How do you design a game for friendship, when the players are interacting over the internet? Can you do this without even letting them speak, or see each others' faces? This is a question Journey sought to tackle, and was paramount in ThatGameCompany designer Chris Bell's mind when he joined the team about halfway through the project. It hit home to him because he had already spent the better part of a year developing his own game about friendship across the wires; Way.
"What I'm interested in personally is that spontaneous bond between strangers," he says, which is very well facilitated by online play. Online multiplayer can emphasize shared goals, freedom of choice, anonymity, vulnerability, and communication, he says. The trick is to "get people to empathize before their prejudices allow them to draw lines between each other."
One way this happened in recent times was the somewhat unfortunate Chat
Roulette. "Players are behind the screen without any rules to guide their behavior," he says, thus unfortunate players claimed the space for themselves, and ruined it for the rest.
Behind the wall of a player avatar, behavior can get even more interesting. Bell related a story of playing his first MMO when he was 16. It was Final Fantasy XI. "I saw a mountain, I ran to it, I found another person, and we killed monsters, and then we died," he said. But he was then prompted with the ability to respawn back in town, or wait for someone to come revive him before the time went down. His companion stayed with him until they were revived by a roaming white mage, and this profoundly affected him. What could make one player care for another that they'd never met? Bell couldn't thank his savior directly because of a language gap - the mage spoke Japanese - but he used in-game motions to try to communicate his gratitude.
Unfortunately, most of the game did not facilitate that sort of interaction, because the game's systems encouraged team play supported by strong communication via text, which meant that teams were generally segregated by language. "As a player, I felt alienated, unwanted, disconnected. Because that was my experience," he said. "A single rule can pollute an entire system."
Not promising all the answers, Bell hoped to recreate that feeling he had when he was 16. "How do you design for that? For the large majority of players, it's safe to say they didn't have this kind of experience."
In Journey for example, you communicate with only one other player that's randomly assigned to you, through musical calls, motions, and only when players are near each other. Following the story arc becomes more engaging "because you engage in these experiences with another player, there's the potential to go through a wide range of emotions with them," he says.
Text introduces all sorts of unwanted verbs that designers can't control, Bell notes. "Personally, I prefer that players communicate through non-verbal actions." In Journey one major method is the "call" button. You can give it a lot of character with the length and frequency of your calls. The game offers players benefits and reciprocity through being able to give each other the expendable resource of flight, and only through communication can they find each other.
Journey focuses on establishing a connection. Upon completion there's an invitation to grow bonds beyond the game, which Bell chose to save as an experience for players to have on their own. "Should we be teaching players to value how they communicate?" he posed, concluding that "our medium is play, a language that reaches across cultures."