I’m not what you’d call an optimist when it comes to human nature. All too often, it seems like people default to some state between passively self-absorbed and actively obnoxious. I can’t help but think that the fact that I frequently play multiplayer video games influences this predisposition. Spending a lot of time on the Internet probably doesn’t help either.
Imagine my surprise then when I found myself feeling unambiguously positive about my fellow humans. By the end of Journey, thatgamecompany’s most recent title, I found myself more than appreciative of my fellow gamers’ company. The game’s quiet, simplistic communication system helped me see the only the best that my fellow gamers had to offer.
At its core, Journey is similar to many other 3D action/adventure games. You view the action from a third-person perspective and control an anthropomorphic character. You make jumps, avoid hazards, and collect macguffins. It’s the environment that makes the game special: Journey‘s world is usually often as harsh as it is huge. Endless deserts and giant abandoned cities form the landscape. Without a host of friendly cartoon characters belonging in a Mario game or the true-to-life detail of an Uncharted game, it’s easy to feel isolated.
The sense of loneliness in Journey helps make bumping into another player all the more exciting. The first time that I saw another player, I initially thought it was a mirage. Could someone else really survive in the wasteland? I immediately made my way towards this figure without any thought as to what their reaction might be; it was just exciting to know that I wasn’t alone. I was living out one of the most common daydreams that I had while playing Shadow of the Colossus: What if I ran into a stranger in the wasteland? Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I quickly found that my isolation made me receptive to any potential friends.
It’s somewhat counter-intuitive to say, but the vague nature of my new companion was comforting. Journey subtly makes use of everyone’s tendencies to project traits and behaviors onto a relatively blank slate. Everyone meets and is represented by the same somewhat shapeless blob of an avatar. The wanderer’s cloak can easily be seen as a flowing dress or a heroic cape. Its face is ethnically ambiguous, and its voice is a melodic chirp rather than a human dialect. Even so, I found myself slipping into the routine of referring to my friend as “he,” “him,” and “dude.” I need to work on that.
Without in-game voice chat and customizable avatars, it’s hard to draw any biased preconceptions about who you’re actually playing with. That person whose safety I feared for could have been the same racist 12-year-old that I encountered in Team Fortress 2 the day before. All I had to go on was a set of behaviors: the person seemed competent, but not familiar with the world. They seemed interested in exploring off the beaten path. They liberally refilled my magic meter and were generally patient if I missed a jump. I assumed the best and returned the favor. I quickly started to judge people by their actions rather than their voices or appearances. One person was a “dasher,” impatient and goal oriented. I met a “wanderer” who was either taking a leisurely pace or new to the medium in general. Some people liked a little personal space, others gladly strolled through the levels side by side.
The strange thing was that I began to perceive almost everyone as either helpful or at least well intentioned. One partner might have been refilling my meter out of impatience for my lollygagging, but it’s hard to interpret such a nice action as self interested. A particularly talkative player may have been cursing me while they sat on their couch, but their avatar’s plucky chirps made them seem friendly. On my end, I found myself being patient with folks who seemed to be struggling with the controls or those who wandered off in the wrong direction. Of course, they could have been trolling me, but without an obnoxious custom character or the distorted, marijuana-infused giggles of voice chat, I was free to assume the best.
It’s strange, but Journey‘s minimalism promotes sincerity. The huge environments and interesting two player dynamics make meeting another player genuinely interesting. The blank-slate avatars strip away most surface level differences that often cause problems in online games. Journey offered only the most rudimentary ways to communicate, so I had to fill in the details myself. In the absence of anything else by which to judge my companions, I had to observe their actions. I didn’t know much about them except that their actions were (at worst) neutral and (at best) beneficial towards me. Mechanically, everything in Journey is positive, and this started to inform the way I thought about other players.
Maybe people are basically helpful? Perhaps curiosity and wonder is the natural state of things and jaded loudmouths are a vocal minority? Maybe removing voice chat from Halo will usher in a new age of optimism in multiplayer games? Of course, that’s probably the kind of attitude that will get you tea-bagged in the blink of an eye.
Still, playing Journey did let me catch a fleeting glimpse at a kinder, more optimistic side of random matchmaking (not to mention my own attitude towards people in general). It was a short, but refreshing trip that left me with a pleasant thought: given the right context, gamers (and people in general) aren’t all that bad.