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This article started life as a review of Dear Esther. I had played it as a mod in 2009, and then rediscovered it upon its release earlier this year. I completed a fairly average review and was editing it, when, unbidden, every sentence I read invited a comparison with another game I’d just finished. Another game that focused on similar ideas, a similar subject, but that was still as unique. I had just finished Journey, and it seemed that reviewing Dear Esther without acknowledging these comparisons would do neither game justice.
Much has already been written about both games, and both have captured the imaginations of the community. Dear Esther has won a slew of awards, and by this time next year, Journey will no doubt have done the same. But too many of the pieces written refuse to judge the games as, well, games.
Gilded phrases like “reviewing Journey would be a bit like watching the sun set over the water while holding a lover’s hand, and then breaking the silence of that precious moment with a number from 1-10”, or long, flowing descriptions of experience with little to no commentary are grand love letters to beautiful games, but they do not help us learn, they do not help us analyse, they do not let us think about or work towards making even more beautiful, more emotive games.
Journey and Dear Esther begin in a similar fashion. Placed alone in a world with no immediate objective, no obvious goal and no real guidelines, the player’s only real choice is to explore. Indeed, in Dear Esther it took me some time to realise I was even in control, so happy was I listening to the opening narration and the sounds of the sea. From here, though, the two games diverge. Both are journeys, and both unfold their narrative as the Player travels, but they do so in markedly different fashions.
Of the two, Journey is the more traditional. There is standard level progression: Always a linear, obvious route forwards and the player is often guided; in terms of level design, or by the wonderful, alien creatures that inhabit the world. Dear Esther avoids this: The chapters only have one objective, and while there aren’t multiple routes across this island, there are multiple paths to explore on the way. I wandered the seashore, backtracked across the hills and then found another path that took me where I needed to go next. In this way it tells the story of the world. Tidbits down random paths, discoveries in the strangest places. Journey’s story is split in two: The story of the players’ experiences, written by the players themselves, and the overarching story, the story of a civilisation, and of a quest.
And yet, the two games each keep your ultimate objective in view almost from the outset. Journey begins with the mountain glowing above your character, and as soon as you turn away from the boatshed in Dear Esther, the eerie, flashing red light of the radio tower becomes visible. They clearly communicate your destination, and always keep it at the forefront of your mind. Even in interiors, the mountain and the light are not forgotten, but, through cutscenes or narration, remain present. Players are very gently guided to the end of their journeys, and while curiosity and exploration are encouraged, the sense of destination is important.
For Dear Esther, not having the radio tower clearly understood as the final destination would destroy all sense of progress. In a game already relatively open and non-linear, not having a clear endpoint would see players wandering for hours, unsure of the game’s meanings or intentions. In Journey, the removal of a clear end to its namesake would see it revert to just another quirky interactive artwork: beautiful, but ultimately pointless. The two journeys’ destinations had to be marked from the beginning, and needed to remain visible throughout.
But what of the way players may complete these journeys? What are the tools we are given to navigate, to explore and to interact? When I began playing the release version of Dear Esther, one of my first realisations was that they had actually removed a great deal of control functionality from the mod. Anything unnecessary, no matter how standard in a first-person game, was removed. Jump and crouch, gone. Controlling the flashlight was no more, now it was scripted. And support for gamepads had been added, which was wonderful, because holding ‘W’ for an hour was an easy way to pull me out of my exploration, and put me in mind of the need for an auto-run button, as in World of Warcraft.
Developer the chinese room distilled the experience down to its very core, and tailored the controls to give that experience, and nothing more.
Journey, on the other hand, actually represents the most complex controls in any of thatgamecompany’s games. Both Flower and fl0w required just one button combined with Six-Axis controls. Journey adds a twin-stick control scheme, a jump button and a communicate button. We’re taught these controls gradually and simply, and certainly, they are not complex, nor is the game concerned with their mastery. But for the first time, I felt like the Six-Axis option for camera controls was jarring and out of place. Whether it was added out of contractual obligation or it was an artistic choice, it was my only frustration with the game. I found no option to turn it off, and instead, every time I shifted position in my seat or unconsciously tilted my controller, I would look straight up or straight down. In a game where I already had perfect control, an extra option didn’t make things easier, it complicated what was otherwise a beautiful, streamlined design.
A criticism I’d included in that first review of Dear Esther was the rather heavy-handed way the game directed and controlled its players. Here, a comparison with Journey is ideal, because Journey’s solution to the same problems is far more elegant. Dear Esther is a game of exploration, but it is definitely not an open world game or a game where players are free to interact with the world in any way they please. Invisible walls abound, as do dead ends and death traps. The world the game places you in is absolutely stunning, and the difference between the art of the mod and the art of this released version is mind-boggling. The caves especially are some of the most beautiful surroundings I’ve seen in a game. However, as soon as you walk to a poorly constructed fence or take a small step up or down and stop dead, or walk too far into water and fade to black, that immersion is broken. Too often I walked down a side passage, and was rewarded with nothing more than an interesting view, if that. I was hunting for story, and I was not being rewarded.
Here, Journey is not afraid to embrace more ‘game-y’ options. Exploration is rewarded with Easter eggs: References to other games, hidden collectables or extra tidbits of story. They add replay value, they add mystery: The first time I saw one of the white-robed figures sharing my world, I was entranced, and didn’t rest until I too wore white. More interesting is Jenova Chen's admission that much of the traditional gameplay created - cooperative puzzle solving, healing and the like - was ultimately removed from the world, in a successful attempt to create "an environment where people can exchange emotion". In a world as exquisite and intricate as that of Dear Esther, Journey avoids the use of invisible walls, borrowing instead the wind mechanic from Flower. The wind picks up and players are gently turned around and pushed back into gameplay, simultaneously warned they’re at the edge of the world, and redirected. In Journey it can even be a handy way to get up a little boost of speed, and it never breaks immersion as do the invisible walls of Dear Esther.
Of course, one thing would seem to set Journey apart from Dear Esther: Your experience is shared. This is where the real magic of Journey lies. The world is beautiful, the controls are streamlined and the story is wonderful, but all are exponentially more impactful because of this strange other person who shares your world. The playfulness of the musical communication and the symbiotic ‘magic’ jumping means you can share wonderful, unscripted, potentially unintended experiences. So, while everyone completes the same journey, you’ve shared a unique one with only those people who inhabited your world. I worry that this might give Journey a limited shelf-life - if new players try the game in six months to a year, will they find anyone to share their journey? I would hope so, and I’m sure I’ll go back at some point, looking for someone to share the experience with again.
Dear Esther doesn’t leave you completely alone in your exploration. Your companions are spectral and fleeting - so much so that it was a few playthroughs before I convinced myself they were really there - but they are, and they do add to the game. They do not create the same sensations as Journey: It is less about joy and play, and instead more a sense of being watched, a sense of the supernatural. There’s also a sense of achievement, the closest thing I found to a kind of meta-game. Spotting them became a sort of challenge, and I thought I’d done well, until I discovered that some presumably tortured soul had compiled every sighting across the game, and that there were many, many tiny spectres that I had failed to find. Without the spectres, Dear Esther is still weird, and it’s certainly not a game that takes place entirely in the real world, but the shadows and the mysterious figures enhance this in a way that the eerie art, the dream sequences and the disjointed narration cannot.
Dear Esther really is the game as art. It uses the grammar of a first person game, and our knowledge and expectations of the genre to place us in a strange, surreal world. It then lets us explore the world, telling a fragmented story that we must attempt to understand, or not, without a clear explanation of any of what takes place.
Journey is almost art as game. It doesn’t shy away from traditional mechanics, from simple puzzles or from clear meta-game concepts. It adds some small element of competition, and a large one of cooperation. It tells a simple story, but one with a twist we can interpret for ourselves. Journey creates a world where players ‘experience’ more than they ‘conquer’. It seems like the style of gameplay thatgamecompany pioneered in fl0w and developed in Flower has reached its peak in Journey.
Both games draw their players into unique, beautiful worlds, and leave them there, more or less, to find their own way to a specific conclusion. Players may take from their journeys whatever they wish, and may return again and again for different experiences, to make and share slightly different stories. That the two games should be so similar, and release so close together I cannot explain, but their choices in controls, in mechanics, in storytelling make them each individually worthy of examination, and together, present two different sides to the same coin.
I design games and enjoy thinking about how they work. Shorter opinionated blatherings can be found on my twitter.
Jimmy the Geek