Journey to the ‘artistic’ age of gaming

artistic gaming

One of my most vivid memories from the long stretch of summer took place, perhaps fittingly, in a darkened room with a friend, staring at the artificial light of a television screen. I had decided to show him Journey, the most recent release from thatgamecompany, based purely on my own profound emotional reaction to the game.

Before handing him the controller, his initial impression was ambivalent at best. “Sure, it looks pretty nice,” he admitted, “but there’s not really much to it, is there? You just guide the character to the end. It seems pretty bland.”

At my insistence, he began to play.

Within an hour, he had more than scratched the surface of the game’s desolate world; interacted enthusiastically with a fellow traveller, crossed a desert of ruins, and scaled a mechanical tower which jarred ominously with its surroundings. He found himself surfing sand dunes, pulled ceaselessly downwards by the game’s physics and the occasional orchestral swell. Slowly, control of his character was effectively stripped from him. Not through an interrupting cutscene as is the standard trend, mind you: the subtle shifting of camera perspective funnelled him into a shadowed corridor along a path which he had no choice but to follow. As he watched his character continue his descent, suddenly the shadows receded: in the background, an achingly beautiful golden landscape burst through, bold as lightening. Finally, he comes to rest at the end of the corridor, facing the edge of a final downwards slope. The mountain stands in the distance, silhouetted by the setting sun. The moment is bittersweet: he is frozen in a state of serene grace, yet the music has also ceased. He stands on the precipice of greater trials, and he knows it. All that’s left for him to do is decide to take a step forward: to throw himself into the game’s darkest pit.

“Wow,” my friend exclaims in characteristic understatement.

I indulge myself this anecdote because it demonstrates to me two very crucial points about the games industry as it stands now. Firstly, it is a perfect example of an interactive experience attempting to broaden the emotional spectrum on which games operate.

For too long, mainstream games have remained tethered to the terribly 90s concept that a game must be traditionally ‘fun’ to be of worth, or else must replicate the tropes and spectacle of cinema. Turn your attention to AAA, ‘blockbuster’ titles. Mario in all his incarnations. Call of Duty’s whistle-stop, on-rails tour of dramatic set-pieces to be watched, not felt. They must generally be ‘Safe’, in other words. Of course, this is not to say that these are in any way bad or detrimental – they are fantastic experiences in their own right – but Journey is a different beast. It’s not afraid to attempt to communicate more complex emotional themes in a way that is uniquely achievable within the medium, and it’s comforting to see that such efforts are being embraced.

The phrase I’m trying to avoid here is the horribly loaded term ‘Art-game’. Spare me the cry for gaming’s equivalent to ‘Citizen Kane’: I think we can all accept at this point that games have the potential to communicate themes, ideas and – yes – a sense of enjoyment in a way other mediums cannot. They can offer a world in which we, as players, directly participate: worlds we can interact with, explore, and experience. So far, so obvious.

What we have in the form of Journey however, is a more nuanced demonstration of this: a central metaphor of the journey fleshed out into an engaging world that mixes aesthetic, music, and controlled interaction to make its point. That sense of control in spite of (or, indeed, through lack of) linearity is crucial: it’s what separates the game from the movie, or the painting on the wall. It’s the same principle that made your first headshot in COD so rewarding, but taken to a higher level. Journey understands this. There’s none of this plot-advancing cutscene malarkey, because it’s not needed. The cinematics feed the central conceit, which is then developed through gameplay experience. It’s all very natural.

Not that Journey is the first game to try and push the emotional boundaries of the medium. Far from it. Team Ico’s stunning PS2 swansong, Shadow of the Colossus (2006), pulls off the same feat on an even greater scale. Bioshock (2007) seemed to be pushing towards this same concept, offering an engaging, terrifying world with a philosophical twist to the plot that you experience both cinematically and, most notably, through your actions as a player. This serves to illustrate my second point: that this stretching of what the medium can offer us through game mechanics, both emotionally and artistically, is becoming commonplace. What started with a trickle of standout gaming experiments is turning into a flood. Journey is not some obscure example I’ve dredged up from the annals of gaming history: it’s a critically acclaimed, commercially successful downloadable title that’s barely a year old. It displaced blockbuster titles to be named ‘Game of the Year’ by numerous publications. This shift is happening now.

A quick glance over last year’s sleeper hits – the interactive storytelling masterpiece that is The Walking Dead and the stunning game mechanics of Fez, to name but a few examples – shows that Journey was far from alone in exploring the interactive potential of the medium last year. And a further look to the future – in the form of Sony Japan Studio’s aesthetically ambitious Rain and Puppeteer projects – convinces me that this trend is set to continue. Journey, although brilliant, is not unique in its aims. It’s not the first, and it is my earnest hope that it will not stand as anything like the pinnacle of its genre. Instead, I see it as part of an increasing appetite for engaging, medium-defining efforts. It is an accessible example of this more ambitious tendency of a number of game developers, both major and minor: it is an example to replicated and surpassed in the future. And, if you ask me, that is only to be celebrated.

Journey showed me that we quite possibly stand at the most exciting precipice in the history of gaming. More and more, companies are moving away from the traditional groundings of gaming and are beginning to experiment in terms of expressing emotion through game mechanics and unique aesthetic presentation. The standard blockbuster games of the past are here to stay, there can be no doubt: they’re far too enjoyable and well-marketed to ever be replaced. But don’t be shocked if they continue to be outstripped critically (and occasionally commercially) by their more experimental brethren. Mainstream ‘Art games’, to use the dreaded phrase, are becoming the norm, and that makes me hungry for what developers can bring to the table. Welcome to the new age.

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