Forgotten Mechanics / Part One

Forgotten Mechanics is a recurring series where we focus on mechanics in video games that deserved more widespread adoption and iteration, but fell to the wayside, and were forgotten shortly after their debut.

I love the idea of a living world within a video game – the idea of other people mulling about, living their own digital lives, doing their own tasks while I go about my business. I want to be able to look around and see that other people are there, and even interact with them if I feel so compelled. The reason that MMOs appealed to me was that, for a long while, it was the only place where many players could be in a shared space while pursuing different goals.

Then, in 2012, thatgamecompany released Journey. On the surface Journey presented itself as a stylish platformer/puzzler hybrid, introducing players to a mysterious traveler whose sole quest was to reach a mountain top.  It also offered another feature, one that would become the centerpiece to many players’ experience: fluid, anonymous, voluntary multiplayer.

"This bond would last until, in one moment or another, you spun and found that your companion was gone. They had vanished just as quickly as they’d shown up, and it was unlikely you’d ever see them again."

The concept behind Journey’s multiplayer was simple: within any given level, the game opened its client up to making a connection with another player on the same level. If that happened, the two players would be able to see each other in the world. That was all. There was no notification  it had taken place, no on-screen indicator that you had someone visiting you, not even a displayed name once you finally found the player (if you did at all). It just showed you a stranger, and left you to decide whether or not you wanted to interact with them. The only tools to interact with one another were a button to manipulate your wanderer’s scarf, and another to emit a small musical chime.

These simple tools for interaction were all it took to develop an emotional attachment to your companion. Off in the distance, you would see another figure moving, and frantically chime and chirp to try and get their attention. The stranger would be completing their own puzzles, oblivious to you until you worked for their attention. Reversals of roles would happen as well – you could be busy with your own task, only to turn around and see another traveler hopping up and down in a frenzy at the sight of you. As a dynamic duo you’d rip through the level, tackling puzzles together, always checking to make sure your companion never fell behind. This bond would last until, in one moment or another, you spun and found that your companion was gone. They had vanished just as quickly as they’d shown up, and it was unlikely you’d ever see them again. The sadness this elicited from me every time it happened was something I never felt before, and have yet to feel since.

This type of idle multiplayer experience truly makes the game feel like a living, breathing world. In the real world, you don’t see the names of everyone around you. You don’t talk to every single person you walk by. Short of a few more exciting markets, nobody is yelling out what they’re selling, and hoping that you’ll buy it.  However, sometimes you come across someone who can help with what you need – or a friend, and you have the opportunity to go off on your own miniature life adventure. You may not need to interact with people, but you choose to, because humans are naturally drawn to community and interaction with one another. In real life, these interactions are usually mundane.  Video games, though, are ripe with opportunity to let you do this, while also experiencing fantastical situations. So why haven’t other video games tried?

The truth is, a few have. Destiny is the most standout example of a mainstream game taking aspects of what made Journey’s multiplayer so great and attempt to fit it into other avenues, with mixed success. In Destiny’s patrol mode, players have the opportunity to see and interact with other players as they move between zones on the various planets. Players only really have four emotes available to interact with others in this environment: a wave, a sit, a dance, and a point. Guardians in Destiny, over time, began to use these emotes as simple language – a wave after a revive to say thanks, a point to indicate where an event was taking place, etc. It allowed players to interact with one another, even if they weren’t on each other’s friends lists, in a cooperative and meaningful way. Although, even these interactions miss some of what made Journey’s experiences so memorable: the fleeting companionship of a complete stranger, working together, and then them disappearing just as fast as they appeared. Journey combined this experience with tense, meaningful moments that can’t be recreated within the boisterous, bullet-heavy environments of Destiny. It’s an experience that hasn’t been recreated since Journey came out, and it’s high time someone got back on the horse, and made it happen.