Unarmed — a counterintuitive design choice in Journey

Posted by on May 4, 2013 in the technician, your brain on art | No Comments
Unarmed — a counterintuitive design choice in Journey

I’m nobody’s idea of a gamer — Journey has been out for a year and I knew absolutely nothing about it when I decided to give it a go. From a gamer’s perspective, there is sweet bugger-all I can add to the discussion. But as a visual artist, one little design choice in particular intrigues me.

For those not familiar with the game, you need to know that there is no speech, text or language of any kind anywhere. Your character — called the Traveler — can chirp a single tone, that’s it. The face has zero features, just two pointed oval eyes beaming out of a void. You have a pair of slender, footless legs upon which you can run, slide, and jump. What somehow manages to be less obvious, though, is the fact that you have no arms.

(You can fly, of course, but it’s your scarf that gets you there, not wings. If it hasn’t happened yet, I would like to propose the expression “To have the scarf for it” be entered into the lexicon. E.g., when confronted by a seemingly insurmountable obstacle that you’re confident you can conquer with spectacular success: “Don’t worry! I’ve got the scarf for it!” Or when you’re just too tired to do some dumb useless thing your mother/partner/personal trainer wants you to do: “Sorry dude, I just don’t have the scarf for it right now.” Whoever is in charge of these things should make it happen. Ping! Pling! Piiiiinggg!!!)

Much discussion is to be had about why this game works so well, and while limited auditory communication gets all the press, armlessness is, I think, an equal part of that equation. I realized this when, while I was sitting on the couch, my pack of four dogs communicated to me their desire to be let outside. My dogs have no speech, and my dogs have no arms. (Anyone whose life includes daily raptures of transcendent bliss, that come from nothing in the realm of language, because they share this planet with dogs, will recognize the feeling when playing this game.) Armlessness is critical to what’s going on here. It’s a reduction to a core, an essence — without being a deformity, a defect, a maiming.

red robe 225x126 Unarmed     a counterintuitive design choice in Journey

Portrait of the Traveler character in the game Journey — interesting design choices

As a visual artist, I found it illuminating to compare the Traveler portrait (on the left, in the red hooded cape) — a very limited palette in every sense (and note the simple, subdued use of straight-forward red-green complementarity in the landscape) — with the prototype, at right below and which, by contrast, hovers pretty close to your more standard game character cliché. The desert in the first is practically pepto-pink, for god’s sake. How did they make that work? But while the second is far more “realistic,” who would want to go there? We’ve all been there before.

Journey traveler prototype 225x140 Unarmed     a counterintuitive design choice in Journey

A wisely abandoned design

Happily for us these are the Travelers Who Never Were. That dude with the three phallic streamers flying off his head clearly pulled his wardrobe out of the ninja overruns, is obviously endowed with a Y chromosome, and is fully tricked out with the usual upper body set of grabby, pointy, slappy, flappy, poking, pinching, punching, hair-pulling, nose-picking appendages. His hands, far from disappearing, have instead been contrasted with the rest of him. Tiny as they are, you zero in on them, because they look like he’s wearing Mickey Mouse gloves. Or heading off across the desert for another day of mime school.

Now, as far as static pictures go, you might prefer the more natural-looking desert with its more detailed warrior and freaky companion. I might too. And herein lies the interesting bit. This visual creation, this electronic painting, was destined for a video game, not a gallery, which meant that the artist had to understand the overall effect of this one element within the larger work of art. It meant, in this case, drastic cutting back and going with something which, on the surface, didn’t have the punch. Which didn’t seem as cool, or as “good.” Was maybe even childish. It certainly didn’t promise much. Doing this is hard. We’re too prone to falling in love with our own fabulosity.

In gamer-land it’s got to be harder still, what with its excesses of testosterone and trigger-pulling. Taking the arms off a character, feminizing it, flattening the palette, and drastically simplifying the clothing (from warrior to mystic no less) is a risky choice, with real money on the line. How many of us just drift into the easy and the obvious even when there is nothing on the line? Speaking for myself, the answer is “far too often.”

Which is not to say that you should pick the most outrageous choice and do that. Likewise, toning down and simplifying, which tend to be over-celebrated, are not always the great panaceas some would have you think. What’s more, too many of us who call ourselves artists make a fetish out of “different” just for the sake of difference. Maybe pushing your creative edges is less about screaming after attention than regularly doing things that just feel wrong. That, on first glance, look wrong (let us remember the pepto-desert). Of course, they may turn out to be wrong, in which case, the trick is to be sensitive enough to know that. Taking the arms off the figure might work for the Aphrodite of Milos and the Traveler, but it might not work for that nude study of your new boyfriend. Or might it? Anyway, the point isn’t to copy somebody else’s artistic dismemberment, but to figure out when doing something a little off is doing something exactly right. I don’t know how that sensitivity is cultivated, but it helps me to look at the work that another artist has nailed — even one as far outside my field as a video game designer — and just ponder on it for a while.

I played my most recent game of Journey, from the bridge all the way through to the mountain, with the same companion. That was a first for me. You need to play the game to understand what that means, so go play the game. If you don’t have a PlayStation, trust me, you know someone who does. Later I got an email from her, thanking me for the lovely trip. In Russian. In Cyrillic. I don’t speak Russian. I cried anyway.