Critical Play: Walking Simulators

For this critical play, I played the game Journey, a walking simulator game on iOS created by ThatGameCompany in 2012.

The target audience for Journey is individuals, and even though collaborative play is eventually introduced, it is exclusively with strangers so the game remains a deeply personal experience to play. While the simple controls and simple narrative mean that even young children could play, the game is probably best suited for players aged 14+ who can fully appreciate the beauty and design of the game. 

The game is a single-player walking simulator-style game, meaning the world, narrative, and story are revealed simply by exploring. This means that the setting of the game is incredibly important as the main mechanic for delivering the play experience, and in Journey the visuals are incredible: vast landscapes in combination with an inspiring soundtrack that cultivate a sense of exploration and discovery. 

By exploring their surroundings, the players learns the main mechanic for interacting with the environment: small pieces of fabric that match their red scarf and which, when used in combination with the player’s unique chime sound, allow them to glide through the air and aid in their goal of collecting orbs of light. Eventually, the player also learns that the other characters they stumble into in the landscape are actually other real players who can help in the goal, albeit limited in communicated by the elimination of voice or text chat. Because of this, the main types of fun in this game are discovery, sensory, and fellowship.

Journey is noticeably different from other walking simulator games because of its incredible ability to reveal information about the game mechanics and setting without using a single word. The focus of the narrative, thus, is not some intensely complex mystery or detailed backstory but rather the subtle and intentional gradual reveal of the game’s mechanics, especially in the revelation that other players are actually playing with you. 

Focusing so much on designing a beautiful environment with intentionally limited tools, however, may not have worked out for some players. The lack of any text direction, while allowing for deeper immersion in the game’s world, prevents some users from engaging with the setting as they feel confused by their initial surroundings in the game. In addition, the simple mechanics can create a limited or monotonous gameplay experience- moving is slow and repetitive. These mechanics, however, make perfect sense if viewed through the perspective of encouraging players to focus more on the design than on the experience, so it is truly a matter of perspective.

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