I played Journey for the first time this week. After reading Jenova Chen’s MFA thesis on how to create games conducive to guiding players into flow states, I thought it would be really interesting to track how often and when I felt I was in flow during my playthrough. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a positive psychologist whose work Chen’s thesis sought to apply to games, defines flow as “the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment.” This definition of flow, Csikszentmihalyi’s Experience Sampling Method (ESM), and suggestions by Mark Koester (http://www.markwk.com/tracking-flow.html) on how to assess experiences of flow, were what I based my metrics off of when creating a Google Form for myself to fill out during my playthrough. After looking back on those notes, I noticed some interesting connections between when I was experiencing flow and what I was doing in the game at those moments.
There are many notable things about Journey that make it an excellent experience. Its soundtrack, art style, environments, story, the social aspect, and simple mechanics and levels that allow players to choose their difficulty settings on the fly. All of them added to the experience I believe thatgamecompany was going for: serene, awestruck wandering with companionship and a self-fashioned goal for the player. But only some of these elements, I found, were tied to how the game induced flow for me. Most strongly influential among them were the story, the environments, and the presence of another player in my game space.
Journey’s narrative is communicated through embedded bits of backstory that the player discovers as they progress through murals and statue-granted visions, and through its intricately detailed, lived-in spaced that players wander through. Together these methods communicate a mystery, a story of the people who used to live in these sandy cities, and of their downfall. Journey says nothing explicitly, and with the barebones amount of information I was given at the start, and so many questions in my mind (Who am I? What happened here?), I felt compelled to continue playing. This was one of the ways I found myself deeply engaged with the game. Exploring the space and wondering what its history was drew me in. While I wouldn’t say that the story itself guided me into states of flow, I found that it was one of the most impactful parts of my experience when I was in flow. I felt moved by it, especially when I was in the focused and emotionally invested state that flow tended to create for me in Journey.
The world of Journey is made up of stunning landscapes and curious structures. Its beautiful spaces inspire wonder and a calmness, and give players a place to get lost in. The scale of objects and buildings scattered around the desert is striking, too, which made me eager to explore it all and had me awestruck with how small I was in comparison.
I had some expectation going in that the game would try to ease me into a state of flow via dynamically adjusting the challenge of the game, knowing that much of Jenova Chen’s work before Journey was focused on effectively creating flow for players. I was surprised when I noticed instead that the feeling of wandering in this expansive space and taking in its aesthetically pleasing visuals were more impactful on my experience with flow than the gameplay challenges. I didn’t get sucked into the challenges to the extend that I got lost in the spaces. There were still some parts of the game where the threat felt real, and where the challenges were just difficult enough to be engaging without pulling me out of the moment with frustration. In fact, there was a great deal of variable challenge in the game, and that did make the gameplay experience feel pretty smooth. If I wanted to challenge myself in the sand-slide areas, I could aim to pass through archways or glide up from ramps for extra carpet-jump power. Or I could simply head straight down the hill and enjoy the feeling of swishing through the sand. It’s just that those challenges didn’t pull me in the way that the aesthetic, story, and social elements did.
Again, I wouldn’t say that the environments were the main driving force behind the moments I slipped into flow. But the well-placed and varied challenges that stand between you and your destination, and the traveling companions you meet along the way give the vast world enough structure for you to drift gently into a flow state once you find something to focus on.
Unlike the previous two features which were more peripherally-important to affecting my experience with flow in Journey, this aspect of the game was the one that I found really drove me into flow states. I noticed as I played that the game created a strong flow state, but not in the way that I expected it to. Only after getting about a quarter of the way through the game did I notice that I’d lost track of time for a bit, and had been so focused on the game that I was completely immersed. The two moments which I noted really pulled me into the game that way were the two stretches of time where I was travelling with a companion. In those moments, my full focus was on them and our collective efforts toward reaching the mountain, and there was little space for me to break my immersion.
I was fascinated with this. A weak but immediate bond formed when I noticed another player in the game and realized after a bit that they weren’t an AI-controlled NPC. I’d been travelling alone in a huge world for a while, and (since I didn’t know that Journey was a multiplayer game before this) was pleasantly surprised to find another person out here trying to reach the mountain. After extending help to them, and appreciating their help with figuring out mechanics that I hadn’t yet, we marched off toward our destination together in a mutually-beneficial partnership. Not only did having someone else to puzzle-solve and share mechanical knowledge with me help the gameplay go more smoothly (which was great for keeping me immersed and in flow), but the interactions between us kept me really engaged. Trying to figure out how to communicate with someone using only movement and symbol-pings was an interesting problem to solve. Keeping close to them gave us both gameplay buffs and made it easier for us to progress. Once we reached the last (and most difficult) section of the game I even wanted to stay close to them and communicate just to maintain the connection and keep each other going. The transition between being focused chiefly on the gameplay and my surroundings to being invested in my journey with my companions was quick, and reflecting on it now I see that those companionships were the main vehicle through which I experienced what I felt was a strong flow state in Journey. The impact of having a companion to travel with was strong too, and made each emotional beat of the story more intense. I had the pleasure of travelling with two different players, and actually felt a little bit sad when my first companion left to log off, and felt emotional when I finished the game with my second companion.
To sum up, Journey brought me to experience flow in its most intense form at the intersection of its intriguing story, wonderful environments, and its introduction of another player on your trek to the mountain. All of the things I was feeling as I played were even more impactful when I was in that flow state, and most of the time that was with a companion. Everything felt much more immediate and real in flow, while progressing through those environments and unveiling more of the narrative with a gameplay companion at my side.