On Journey and Destiny

Sun, Feb 17, 2013

There’s a strange contradiction that I’ve been wrestling with for a little while. I thought that Journey was an absolutely beautiful and wonderful game. It even won eight awards at DICE this year, including “Game of the Year” and “Outstanding Achievement in Online Gameplay”. But here’s the thing: I think I might somehow be the only person in the world that absolutely hated Journey’s multiplayer system.

If you haven’t played Journey, the multiplayer system works like this: you start playing the game as if you were playing a single-player game, and the game matches you with someone else who’s playing where you are. Suddenly, you’re playing together. The game doesn’t offer much in the way of communicating with your new partner - you mostly have to work out a system on your own involving motions and the little visual chime that your character is able to make.

The biggest problem that I have with the multiplayer in Journey is that the game is basically a puzzle game. The enjoyment in the gameplay lies in figuring out the puzzles in the world and completing them. Without exception, every time I played the game and was matched with another player, that person would run ahead and trigger all the actions and solve all the puzzles. It was like watching a movie and having someone constantly whispering in my ear what happens at the end of the current scene.

The other main problem I had with Journey is that it seems to actively discourage cooperative gameplay. The lack of any real communication and the inability to choose who you were playing with discourages teamwork. I do certainly find it interesting that players came up with their own communication schemes, almost as an emergent form of gameplay. This actually would have worked well as an intended form of gameplay puzzle, had there been puzzles that required multiple players and teamwork to complete, but I, at least, never saw anything like that in the game. Admittedly, I did eventually disconnect my PS3 from the internet so that I could enjoy the game solo (I really wish there had been an option for that, so that such drastic measures weren’t necessary), so I might have missed some multiplayer-only puzzles later in the game.

So what was so amazing and innovate about Journey’s multiplayer? The answer seems to come in one of two forms. First, that the limits on multiplayer in the game were an intentional artistic choice. I can’t really argue with that - it didn’t quite match my personal taste, but that’s part of making interesting artistic choices. The second type of answer usually revolves around the automatic matching with other players who seamlessly appear in your game experience. On a technical level, I think this is pretty cool. But as a design choice, I don’t. If you don’t give people a reason to work together, you’re just adding noise and possible problems to a player’s experience. MMO games are often facing similar problems - player retention is much higher when a player has a connection to a guild, or plays in groups, but encouraging players to actually make these connections is difficult. The genre has seen a large number of designs attempt to solve this problem.

Bungie’s recently announced Destiny apparently uses a similar concept. Perhaps this type of multiplayer will work better for a combat game, where additional cooperative players might help you through a difficult section, because everyone’s goal the same - kill all the enemies and move forward. But online shooter fans are also a demographic known for their harsh derogatory language and griefing behavior, so this could certainly also backfire. Of course, Bungie are very good at their jobs and might have accounted for such problems. With journalists already calling Destiny the future of multiplayer gaming, I will of course be watching very closely to see how these systems work out.

I’m well aware that I could just be completely wrong on this topic. While multiplayer systems do tend to be a focus of my career, the majority game journalism and the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences certainly disagree with me, and that’s nothing to scoff at. I’d love to hear your thoughts or rebuttals.