Team Ico has been noticeably absent for the PS3’s life so far. A force to be reckoned with on the PS2, Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus frequently feature in many all-time-greatest-games lists. Team Ico’s PS3 title, The Last Guardian, was announced during Sony’s E3 2009 conference but then disappeared into development hell amid reports of technical problems, lack of direction, and lead designer Fumito Ueda quitting in the middle of the process. So, with the primary developers of outstanding emotive interactive experiences dragging their heels, who could fill the void?
Their first full game was PS3 launch title FlOw (still one of my favourite relaxing digital playgrounds) and they followed this with the spectacularly pretty Flower. Both impressive concept titles, but not designed for deep emotional connection. However, with Journey, their formula deepened to match the story with their trademark visuals. Casting you as a non-speaking shaman-esque traveller trudging over sand and snow towards a shining mountain, it doesn’t really explain anything more than what is teased on screen. True to the title’s promise, the destination really isn’t what is designed to resonate (although, it eventually turns out to be very special in itself). It’s the journey that’s meant to linger long after the power is switched off.
The masterstroke is that you’re hardly ever alone. At any given moment you can be joined by another player, slipping along the sands next to you. However, far from breaking the sense of discovery and isolation, it actually adds to it. thatgamecompany decided to strip away all the modern standards of multiplayer gaming – free communication, invitations, predictability – and push the players to share intention with just the basic whistles and body language of the characters. This creates an incredible connection between the two travelling strangers as you together slip past deserts and dangers, ever onward towards your goal.
There’s a section towards the end – past the dragon, past the moments of shivering together behind ancient ruins, past the joint sprints away from the searching lights – where the path doubles up over itself and calls for some deft platforming timing as your jumps take you further up the spiral. My partner and I had been pushing forward for the best part of thirty minutes, chirping signals back and forth so as to keep the other safe. As often happens though, I got ahead of myself, and my brevity soon led to a tumble down a gap into a lower section far below where we’d been. With the knowledge that my partner had almost been at the finish, and that dangers were surely snapping at my heels, I soon resigned myself to the deflating acceptance that I was alone. Over the next five minutes I moved forward quickly, scaling the steps back up to where I’d been. And there, at the top, near the exit, was my friend waiting for me. We left together.
It’s very telling that it took a developer to have the courage to strip away all the facilities of online multiplayer for me to see how connecting it can be. For all our failings, for all our ridiculous posturing and chest beating, it is a reminder that human nature can be utterly wonderful. In Journey, we’re not required to stay together. It has no effect on the end game. But it doesn’t matter, as we stay together anyway.