Mysterious Journey
Issue: Volume 35 Issue 4 June/July 2012

Mysterious Journey

Most games are filled with dialog or, in the case of many first-person shooters, characters barking commands amid the perpetual sound of gunfire. In the online game Journey from thatgamecompany, the only audible sound comes from the hypnotic music that plays throughout the title, the sounds of sand and wind, and a singing “call” sometimes emitted by the players.

Journey is an adventure game, downloaded via Sony’s PlayStation Network service. As Matt Nava, the title’s art director, explains, Journey does things differently from other games by challenging traditional gaming conventions. For example, there is no text, online chat, or character dialog. “Everything is communicated with imagery, color, sound, and design,” he explains.

In Journey, the players are driven on their quest by their emotions and curiosity—not their ability to cut down countless enemies. In fact, when thatgamecompany designs one of its titles, the studio begins by deciding which type of emotions and feelings they wish to invoke in the player—not the type of weapons and game mechanics they want to include. And those emotions extend beyond the usual excitement and fear invoked by other games.

Journey players find themselves in an unknown desert world without a map or instructions to guide them. Rather, they see a large mountain in the distance and are compelled to begin moving toward it. “You are there, but you’re not sure why,” says Aaron Jessie, lead modeler, of the player’s initial reaction. “The focal point is the mountain in the distance, and you realize that is your goal, that you need to get there. You are trying to find out your purpose, and will discover architecture and artifacts as you explore throughout the world.”

The landscape is sparse yet rich at the same time. “You are in this vast universe and you feel this solitude and loneliness, but every now and then you will encounter another person,” says Jessie.

While on the journey, a person can play alone or with another encountered along the way. How long the player will journey with his or her partner is up to the players, but traveling with a companion—no matter how temporary—can alter their adventure with unique experiences. Whether a person is playing with a partner or solo, there is no option for written or verbal dialog, and the only way to identify another player is through a symbol on the front of the character’s robe, rather than through user names. The only audible form of communication is a wordless, musical shout.

The game characters are human-like, although most of their body is covered by cloth; only their face and lower legs are visible.

On their journey, players will come across the ruinous architecture and artifacts left by an ancient, mysterious civilization. To traverse and better explore the exotic landscape, players can walk, glide, or fly. They start in the desert and end in the mountains, with diverse locations between those points.

Before starting Journey, the artists took a trip to the Pismo Beach dunes in California, and returned to their offices in Santa Monica with a vision of what the sand dunes in the game should feel like, with their glittering aesthetic. Rather than remain static, the dunes react to wind, as the artists discovered on their own personal journey. “The sand had to have the right magical quality to it,” says Nava of their virtual version. “We had many ideas about how to do that, and the trip we took to the dunes inspired how the sand should look and react to players’ every step.”

Art Style
The team had a great deal of artistic inspiration for Journey, explored through concept art and illustrated styles. “We didn’t want to go with realism because we are a small team with just a few artists, and realism is so hard to achieve. Instead, we wanted to come up with something that was achievable and, more importantly, would stand the test of time. Something you could look at in the future and it would hold up,” says Nava.

In fact, that has been the underlying strategy of thatgamecompany since it was co-founded by two University of Southern California students—Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago—in 2006. After seeing Chen’s Flash game Flow, which he did for his master’s thesis, Sony Computer Entertainment contracted thatgamecompany to produce three titles for its PlayStation Network: Flow in 2007, Flower in 2009, and Journey this spring. All the titles are unique, prompting the player to figure out the games’ parameters and goals. In all three games, the narrative arc is based primarily through visual representation and emotional cues, not dialog.

Journey enabled the team to spread its designer wings, so to speak, and come up with the studio’s first “semi” humanoid character. As Nava points out, designing such an atypical character for the studio was quite challenging; the character had to reflect the studio’s core ideas and appeal to its customers. The final character design was inspired by many different sources—from Native American rugs and symbols, to Japanese kites, to Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The characters were modeled and animated using Autodesk’s Maya, while the textures were hand-painted with Adobe’s Photoshop. In fact, there are no realistic textures in the game; rather, all the imagery has a painterly quality to it, giving Journey its unique style.

One of the most identifiable objects in the game, and one of the most complex to generate, is the character’s long, flowing scarf. To achieve the movement for this signature object as well as the clothing and even the sand, the artists used custom simulations developed in-house by lead engineer John Edwards. “When you are developing for the PlayStation 3, it is very useful to have your own tools, like the cloth simulator, because they can be optimized for the PS3. So we can make them run faster and smoother than we can with commercial simulation software,” says Nava. “Also, if they break, we understand the code behind them, so there are no mysteries for us in the development process.”

The simulation is dynamic and happens in the code of the PlayStation 3, notes Jessie. If the group had used Maya, for instance, they would have had to bake the simulation, which would have negated the animation occurring dynamically in the game. “Instead, now when the wind increases, the cloth dynamically reacts accordingly,” Jessie adds.

Having key tools developed in-house also lets the artists and developers communicate with the engineers who are writing them, so the tools can be customized for the gameplay experience during development. The flowing cloth was a major feature of Journey from the start, and iteratively refined throughout the development process.

Particle systems also played a big role in the title, and are used for all kinds of effects in Journey. Those, too, were mostly written in-house. The Journey game engine was also an evolution of the in-house engine built for Flow and Flower, which extended Sony’s own PhyreEngine technology.

Another special feature of the game is the lighting, achieved by Jessie and Nava using special texturing tricks. “For this game, we tried to simulate the lighting ourselves using texturing and other approaches to make it look like there is a sense of light direction, without there being one,” says Jessie. As Nava notes, the team did not use a dynamic lighting system with shadows. Instead, the shadowing is based on other systems and technologies, which made the imagery less costly to render.

“If you are doing a real-time game, the shadows are usually low quality because they are expensive; you can see aliasing in the edges. It really detracts from the visual style of the game,” explains Nava. “We tried to figure out some other type of solution.” The artists created a new technique that took advantage of special UV sets, which allowed them to lay out the unique shadows on individual objects. “In doing so, we were able to overcome the pitfalls of dynamic shadowing,” he adds.

Also, by placing the control of the lighting in the hands of the artists, thatgamecompany was able to more fully explore the painterly, illustrated style that has come to define Journey—a look derived from the natural textures and techniques used to simulate the shadows and other elements in the game.

Furthermore, the HDRI systems written by thatgamecompany’s engineers allowed colors to span beyond 100 percent brightness. This gave the artists a richer color palette to work with, and enabled special effects, such as physically based light bloom, filmic tone mapping, and high-quality motion blur.

The color palette itself shifts and varies in the game based on a curve established by the artists that is reflective of the narrative. “We tried to make the colors guide the players’ emotions and reactions/experiences in the game,” says Nava. “We tried to make the game visually arresting, different from what you see in other games.” As he notes, many next-gen titles are extremely de-saturated, gritty, with ultra-sharp, depressing, scary colors. Instead, the Journey artists strove for “bright, gorgeous, vibrant, rich colors for a magical experience.”

Even though the look of Journey is more illustrative, it does contain carefully selected next-gen technologies that add realistic elements to the overall aesthetic. “We chose the technology and pieced it together to enable players to really immerse themselves in the game,” says Nava. “The game creates a powerful atmosphere through the visuals, perceived light, fog, and wind. It’s atypical but achieves a solid visual.”

Since the debut of Flow a few years ago, thatgamecompany has been applauded for its innovative titles, which have won numerous awards and nominations. It appears that Journey is likely to follow this same successful path.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.