The newly released Journey Collector’s Edition features thatgamecompany’s flagship title, Journey, as well as two earlier indie titles, Flower and flOw, for the PS4. Don Rowe reviews a company changing the rules by which games are played.
The setting sun turned the sand to brilliant gold. Through the arches of an ancient balcony was a vast city of almost Mudéjar architecture, mostly swallowed by desert. Looming above it all was a mountain, the peak obscured by the radiance of the bloated sun. The robed wanderer paused at the head of a shimmering golden dune and watched a cloth-sprite glide above the city before descending into the city, leaping and twirling and pirouetting above the sands. A haunting soundtrack of stringed Eastern instruments and tonal drums picked up and morphed into a symphony of trills and flares. At 60 frames per second of glorious 1080p, it was beautiful in a way I’ve never experienced in a video game.
If developer thatgamecompany’s mission statement is to create games which communicate ‘deeper and different emotional experiences’, then it’s safe to say mission accomplished, because Journey is transcendent: lonely, joyful, beautiful and sad at the same time and in all the best ways. Journey strips gaming back to the bare essentials; two buttons and the joysticks are all the player has to work with. There’s no map, no dialogue, nothing to fight and no tutorial. Even the objective is unclear, just a distant mountain with a glowing peak, separated from the wanderer by a desert expanse.
But minimalist doesn’t mean empty. Journey is rich in atmosphere and thick with ambience. Soundtrack, lighting, set design and character animation combine to plunge the player into the mystical world of the robed wanderer. The wanderer’s motivations remain unclear but before long I too became inexplicably drawn onwards to the shining peak at the edge of the desert. This is where art meets gaming, in the way a triple-A title like Call of Duty never could.
flOw follows similar design principles, albeit less successfully than Journey. Where the robed wanderer was pulled through the desert by an irresistible desire for transcendence, the player-controlled organism in flOw is propelled only by the force of evolution.
The organism drifts in deep syrups of primordial goo, absorbing small amoebic lifeforms and growing in size and complexity. The aesthetic is deep-ocean meets deep-space. Iridescent and translucent, the organism spins and glides through oceans of atomic symbology and chemical luminescence. A synth soundscape really amps up the new-age factor.
But the problem is, it’s just not that fun. There’s a certain novelty to manipulating the drift of a space-bacterium and hoovering up other organisms like a Pacman straight out of HP Lovecraft, but only in the same way that slicing fruit on a touchscreen phone used to be fun. It gets old, fast. flOw also has none of the scale or emotional resonance of Journey. I never cared what happened to the budding lifeform. It could have been the first step in an evolutionary line that lead to man itself and I would have let that little sucker starve.
The premise for Flower could have been scraped off the tongue of Tumblr itself. “What if we were just, like, flower petals in the wind? And with, like, our radiance, we could set other petals free to dance with us across the meadows and restore colour to the world?” That’s essentially the game in a sentence.
However the magic of Flower isn’t in the concept but in the execution. Flower combines movement, perspective and a generous tweaking of the laws of gravity to give the player a sense of weightlessness and space. Gliding on the winds of a digital breeze, the player guides drifting petals across the earth like some spirit of the woods, causing flowers to bloom and color to return to the world. Emotional resonance drips like nectar from Flower and, as with all three of the titles in this collection, the soundtrack is absolutely on point.
It’s sometimes said that good video game music is the kind you barely perceive – that’s not the case with Flower. The drifting petals trigger other flowers to bloom, release their petals into the air and emit a chime or flourish of strings. The effect ranges from the pleasing addition of a solitary flower to the cacophony of a maniac on a harpsichord when a whole garden comes to life.
Flower is rapturous where Journey is melancholy, and joyful where Journey is a little more somber, but it is as close as thatgamecompany gets to emulating the emotional acrobatics and shocking beauty that they created in Journey. flOw is as good as neither, but provides a satisfying filler in-between the groundbreaking experiences of Flower and Journey. thatgamecompany is creating games with a different definition right now, and the Journey Collector’s Edition is a fantastic way to get a taste in full 1080p on the PS4.