chess and go and Starcraft. Journey forgoes abstract, dynamically adjusted gameplay in favor of simple exploration, which allows the player to enjoy the haunting desert civilization the game erects from invented, abstract myth.
As it turns out, the appealing aspects of flOw and Flower would be found less in their openness to new players through tunable gameplay and more in the unique and striking worlds they created for players to explore.
flOw 's modest environment was already enough; the turquoise, shallow murk giving way to threatening dark blue as the player descends into the ocean that is the game's setting. The undiscovered creatures darken the shadows below, previewing them in a deft visual portent. The game's relative difficulty or facility never had anything on the tiny intrigue of a droplet. For its part, Flower offered a world rather than a microcosm, but it forced the player to focus on its fauna, and eventually the tenuous couplings between the man-made world and the natural one. These settings were the stars of the games.
Journey finally learns this lesson. Set in a mysterious, mythical desert civilization, the game abandons the cloying framing of Flower's levels, which claimed to offer the dreams of citybound buds. Instead, Journey explains nothing and apologizes for nothing. Like Star Wars or Spirited Away, Journey makes the correct assumption that a bewitching, lived-in world is enough.
So much goes unanswered in Journey, from the very first screen. The creatures are humanoid but not human, or not identifiably so. They have eyes and dark skin, or else eyes but no faces. The desert dunes are littered with monuments--are they pathmarkers? Tombstones? Relics? Advertisements? Sandfalls douse chasms lined with temples dressed in patterns reminiscent of Islamic geometric art. Fabric banners flap in the breeze awaiting the player's touch. Pixel shaders push synaesthesia: the yellow sands feel hot somehow, and the pink sands cool. One environment--"level" seems too prosaic a word here--is cast entirely in shadow, and the blue sand and rising ribbons pay homage to the underwater worlds of flOw.
In Journey, thatgamecompany finally discovers that facility was never the design problem they were looking for. Its games are about the feeling of being somewhere, not about the feeling of solving something.
Thatgamecompany's titles are elemental, each pursuing a precise, careful characterization of a material form. For flOw, it was water. For Cloud (another student game that predates the studio), vapor. For Flower, grass. And for Journey, sand. In flOw, these materials surround the player. In Cloud, the player ejects them. In Flower, the player passes through them on the way elsewhere. But in Journey, the sand has texture: it slips under the player's nomad at times, its dunes force it back at others. It covers the air like murk, and when pushed to its limits flips into snow.
These materials and environments make Journey, partly for their conception, and partly thanks to the smooth, delightful rendering John Edwards and his engineers manage to squeeze out of the PS3. The machine may have implicitly promised enormous, realistic game environments like those of Red Dead Redemption or Saints Row, but Journey shows that the world is fashioned from its tiny details as much as its cities.
Journey also--finally--abandons the sixaxis control in favor of the more conventional analog stick convention (although the device can be tilted to look in different directions). While I suspect the designers feared they might descend into the ghetto of the adventure game by making such a compromise, instead the more traditional controls finally allow the serenity and mystery that has been on the surface of each of their previous games to embrace the reality of experience and not just the theory of design.
Indeed, given the usual subjects of videogames, players would be forgiven to mistake Journey's title for an adventure. The hero's journey is a common theme in videogames, but that formula requires a call to adventure, an ordeal, a reward, and a return. Journey offers none of these features, but something far more modest instead.
When the game starts, the player ascends a sand dune to a view of a tall mountain with a slit peak. The destination is implied, but no reason given. To progress, the player crosses the sands to discover and collect orbs that extend a scarf on his or her robes. When filled with the symbols imbued by orbs or cloth, the player can fly briefly to reach new summits or avoid obstacles. The same symbols line the walls of the game's temple ruins and emanate above the player to signal others and carry out actions--a lost language with no meaning implied nor deciphered.
As the player moves from dunes to temples to lost cities, she must spread energy to neglected apparatuses. Just as the player's scarf lightens her feet, so cloth seems to be generally transformative in Journey's universe. These cloth portals spread bridges over chasm at times and unleash fabric birds and jellyfish at others.
Fantastic, yes, but not a hero's journey. Insofar as it has one, it seems impossible not to read the game's story allegorically instead of mythically: an individual progresses from weakness, or birth, or ignorance, or an origin of any kind, through discovery and challenge and danger and confusion, through to completion. It could be a coming of age, or a metaphor for life, or an allegory of love or friendship or work or overcoming sickness or slouging off madness. It could mean anything at all.
Thatgamecompany should be both praised and faulted for taking such a morally, culturally, and religiously ambiguous position; surely every sect and creed will be able to read their favorite meaning onto the game. On the one hand, this move underscores thatgamecompany's sophistication: in a medium where interpretation is scorned as indulgent and pretentious, Journey gives no ground: the player must bring something to the table.
On the other hand, the careful player may find the result as barren as it is receptive. After each environment, a white figure (A god? A mother? The mind's mirror? The artist's muse?) incants silently to the player's red-robed humanoid. When she does, recent events are added to an inscription of the journey thus far, rendered as if in symbol on rock or papyrus. But not just thus far, also a bit further, the theme of the next scene revealed in abstract, hieroglyphic form. Is the future being foretold, or is everyone's future always the same? In a very real way, the latter is true for Journey, as everyone's journey through the game will follow the same overall progression through the same environments. With one exception.
That Journey is an online game is mystery many players may never discover. The game itself never makes any such claims, and as a downloadable it arrives with no manual or instructions. Save for a subtle nod at the end of the game's credits (which many players may overlook or miss entirely), only reviews and interviews with the creators reveal a feature whose extensive design and engineering becomes the silent center of the game, the wind that moves it.
Sometimes while you play, the game will invisibly match you up with another PS3 owner who is also playing in the same environment. There's not much you can do with your companion--speech isn't possible, but touching one another refills the energy in the cloth of both characters' scarves. Pressing one of the controller buttons emits a ping that can help a player find his companion and, when used improvisationally, might allow basic signaling. Only one companion appears at a time, although a player might encounter many over the course of the game.
These encounters with the other are both touching and disturbing. For one part, there is no mistaking a companion for an artificial intelligence; it moves too erratically, or speeds ahead to steal the next objective too definitively, or falls behind too listlessly. Even given the minimal actions of Journey, somehow these ghost players appear rounder than most of the scripted, voice-acted characters in contemporary videogames.
For another part, you don't really play with these other players. They are there with you, doing what you do, helping at times and hindering at others, plodding senselessly toward a mountain peak that has no meaning save for those imbued by a few foreboding, pregnant camera pans. You're comforted by their presence. It's like sitting on the couch close to someone, watching TV.
Journey 's anonymous multiplayer interactions are touching, but they are also tragic, like a Beckett novel with characters in red robes mumbling, "I can't go on, I'll go on" in inscrutable pictograms. At one point in the deep scarlet shadow of the caves, I swear I saw my companion crumble to dust. If only Sartre had known that one could always just turn off the console, Matrix-style.
If Journey's journey is anyone's, then it can mean anything we make of it. But a tabula rasa carries all meaning and no meaning all at once. For me, the journey was less my own than that of thatgamecompany itself, a band of students stumbling toward improbable success and surfing it clumsily at first, but then more certainly.
Thatgamecompany's crew is still largely comprised of USC Interactive Media MFA alumni, a division of the institution's famed cinema school. It's no wonder that their games are cinematic, not only in appearance and duration (Journey lasts a little over two hours), but also in structure. Journey and Flower demonstrate a rare mastery of the denouement in games. Good filmic storytellers end their tales quickly and definitively after resolving the main conflict. After a laborious set of levels, Flower erupted in the fast-paced, colorful rebirth of a deadened, grayscale city and then concluded. Journey's denouement is even more dramatic and far more sentimental. Near the mountain's summit, in the snow, progress becomes more and more difficult. Pace slows, then stops. My character, red hood now grey with the crust of ice, succumbs to the cold earth. The screen goes white.
Then, suddenly, the mysterious white god-mother appears and looks over me. What she does remains ambiguous: some will say she resurrects me, others will claim my spirit is ejected into eternity, and still others will interpret the last scene as a final bodily hallucination. But through whirlwinds and cloth banners and the bright cobalt of sun and snow and dawn, I rush up to the summit. Who can resist the exhilaration? It's invigorating, like a cold winter wind on flushed cheeks.
When they speak about their games, Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago often express a hope that they might explore or arouse positive emotions in their players, emotions they do not feel from other sorts of games. Isn't this sense of delight and vitality precisely what they are after? Yes, to be sure. But it is also the thrill of all victories, and the vertigo of all dizzinesses. Chen and Santiago sell themselves short with this this trite incantation about emotions. For their journey has not been one of creating outcomes, but of culturing a style, an aesthetic that defines the experience without need for their aphorisms. Instead: the sand and the ruins. The wind and the fabric. The silence of a cryptographic mythology. The vertigo of breeze, the swish of dunes.
For my part, I plodded through the snow near the summit of Journey's cleft mountain with another traveler, one who entered that scene with a regal scarf flowing far behind, easily twice as long as my own. We stumbled up the mountain together, cowering behind stone tablets to avoid the wind. At one point, I hobbled out foolishly before one of the game's serpentine flying enemies, who dove and sent us flying back. The impact eviscerated most of his scarf, and I felt guilty.
We took our final slog through the dense snow and thick wind, and we both collapsed together under its weight. Thinking back, I elongate the short moment before the game interrupted me with its cloying samsaric angel, and I imagine that this fallen other was Jenova or Kellee rather than some stranger, that they had allowed me to join them on their journey to journeyman. Before the screen goes white I imagine whispering my tiny counsel in the hope they might yet reach mastery: This. This is enough.