They create worlds: Journey

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. From the satirical real-world analogues of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series to the historical simulacra of Assassin’s Creed infused with secret meaning, from Super Mario‘s candy-coloured vistas to the stark alien worlds of Metroid: in games we can experience spaces that are uncanny twins of real places or that are thrillingly new. This isn’t exactly a series of posts or a new feature as an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

One of these games is Journey, originally developed by Thatgamecompany for the PS3 and now available for the PS4. In terms of its gameplay, it’s a simple game, almost entirely devoid of challenge; it has also been called an ‘art game’ and I’m sure there are some who would even deny it’s a game to begin with, for some reason or another. It wonderfully evokes a sense of place, though: in Journey you’re a lone traveller, perhaps a pilgrim, marching onwards towards the distant mountain through deserts, among abandoned ruins, across the bottom of the ocean and up snowy slopes towards the goal that keeps getting closer even as it remains tantalisingly out of reach.


While the actual virtual locations are fairly small and can be traversed in a few minutes, they come alive through a wonderful blend of the real and the imaginary. Visually, Journey has a minimalist but beautiful style, using strong colour contrast and simple shapes to evoke less real places than our dreams of such places. There’s a sparsely surreal quality to the deserts you travel through early in the game, as if Lawrence of Arabia‘s vistas had been reimagined by Giorgio de Chirico. At the same time, the place is tangible: you leave behind lines in the glittering sand as you move through it, sliding down dunes. There’s a tactility to these environments and your place in them; late in Journey, as you travel up the mountain towards your destination, the cold wind holds you back, slowly freezing you in place. Journey‘s spaces feel both alien and real – these are worlds you could otherwise only explore while asleep, but you feel the sand between your toes, the snow on your face.

Journey offers fairly little in the way of interaction to its players, its chief method of interaction being movement, and the game gets that very right. The player avatar becomes a part of the world, where in a lesser game that avatar feels superimposed on it. Other than walking around, the player can also fly, though this power is very much limited and feels less like the kind of power fantasy common to gaming than like a moment of freedom – again, very much like in dreams. There is one more thing the player can do, though, and that’s where the world gains a dimension: he or she can sing… and if others are around, they will hear that song. Journey is a multiplayer game, but it’s a most unusual one: on your pilgrimage to the mountain, you encounter other pilgrims, looking exactly like you. They walk, fly, and they sing; where one pilgrim may chirp in short, playful sounds, another may hold a note, almost as if inviting you to join voices.

It’s strange how other people can make a virtual space in a game feel more real, but that’s definitely how I experienced Journey. It’s maybe a bit like Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”, which talks about “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”: if you inhabit a world of the imagination with someone who may be incomprehensible to you but who is real, reacting to your movement, your flight and song, then that world becomes more real as well. Some of the pilgrims I encountered in Journey went exploring with me, others were kind guides pointing out an interesting ruin or a forlorn statue for me to find, and yet others seemed to sing at me in an increasingly frustrated voice, unable to make me understand their song. And then there were some that ignored me entirely. Yet most accompanied me, for a short while or for longer stretches, on my pilgrimage towards that mountain. For a few moments, they were friends, the only friends I found in that strange world. And when I dream of the desert and the bottom of the sea and that mountain, I also dream of their song. It’s those disembodied voices that we’ve left behind, floating over the dunes.

Planes, trains and automobiles

Let’s get it out of the way: GTA V may just be the best Grand Theft Auto game. It may also be the most disappointing – and it is probably one of the dumbest games in the series. Credit where credit’s due: Rockstar Games do one thing amazingly well, better than anyone else out there, and that’s creating living, breathing worlds. Their obituary to the Old West, Red Dead Redemption, is one of my favourite virtual worlds bar none, the sort of place that I enjoy inhabiting and navigating, even without following the story or sidequests. Just being in the world covers so much of what I look for in games.

Red Dead Redemption also works in one key way that GTA V flubs, and that’s the character writing: yes, there are the joke characters, the broad caricatures of two-faced hypocrites, but Rockstar’s western knew when to take its cast seriously. It didn’t work all the time or with every single character, but by and large the dramatis personae of what could perhaps be called Grand Theft Horse carried the weight of its narrative. I understand that Rockstar might not want to write tragedies all the time – something that Red Dead Redemption ended up being quite effectively – but when it comes to humour the company’s writers tend towards the lazy, obvious joke… and then they flog it until way past its expiration.

I admit, there were moments in GTA V where I laughed out loud, and there were others where I sniggered. There are storylines in the game that work due to a combination of fine voice work and their sheer absurdity, but for each of these storylines there’s a character whose venality and stupidity is so drawn out, so overplayed it’s cringeworthy. What’s worse, perhaps, is that these characters are essentially all variations on the same theme: people who are smug and think they’re the best thing since sliced bread, yet they are essentially hollow. Which is fine until you realise that GTA V is 90% populated with such characters – and no, this does not strike me as a convincing parody of Southern California, and it’s most definitely not an interesting parody – and that the writing itself exhibits the same smugness. By comparison, Rockstar’s previous foray into Los Santos and surroundings in 2004’s GTA San Andreas (it’s already been ten years? now I definitely feel old) also had the broad jokes and the caricatures, but it brought together a band of mismatched characters that genuinely felt like family by the end of the game. By comparison, I don’t miss any of GTA V‘s cast of misfits and murderers, since with so many of them it’s clear that the punchline will always precedence over the character. There are exceptions: moments that show genuine wit and complexity, and jokes that don’t rely on the nth variation on the theme of “Haha, aren’t Californians/Americans/people stupid, vapid and easily fooled?”, but compared to Red Dead Redemption it all feels too much like a middling sitcom writer had watched The Sopranos and decided that they could pull this off.

Much was made of the lack of female protagonist in the game, especially since GTA V‘s main innovation is that there’s not just one but three playable characters. Seeing how limited Rockstar’s palette is in their latest, I have to say I’m glad they didn’t try to write their first female protagonist in this one. In fact, my main recommendation to the company would be this: they’ve pretty much perfected the creation of living, breathing worlds and mechanisms to enjoy being in that world. They have great artists, they choose fantastic music to add another dimension to their worlds, and they have ideas. What they should do is bring in new writing talent that doesn’t just do what they already do. They should get writers whose skills can shake up the by now rather stale mix of HBO Lite (imagine the worst moment in the weakest episode of The Sopranos) and Southpark-style loud parody. They don’t need to go for Greek tragedy or the Dickensian sweep of The Wire – but they should stop telling what is essentially the same joke. In brief, whatever they do next, I’d rather not think that it’s an improvement on their track record to date in every respect other than the writing. If that’s the case, I might just stay in GTA Online, because when the lines are provided by other players I don’t expect the writing to be good.

P.S.: For the record, GTA V‘s most maligned character, Trevor, is actually the most interesting at times. Yes, much of the writing is lazy and repetitive, but there are moments when his lines display a self-awareness that, while not particularly deep, does stand out compared to his usual lazy “Ooh, isn’t this edgy, offensive and craaaaaazy?!” shtik, the aftermath of the infamous playable torture scene (ah, to be a gamer in 2013…) being a case in point.

Here comes the rain again

Hang on, weren’t computer games about (male teenage) wish-fulfillment? Weren’t they about pretending to be overly-muscular he-men carrying weapons the size and weight of Texas, or knight templars wielding enchanted swords, or cocky, ersatzIndiana Jones explorers making sexy small talk while exploring dark tombs looking for the Whatsit of Certain Doom?

Instead I’m spending time in front of the telly running after my son, knowing I won’t get to him before something horrible happens. I spend time shaking the controller so that my overweight on-screen avatar shakes his asthma inhaler, then I press right on the analog stick so he actually takes a puff of his medication. And all the while the rain keeps pouring down.

Heavy Rain is a weird game. It’s derivative: the atmosphere is pure Seven, which is nowhere as obvious as when I visit a suspect’s apartment and the man, a religious nutter, has crucifixes hanging from his ceiling like so many Little Trees car air fresheners, and the music sounds like Howard Shore’s B-sides. The characters lack subtlety and their dialogues often clunky. There’s something almost laughable about how hard the game tries to be melancholy, weighty, tragic. And the gameplay feels like a mix between Dragon’s Lair quick-time events (press R1 now not to get knocked out by the prostitute’s choleric john!) and one of those hipster-witty, highly meta indie games mocking the usual epic dick-waving of video games by making you do utterly mundane, pointless things: yes, you can open the fridge, take out a carton of orange juice, shake it (wouldn’t want all the pulp to remain at the bottom of the juice carton!) and take a gulp, but it won’t get you any closer to finding the Origami Killer. In fact, I’m a couple of hours into Heavy Rain and most of the interaction I’m offered is of the juice-carton or asthma-inhaler shaking kind. There are important decisions (do you shoot a suspect? do you foil a robbery?), but they don’t make up the bulk of the game. Is this some weirdo wish-fulfillment for pretentious, self-aware dweebs approaching middle age – an ironic power fantasy for the disillusioned?

The thing is, though, the gameplay, allowing for actions veering between boringly banal and surreally pedantic, works in one important way: it puts you in the role of the character you’re playing in a most effective way. Heavy Rain provides the player with agency that precisely isn’t of the “I am a Jedi!” kind, which is always essentially “I am myself, but I am also invincible! Take that, 3rd grade bully who’s become an Imperial Stormtrooper!”; instead it makes it easier to slip into the skin of depressed father Ethan Mars or asthmatic private investigator Scott Shelby. It’s a bit like acting, where it can be the small actions and gestures, irrelevant to the plot, that make a character come alive – it’s the bits in between the showcase fights and high-tech investigation, between entering a suspect’s apartment and fighting off hooded intruders, that make the player empathise.

I’d hesitate to call Heavy Rain a good game. I’d definitely not want other games to copy its gameplay. But as an experiment in the potential and the limits of agency in gameplay, and in player identification, it’s fascinating. And I want such experimentation to be possible not only in small-scale indie games but also in Triple-A titles. Just like L.A. Noire, Heavy Rain may get quite a few things wrong, but what it gets right it does in ways that few other games have even attempted.

More than fine

I’m not a big fan of Heavy Metal. Perhaps it’s that I’ve never had the hair to go with headbanging. Perhaps it’s that I dislike the sexism that often seems to go with it. Perhaps it’s simply that I was raised on Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and that has influenced my entire musical development. I’ve always been more into borderline pretentious psychedelic prog rock, if anything, and then lots of indie singer/songwriter stuff than the leather-and-studs bridgade. I enjoyed This Is Spinal Tap, but half the jokes probably went straight over my head. Other than Ozzie, I’m not sure I could pick any of the greats of Metal out of a police line-up.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I started playing Tim Shafer’s Brütal Legend (savour that umlaut!) – and immediately fell in love with the world and atmosphere of the game.

Tim Shafer could be called the Tim Burton of the videogame world – if you disregard Burton’s creative stagnation, his repetitiveness and his increasingly mannered goth shtik. His games are strong on character, world building and storytelling, to the point where the gameplay becomes secondary. He’s the guy who spliced together Casablanca and the Mexican Day of the Dead and who created a summer camp for the psychic. And he’s the mastermind behind Brütal Legend, a game that takes as its inspiration Heavy Metal – not only the music, but the aesthetic, the ethos, the feel of it all (minus the “Smell the Glove” misogyny, mind you). Its world is designed to look like all the Metal album covers you can imagine, turned up to 11. It’s inhabited by laser-eyed black panthers and mastodons with gleaming metal tusks. It should be tacky – but instead it pulls off its loving hommage with style, with a little help from Jack Black. I mean, how can you not warm immediately to a game featuring lines such as these:

– Ever feel like you were born in the wrong time – like you should have been born earlier, when the music was… real?
– Like the seventies?
– No. Earlier… like the early seventies.

What is perhaps most amazing is that in a game featuring KISS-faced Amazons, phony big-haired rock stars (even the guys from Spinal Tap would find General Lionwhyte embarrassing – and yes, he’s one of the game’s villains) and a very familiar-looking Guardian of Metal, Shafer manages to pull off a story that takes turns being funny, thrilling and finally poignant. It’s difficult not to wipe away a manly Metal tear at the game’s ending. In a medium that’s full of teenage male wish fulfillment gone wrong (or just stale), that’s a rare gift.

Light sabres… for kids, you know?

I’m one of the lucky ones – I was a kid when the original Star Wars trilogy came out, so I like the Star Wars movies that it’s okay to appreciate. Like so many boys of my age I wanted to fly an X-Wing or a snowspeeder, bringing down the Empire one AT-AT at a time. I got really good at making bad light sabre noises. It took me a long time to see anything other than A New Hope, because my parents were decidedly uninterested in anything sci-fi or fantasy; I still haven’t completely forgiven them for taping over the original movie the day after we got the Betamax tape from my uncle, recorded from ITV. By the time I watched Return of the Jedi, I still thought that TIE Fighters, Death Stars and raspy-breathed evil space samurai were cool, but Ewoks were just overgrown teddy bears.

I remember the original teaser for The Phantom Menace giving me goosebumps at the cinema. This wasn’t just nostalgia, it was nostalgia distilled, and then the distillation distilled again. It was all the best things from my childhood without the stuff I’d worked hard to forget or repress. It was Star Wars, for crying out loud.

Well, we all know what happened when the prequels came out and millions of nerd voices suddenly cried out in dismay. Let’s face it, though, Teddy Bear’s Picnic should have prepared us for Jar Jar & Co. In any case, if I wanted to write about the disappointment of the prequels, I’d be even more ludicrously late than I am with most of my blog posts.

What I really want to write about is this: that fine distillation of childhood with all its best bits left in exists. And next to Rock Band, it’s the best fun I’ve had with any video game playing with my girlfriend.

Lego Star Wars gets the appeal of Star Wars: its universe is a playground for overgrown kids – but while it’s childlike, it isn’t childish. It isn’t embarrassing the way the Gungans are in Episode 1, nor does it take itself as seriously as the worst moments of Episodes 2 and 3. The trials of Anakin are more relatable when he’s a mute toy figure… and the “I am your father” moment in Lego is simply perfect.

The Lego series of games extended to other fictional universes after covering the Star Wars movies in bric-a-brac glory: there’s Lego Batman, Lego Harry Potter, two Lego Indiana Jones titles… and Lego Pirates of the Caribbean is in the works. The games are all basically the same, with small variations in the designs – but for someone who grew up trying to imitate the roar of an Imperial fighter screaming past your cockpit, it’s the Star Wars game that carry a special magic. And sitting on the sofa, teaming up with my girl to dismantle the Empire brick by evil brick is bliss.

As is the ability to hit Jar Jar with an itty bitty light sabre. Again and again and again…

How the West was won, pixel by pixel

Nothing big to add here – I’m still working on a blog entry on Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in my mind (these things take time, and it’s not as if the film’s already years old), but since I’ve posted the odd entry on Ebert’s big “Video games cannot be art” shtik, I wanted to post this link: The Observer has two gamers and their regular film critic Philip French give Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption a whirl. French is obviously not a gamer, but he knows his films, and it’s good to read a critic who’s at least willing to take the artistic potential of games seriously. He doesn’t use the A word, but that’s fine – any discussion of art that circles around what art is tends to vanish up its own backside anyway.

And now for some heavy-duty shilling of the game, because it does look quite good – western fans take note, and don’t be put off by the sucky stills below: