Journey’s Gentle Social Systems: How Demon’s Souls Inspire Journey

Jenova Chen was a rebel long before he started to work on Journey.

While still a college student, he began to pursue that goal with Cloud in 2005. Cloud is a game about a patient in a hospital whose imagination takes them into the sky while his body stays in bed. Thatgamecompany was established in 2006. Then he created Flow, Flower and other wordless, emotional and “zen-like” games. These received acclaim despite or perhaps because they were so different from all the mainstream.

Journey celebrated its ten-year anniversary this weekend. But it went one step further. Journey was an emotional, beautiful, and wordless adventure just like its siblings. But, Journey also embraced a new element they didn't have: social play.

Journey Official Screenshots

Journey pairs players with other random players from the same area. Players can then choose to travel together. Although they cannot interact directly, players can make a “chime”, which is a sound that players use to communicate with one another. This can be used by players to indicate where to go, what to do or to express their joy at overcoming obstacles. Over the years, strangers have helped each other and this system has led to many stories of human connection. Chen says he has heard stories from players who have played the game hundreds or more times in order to guide new players.

Chen's rebellious spirit inspired Journey's revolutionary and innovative social system. Chen started Journey in 2009 while he was simultaneously watching Zynga become a dominant force within gaming. He felt frustrated by the description as he looked at FarmVille's big promises of social gaming and Zynga. “How is that social?” It's not more than trading numbers and crops.

He says, “Let me create a game that's truly social and that is emotionally engaging. Two people will bond and care about one another.” “That's what social is to me: meaningful, emotional exchange between people. Is it possible to create a game that makes you feel this? “I didn't know what to do, but we wanted it to be something different.”

This is what I consider social: meaningful, emotional exchange between people.

It wasn't all rebellion. Chen was also playing FromSoftware's Demon's Souls that time and was fascinated at the concept of players sending each other messages through the game. Also, the ability to see the ghosts of other players, without actually interfacing with them, was fascinating. Players created a positive, but small, community that provided guidance and support as they explored the dangerous world together.

“[The]Chen says that Dark Souls series was very antisocial. It puts the player in a vulnerable position where the whole world wants to kill you and makes them feel very small. This is what Journey did as well: it made these players feel small and vulnerable, and the whole world was filled with amazement.

“Back then we [said]Gaming felt like work, because a boss will tell you that your mission is to kill the boss and take over that hill. All the information is shown to you, you're going to get this reward…Even before you explore, you know everything that's about to unfold. Journey is about the realization that you may not know what lies behind that hill. You feel vulnerable when you don't understand the purpose or history of the world. This is why people are pro-social.

Journey's wordless structure reflects this. It drops the player in a desert world from the beginning without explanation or context and then leaves them to navigate their way forward. Chen had to find a way to combine this sense of awe and his desire for a social experience. Someone suggested that he add voice chat to Journey, so people could chat with their friends and play, which would theoretically increase sales. Chen reached out to his colleagues and friends for feedback. Everyone he spoke with said that voice chat was a terrible feature of games due to the meanness of some people.

Chen decided to veto the idea and instead created a gaming environment that did not highlight mean behavior, but encouraged strangers to join together in silence, with just one button chime to connect with random people.

“This is Journey's greatest lesson: when we transport from reality to a virtual universe, regardless of how realistic that world appears, it's new.” he said. “And what that means is every moral value you've built up for reality will be reset, and we all become giant babies…We press the button to see what [the boundaries are]This is the new world. We will try to make people laugh or cry just to get a response.

“The problem is that when you deal with the internet, the baby also owns a megaphone. They can say outrageous things but others can't give them the social responses to say it's not cool. So you get lots of trolls on the internet, and in virtual games…For a time, you could kill somebody in Journey, and people preferred doing that more than helping someone, because it's just more feedback, more excitement. We realized that the amount of feedback you give is a decision made by the designer. It is best to provide no feedback.

Chen says that Journey's generous community is one reason why it's still loved today. Chen acknowledges that it is unlikely that he can keep it running forever, despite many ports. Because Journey is a peer to peer game and not an online hosted server, Thatgamecompany was able to keep it online for so long. But, it's not like everything lasts forever.

We can transport ourselves into virtual reality and all the moral values we have for reality will be reset.

“One of video games' biggest challenges is to preserve the experiences that Journey had when it was originally created on PlayStation 3 and then transferred to PlayStation 4 and now everyone's switching to PlayStation 5?” These decades-old video games can't be just ported to new platforms. It is likely that there won't be any Journey games available for PlayStation. The ports to the mobile and PC have their benefits and losses.

Chen hopes that the day will come, but it hasn't yet. He is excited to see the community gather again next week to celebrate Journey’s tenth anniversary. Chen says that he doesn't believe Journey made videogames better as a whole.

“[When you]”Try to find something new. The first person who settles it is often not the one who makes it happen,” he said. “They're just [one]Person who contributes. If you are able to make a difference, it is a good thing. [the idea]When we succeed, we're proud that we were able to pave the way. Journey is just one example of the history of gaming and its evolution.

Chen feels “happy” and thankful when he thinks back to Journey. This is despite what he describes as a difficult development process that was fraught by money woes. The Thatgamecompany has also been incredibly successful. Sky: Children of the Light is a new game that allows players to meet up online and make friends. As their friendship grows, they unlock more social features. His studio has grown from 12 to more than 100 people. Nearly seven million people play Sky every day across all platforms.

How could you improve on something you already believe is perfect?

Chen admits that even after ten years, and one large live service game, Chen still believes Journey would be the best ever. This is something he recognizes as a little sad.

“If you can make something that you believe is perfect, how can it be improved?”

Chen says that Journey was awarded many critical praises and awards, and that Chen received thank-you notes. This helped Chen to realize that his team's efforts were valued and appreciated. He told me a story about how he learned that Journey was the winner of the IGN Game of the Year 2012. This happened while he visited his family in Beijing.

“When I woke, I saw the emails. I was confused. These people are who? Is it possible they are so happy? I couldn't understand my emotions even after closing the computer. I had to get up. I looked out the window, it's snowing in Beijing, and at the time, I just…I felt loved. I felt that people from other sides of the world loved what you did and, by extension, it felt as if you were loved a lot. This was a very powerful experience.

“It makes me very happy and thankful to everyone who made me that experience. Yes, it is so to me [Journey was] transformational. As a young rebel artist, I can feel this bitterness in my first games Flower and Journey. However, if you play Sky it's an entirely different experience. Yeah. My life was a journey.

Rebekah Valentine works as a news reporter at IGN. You can find Rebekah Valentine on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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