Earlier this week I dusted off my PS3, and consequently installed an eternity of updates. My original intention was to give Flower a go and do a little write-up. And I did the first one, but I held off on writing because I wanted to replay Journey. Now we are here. Words.
Both Flower and Journey are offerings from thatgamecompany whose mission is to supply the world with enriching entertainment. Unfortunately, they are PS3 exclusives so if you don’t have one, then :(. BUT – if you do have a PS3, go buy Journey. Bottom line – both games are just gorgeous, but Journey is the more engaging experience.
So Flower – Journey’s little brother – was released a few years ago, and I never played it because a few people told me it was more of a simulation than anything else. Turns out, it’s much more than that. You play as a gust of wind carrying the petal of a flower. As you float around, you can recruit other petals and move faster. The first few levels are fairly undirected, so sure, it’s kind of simulation-y. But beyond that, the game’s plot kicks in – and kicks in with an extremely heavy hand (or foot?). Nature and flowers VS industry and machinations.
Forgiving the plot for it’s almost cheesy nature, you still get a wonderful experience from the game – the sensation of flying. You control the wind through the controller’s motion sensor. Typically this would mean that you sacrifice some precision for a more natural-feeling control scheme. thatgamecompany was very generous with giving the player the benefit of the doubt when accuracy is needed, so the sacrificed precision is well-hidden in many cases. So you fly along collecting other petals to make you fly faster. That is an incredible motivator for exploration – the game will feel more exciting if you take a little time to check for petals. Later, you will find obstacles that will burn up some of your petals. Again – a wonderful incentive. The reward system is directly tied into your in-the-moment feel of the game.
The story that the mechanics of Flower tell is one of power. You start out weak and ineffectually, but gradually become stronger until you are invincible. This being an absurdly common story for mechanics of a game to tell (Megaman and every RPG ever come to mind). The difference here is that thatgamecompany squeezed it into a tighter, more directed package.
The downside of Flower is that the pacing is incredibly slow. Levels can feel endless and repetitive. My biggest qualm here is that I always felt like my hand was being held. Anytime a new element was introduced, the correct response was demonstrated to me. Then I was simply asked to repeat what I shown. All you need to do is remove the training wheels – and then I would’ve felt properly immersed in the game world. I’d have agency.
So Flower is an audio-visual gem, but could have used some work on the plot and pacing. The reason why I wanted to include Journey in this post is because it embodies what Flower could have been. thatgamecompany learned from the successes and failures of Flower in a very obvious way. (Which is a fantastic thing!)
Journey thrusts you into a desert where you assume the role of an anonymous red-hooded figure. You are given what feel like standard controls – left stick to move the hooded figure, right stick to move the camera. You will quickly realize that there is a glaring lack of a jump button. That will feel extraordinarily strange until you discover that it has been replaced with a sing button. Yup, your main interaction with the world is through your avatars vocal cords. As it turns out, that sing button will allow you to get some air time.
As you explore the world and sing to different things – they respond by lifting you up into the air. The amount of time you can spend in the air is determined by the length of cloth hanging off of your hood. Scattered throughout the world are glyphs that increase the length. You’ll also encounter enemies that will reduce the length. Again, the same powerful motivator as in Flower. You end up exploring the world to chase that feeling of flying.
When you think about the two games together, Flower and Journey are both about learning to fly. The key difference is Flower is loose with it’s rewards – you fly right off the bat. Journey is a tease – starting from the first moment you realize you have no direct way to get your avatar off the ground. And yet, it’s never frustrating. You are never far off from something that will give you a boost. In fact, you’ll find that it’s incredible rewarding to find a flow to the levels where you can string together boosts. As you approach the end of the game, you are essentially outright given the ability to fly. The same story that the mechanics in flower tell – weakness to invincibility.
Journey also improves on Flower in its approach to presenting a challenge to the player. Flower was all about explicit hand-holding, but Journey simply drops you into a world. There are no demonstrations telling you exactly what to do. The architecture of the world clues you into what you should do. Dunes form natural barriers and a shinning mountain clues you to a general direction to head. In the picture below, it’s clear that you’ve got some staircase of pillars, but it’s up to you to figure out how to get up there. Since these are indirect clues, your agency is preserved. Or rather, enhanced.
And finally, Journey improves over Flower in the plot domain. If Flower was like being hit over the head, Journey eases you into an compellingly ambiguous tale. You’ve got enough details to know the outline of the story, but you’ve got to fill in the rest. For me, it was a story of man vs greed, but others compare it more to a religious parable. The point is that you are given enough nuggets that you immediately want to connect the dots with whatever is personally relevant to you.
So while Flower was a pleasant experience, Journey was an epic foray into flying. It’s incredibly hard to capture that feeling of epicness in words, so I’d just say go experience it. I can’t say Journey will change your life, but those ninety minutes you spend in the world will be mesmerizing.
(And I didn’t even get to mention the music or multiplayer in this post!)