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'Journey' contains millions of grains of sand, but no words

thatgamecompany

"Journey" is the latest from the developer known simply as thatgamecompany. The third release for the PlayStation Network is a logical extension of the concepts that the developer's previous work established, "Flow" and "Flower," which in turn has won them much acclaim, as some of the finest examples of video games having the potential to be interactive works of art.

Msnbc.com spoke with thatgamecompany creative director, Jenova Chen, about "Journey." He said that the challenge this time was to create a multiplayer experience, one that would have strangers bonding with each other, contrary to how most online gaming experiences work. Generally, "the feeling one experiences on console games is killing someone, or killing someone with other people," said Chen.

Despite advances in technology which can support numerous players online, all within a single environment, "everything is always built around single-player mechanics, which is about empowerment." If two players are powerful, it then becomes a test of strength, to see who is the best. 

The intent was soon clear: to create an experience in which the very presence of another player had a profound meaning. Like wondering alone in a desert, and the emotions one might feel if he or she suddently saw someone signs of life from afar. Which is why Chen considers "Journey" to be more of a social game than most headliners in that genre.

To make other players stand out, various environments were considered, such as forests and cities. The problem was that there was too much detail in those settings. But in a desert (or a snow field), things just pop out. Which in turn gives that other person an even deeper meaning during one's travels in the game.

Chen explains how "Journey" mimics the emotional roller-coaster that is existence itself, by creating an experience that is different each time, depending on who you come across and at what points along the way. We become a reflection of those that enter our lives, whether they be parents, friends, and lovers, as well as of those who exit, and the game taps into this eternal, unavoidable truth.

"As a single-player experience, it's a game of self-reflection," states Chen, "but with multiplayer, it takes things to another level."

One of the keys to creating interaction with one another is, oddly enough, the virtual absence of any kind of traditional mode of communication. There are no words in the game. No text chat is supported, let alone voice. It's mostly designed to maintain the integrity of the world that "Journey" presents. The player isn't even made aware of the identity of the other player, which means the other player's PSN handle is never referenced during gameplay.

"Because online gaming is, again, so competitive, even names can ruin the experience," Chen said. He mostly refers to identifiers that are boastful, or humorous in nature, but even something totally innocuous can do harm. "If you were to know my handle is JenovaChen1981, you know already that I'm a male, of Chinese descent, and how old I am. That's too much information."

The response thus far has been validating. Chen notes that plenty of players, who traditionally stick to single-player games, and avoid online gaming like the plague, cite "Journey" as their very first time in which playing with a total stranger was actually enjoyable. Chen has also heard of people weeping s at the game's climax. Upon hearing such feedback, Chen and his team believe that they have accomplished their mission.

Despite being an ultra-accessible experience, one free of grief online, it's also short -- 2 to 3 hours -- much like thatgamecompany's previous offerings.

To that end, Chen responds with "We want to convey strong emotions, and we have to do that in the most efficient way possible. We know all the tricks of the trade that other games use to extend the experience, with grinding and leveling up.

"But we don't want any such filler. People are paying good money for an experience, and that's disrespectful."

The need for efficiency, and therefore a short game, is ideal in Chen's mind. "As we get older, we stop playing long games. I know many who say that they don't want to give 'Skyrim' a try because they heard it was too long. Yet people still go to movies, to concerts. And those are about 2 to 3 hours, which is how long I want my games to be. Because if a game is too long, people are afraid that they won't have enough time to enjoy it."

"Journey" is currently available on the PlayStation 3, but as an early exclusive to PlayStation Plus members. It will be available for everyone else March 13.

Matthew Hawkins is an NYC-based game journalist who has also written for EGM, GameSetWatch, Gamasutra, Giant Robot and numerous others. He also self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of Attract Mode, and co-hosts The Fangamer Podcast. You can keep tabs on him via Twitter, or his personal home-base, FORT90.com.