First Steps: Impressions of the ‘Journey’ Multiplayer Beta

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Journey may be simultaneously the simplest and trickiest game to describe in quite some time. There’s been a veil of secrecy around the upcoming PSN exclusive for months now, with eager fans only getting the vaguest hints about the multiplayer game from dev studio thatgamecompany. But the makers of artsy cult hit Flower launched a limited public beta last week, and the world’s finally been getting to look at Journey‘s mysterious world.

So, what’s Journey about? Easy: You go places, get a sense of what happened in them, meet people and go more places with them. You can veer away from these other players (or they can leave you) and go off on your own again.

It’s the specifics that make further clarification tricky. In Journey, you control relatively anonymous avatars that appear to be made of living cloth. The inhabitants of Journey‘s world all look about the same and come with the same limited set of abilities. Aside from walking–which you’ll do a lot of–characters can jump and send out a call that interacts with elements in the world and lets others know of their presence.

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Exploration is the main task in Journey. You’ll be walking along a desolate desert wasteland amidst the ruins of a fallen civilization. The story of what befell the denizens of this world unfolds elliptically, in a series of tapestry-like scenes. You get the big strokes: Once there were a lot of people but something happened and they died.

What’s amazing about the storytelling in Journey is that it all happens wordlessly, via interaction and animation. Through exploration, you’ll be able to strengthen your abilities. You’ll collect golden, glowing swatches of fabric that lengthen your avatar’s scarf. The long scarf on your back serves as an energy meter and you can only jump when you have glowing energy, retrieved at certain points in the world. The longer your scarf is, the more energy you can store.

Journey‘s approach to multiplayer is one of the more radical things about it. With no warning, other players will just wander into your game. These unheralded entries stir up a mix of emotions. For me, it was a mix of surprise and jealousy as in, “Suddenly there’s another person! Hey, his/her scarf’s longer! Where have they been?!”

Gold swatches increase the length of your scarf and a longer scarf lets you jump further, move faster and ping a wider radius with your call. But you put any jealousy aside when you realize that you can move more quickly and jump faster when this other person’s around. Also, some of the environmental puzzle triggers will require the ping of another person to unlock entrances to temples and stores of fabric that grant you energy. Still, at one point, when a companion and I spotted a gold swatch, we both ran for it. Granted, we’d share the energy but I wanted to be the alpha dog in our partnership.

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So much of Journey gets communicated by its artful, extremely minimalistic attention to aesthetic and design. Immediately, the world seems vast, lonely and desolate, even as it’s done up in beautiful, undulating watercolors. The hieroglyphic type language falls on just the right side of indecipherable but still drives you to puzzle out more.

All the Journey beta it does is make you want more, too. More of the spare yet inviting desolation, more of the spontaneous surprising interaction and more of the haunting visuals and sound. The three levels in the beta only give about a half-hour’s glimpse into the game but it’s enough to make strong impressions on anyone who plays it. You figure it out as you go and that process stokes the need to experience the game in full. The beta continues for another week, with Journey expected to release later this year. It’s sure to be an excursion like nothing else coming out on consoles in 2011.

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