Journey: Overcoming the hurdles of CMC and elevating the standard of multiplayer interaction

Not to be pigeon-holed into the description of just being a science-fiction film enthusiast, I’m also (predictably?) a video game enthusiast. As of this writing I am without a reliable next-gen console to call my own, and so I have not yet had the opportunity to play Journey, the newest multi-player creation of California based studio thatgamecompany. Despite this, I want to take some time out to talk about what appeals to me most out of all I have read, seen, and heard about this game.

Yes, there’s the beautiful art design stretched across a mysteriously sparse world begging for exploration, there’s the sweeping score and elegant sound design crafted to pull the player into the experience of the world while perfectly complementing the visual aesthetic of the game. But the big thing that leapt out at me and firmly placed it toward the top of my “must play games” list is it’s remarkable approach to cooperative multi-player gameplay.

As anyone who frequently plays video games with a heavy emphasis on online interaction between players can tell you, multi-player interactions can be a double-edged sword. A game designer can be accountable for only so many factors in the creation of a game before it gets into the hands of players. Internal glitches and other happy accidents aside, the bulk of what is experienced in a game is up to the individual player who interacts with it. This could be said of any video game, but multi-player games especially.

So how do you prevent players from creating a disruption to the game and the other players involved without inhibiting the enjoyment of their own experience? thatgamecompany takes the approach of simplicity. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. By stripping the player of any extraneous abilities outside of traversing the vast terrain and working cooperatively with a single human counterpart to overcome obstacles to that end.

In addition to this traditional indicators of player identity, such as their personal “gamertags” and achievement/trophy scores, are withheld from one another until the game’s completion. But the final cooperative feature that seals the deal for me is the limitation of player communication between one another to a one button system of “chirping”, where a luminescent glyph appears temporarily over the head of the player to call  attention from the other player. Why would I be so hyped up about “chirping”? Because as much I enjoy playing video games and sharing experiences through them and talking about them, I abhor multiplayer games typically. I could chalk it up to my inherent lack of coordination in outthinking and getting the drop on my opponents in tactical-shooters, though I very much enjoy playing Counter-Strike and the multiplayer component for Mass Effect 3.Instead I think owe my perspective to the nature and quality of interactions I have with random players on the internet. Now I’m fine with a couple of curses and colorful mock-insults thrown here and there, I’d be lying to saying I haven’t indulge in smack-talk myself from time to time. But the sheer persistence and creativity, or perhaps lack thereof, of players who make a goal out of griefing, putting down, and alienating a few select others or even an entire match of people is what really sets me off.

You can’t expect communication in gaming to evolve if its participants refuse to grow up beyond colorful assertions about the race or sexual preference of the person on the other side of the mic. The problem of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) is that there is an inherent disconnect between what is being said and what is intended. We use different ways to circumvent this problem (emoticons, video chat, etc.) to varying degrees of success. This disconnect extends to the quality of the conversation between the participants involved as well, creating the opportunity for polarization and hyperbole. In short, people generally get dumber when they are given the license to say whatever they please to an audience that otherwise can’t ignore them without limiting their own engagement and enjoyment of a game. Needless to say, no one wants to have to deal with this. So how do we alleviate this problem?

The inability to communicate beyond chirping in the gamespace of Journey forces players to not focus on what separates them as individuals behind a console and instead on what matters in moment, the shared discovery of a desolate mysteriously aloof world with a single visually communicated goal. What’s that light at the top of the mountain? Follow the trail of ruins, crest the mountain and find out. Who you meet along the way is inconsequential to the attainment of that goal, but the true reward of the game is in the journey  to accomplish that goal. It’s not necessarily what you do, but who you do it with. thatgamecompany understands this quintessential truth about cooperative gameplay and it comes to flourish as perhaps the most potent selling point of the game. To quote Carl Jung, “We meet ourselves, time and again, in a thousands disguises on the crossroads of life”. In this moment of gaming culture Journey is just one of those many crossroads, though you’d be surprised with how transparent those  “disguises” truly are.

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