Journey’s elegant, minimalistic two-player co-op went through many iterations before arriving in it’s final form. The key ingredient? Trust.
Robin Hunicke, executive producer for thatgamecompany, spoke on Journey and her past work on the Sims and Boom Blox in her uplifting presentation at The Art of Video Game’s Game Fest last weekend at the Smithsonian’s American Art Gallery in Washington, D.C.
“At the center of our design for this game was the hope that players could experience a genuine human connection with each other,” Robin said. This connection would be similar to the interactions you might have while hiking through the wilderness, where you might greet and chat with a passing stranger, rather than the cold and distant experience of riding a crowded train, where you simply look through your fellow human beings.
To foster this connection and enable players to experience each other as equals, thatgamecompany eliminated voice chat, text chat and PSN usernames. But creating this experience was more challenging than the developers had expected.
“Especially early on in our tests, it seemed like everyone was naturally predisposed to compete for open resources, to race each other to points of interest, to be the leader, to run ahead,” Robin said. “And it was tough. I mean, we really had to break through that behavior and didn’t really know how to start.”
The team began implementing different kinds of co-op gameplay, including puzzles where players had to stand on separate switches, push items over pits to build bridges or let down ladders for each other. But none of these prototypes felt right.
“Over time, what we realized as a team was that we were just Band-Aiding the problem,” Robin said. “We needed to trust the players in our game and believe that they would see each other for who they really were. We needed to stop trying to force them to spend time together and encourage it.”
The aesthetics of Journey’s two-player setup is what magnetizes players toward their fellow travelers. There are some instantaneously rewarding moments, like when your partner alerts you to a nearby glyph you would’ve otherwise missed, but the smaller details are downright heartwarming. The way both avatars’ scarves resonate and glow as they brush by each other in the wind, recharging your abilities to jump, fly and generally forge an easier path. You can also fly slightly higher with your partner around and can carefully synch your jumps with them to reach tremendous heights.
“And when time spent alone in Journey felt truly lonely, and time spent together felt romantic and graceful and meaningful, people gravitated toward one another,” Robin said, drawing laughter from the crowd as she abruptly added, “It took like two years.”