Journey for the PlayStation 3 is the best video game I’ve played in a long time. I’m going to use it to illustrate a larger point about technology, and in doing so, I’m going to spoil the game. If you have any interest in video games at all, I strongly recommend that you do not read any further until you’ve played it.
Online discourse can be harsh. Nowhere is this more true than in multiplayer video games. It’s nearly impossible to play a popular online game without being exposed to — or worse, being the target of — the most vile kinds of behaviors and insults, including sexist, racist, and homophobic slurs.
This problem is not confined to video games. Even something as seemingly benign as a comment form on a popular technology blog can trigger profoundly bad behavior. A well-known Penny Arcade comic sums up the phenomenon nicely in the form of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, which states: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad.
Many remedies have been tried: moderation, the use of “real names” (whatever that means), increasingly complex privacy settings, user voting, karma scores, etc. Sometimes these things help, but often only a little — and they all require constant vigilance.
In frustration, many users and content creators choose to take out the big hammer and end discourse entirely. Eliminate blog comments. Mute all voice chat. Disable communication between players on opposing teams. The only winning move is not to play.
So goes the conventional wisdom. But then there’s Journey, a $15 video game for the PlayStation 3. When you start playing Journey, it’s not even obvious that it’s a multiplayer game. When other players appear, they are not announced in any way, nor are you directed to interact with them. Some players choose to ignore them and complete the game on their own. Others dismiss them as computer-controlled NPCs. This is the first part of Journey’s solution: interaction with others is optional.
Those who choose to engage with others have only a few choices. Players can move, jump, and “sing” by pressing a single button, causing a musical note to play and a unique glyph to appear on screen. The glyph is not selected or drawn by the player; it’s automatically chosen by the game (so penis-themed griefing is out of the question). There is no text or voice chat. Singing is the only way to communicate, and the only control the player has over the note that’s played is the volume and duration.
Most critically, none of these actions can harm other players. Even movement can’t be used as a weapon; players simply pass through each other, making it impossible to bump other players off a high ledge or otherwise perturb their progress. Movement can’t even be used to race ahead and steal a desirable in-game item before another player can get to it, because power-ups are not consumed when acquired: they remain in place for future players to receive.
All of this may sound like it stops just short of banning communication entirely. Will players even bother to interact with each other? Surely, such a limited palette of options will render the multiplayer aspects of Journey trite and inconsequential.
But that’s not what happens at all. Instead, Journey players find themselves having some of the most meaningful and emotionally engaging multiplayer experiences of their lives. How is this possible?
Though players can’t harm each other, they can help each other. Touching another player recharges the power used to leap and (eventually) fly. In cold weather, touching warms both players, fighting back the encroaching frost. More experienced players can guide new players to secret areas and help them through difficult parts of the game.
Journey players are not better people than Call of Duty players or Halo players. In fact, they’re often the same people. The difference is in the design of the game itself. By so thoroughly eliminating all forms of negative interaction, all that remains is the positive.
Players do want to interact; real people are much more interesting than computerized entities. In Journey, players inevitably find themselves having positive interactions with others. And, as it turns out, many people find these positive, cooperative interactions even more rewarding than their usual adversarial gaming experiences.
Does this mean that playing Journey turns players into relaxed, peace-loving, spiritually enlightened beings? Certainly not — but the limited communication system works in more ways than one.
In the same way that you can imagine the actors in a subtitled film (speaking in a language you don’t understand) are all giving Oscar-worthy performances, it’s natural to assume that every other Journey player has only the best intentions. After all, while we may judge ourselves by our motivations, we tend to judge others by their actions. The actions in Journey are all either neutral or positive, so that’s how players perceive each other.