Multiplayer Embarks on a Hero's 'Journey'

Multiplayer Embarks on a Hero's 'Journey'
I am all alone and lonesome in the desert, a red-robed faceless nomad with a matching scarf wafting behind me in the superheated air. The golden sands stretch out as far as the virtual camera can see, though a mountaintop is visible in the distance with an inexplicable light shooting forth from it, skyward.

It is, I presume, my destination and considering the role mountaintops tend to play in religious texts, I also presume enlightenment awaits me. But this downloadable PS3 game is not called destination, it's called Journey ― and, perhaps not surprisingly, enlightenment comes along the way.

As it turns out, I am not alone at all.

The game is inspired by Joseph Campbell's narrative theory known as "The Hero's Journey" or "monomyth," but this latest subtly subversive effort by thatgamecompany might as well be be called a multi-myth, thanks to its innovative incorporation of multiplayer.

Journey is the third ― and apparently final ― collaboration between classmates-turned-developers Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago. (After Journey became Sony's fastest-selling PSN game ever, Santiago announced she was leaving the indie studio they co-founded.) Their student project Cloud, in which you play a cloud, won a "Best Student Philosophy" award at the Slamdance guerrilla game competition.

Sony subsequently signed thatgamecompany to a three-title deal, including flOw, a game about microorganisms that doubled as Chen's Masters thesis on "dynamic difficulty adjustment," and Flower, an award-winning, emotion-evoking and motion-sensing art-game in which the player controls the wind.

At the time, Chen told me "I'm just sick of laser robots and chicks. I'm tired of space marines. I want something more sophisticated. I'm making games for adults." That could be no truer than with Journey.

Chen endeavours to bypass traditional multiplayer's sophomoric, lowest-common-denominator nature by randomly pairing up players and limiting communication to wordless sonic tones. In fact, if you decided to play with someone else ― and the game is designed so that you don't have to ― you'll never even know who they are until after the credits roll.

As you wander across the desert, through caverns and up snowy peaks, you'll encounter others who happen to be in the same area of the game at the same time. In a variation on drop-in/drop-out co-op, you can continue your journey with one of these players, recharging each other's scarves (which enable flight) and following each other's lead while navigating the game world. The enforced silence and unforced collaboration creates a surprising intimacy absent from most other games' teabagging-plagued multiplayer maps.

But it's not the only game to reimagine multiplayer. Last fall saw the release of the grindingly bleak Dark Souls, the binary opposite to the blindingly gorgeous Journey. (After debuting on PS3 and Xbox, it'll be ported to PCs this summer.) From Software, Dark Souls is traditional single-player RPG with a non-traditional online mode. As you wander the open world, ghostly figures pass by that are actually other players, and the bloodstains along your path are the remains of players who didn't make it. You can actually see how these other players died, helping you avoid the same fate, and though you cannot talk to others, you can receive or leave messages to help them through.

You can hinder them, too, though there are gameplay benefits to not being a jerk, including avoiding getting your name entered into the Book of the Guilty. Of course, there are also some benefits to really being a jerk, too. The co-op multiplayer is pretty ephemeral, but there are opportunities for player-vs-player interaction in which you can invade someone else's game in hopes of killing them. This happens either by using certain in-game items or reaching PvP hotspots that can attract hundreds of eager duelists.

The game's unique approach saw The Daily Telegraph award Dark Souls 2011's "Best Integration of Online Features," and Journey will no doubt take home similar multiplayer-based awards next winter. Both deserve the recognition, too.

Science class teaches us that evolution is a slow, painstaking process, but also that it gets juiced by an occasional Great Leap Forward. These two games have given multiplayer, which has existed since the art form's origin (the second-ever videogame was 1958's Tennis for Two) just such an evolutionary jump after years of seeming stagnation. Chen will apparently continue to contribute DNA as his studio's next effort will, according to a new job listing, "take [multiplayer] a step further on our next game" with an online component capable of hosting hundreds of thousands of gamers. Looks like it will be a fascinating... journey to see what multiplayer will becomes next.