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Games

New Perspectives on 'Journey' and 'Earthbound'

In which I learn something new while traversing the desert and getting lost in Twoson.

Thanks to a series of fortunate coincidences, I’m revisiting several of my favorite games. It’s been enjoyable because replaying story-driven games is something I don’t do very often. It’s partly because life is just plain busy, but there’s also some faulty logic at play. It’s easy for me to think of a story-driven game as a static experience.

While the structured plot points might be the same in such games, though, the way that you get to them is always slightly unique (just watch two different people play the same Halo level). Even in the most linear game, there are new things to notice about the art or the music. For me, it’s not only about catching the things I missed but also about re-experiencing games in the wake of other experiences. I’ve played Journey and Earthbound before, but each time that I do, my mindset and my interpretations of these games are different.

Journey

Jorge Albor and I play Journey at least once a year. It’s one of our favorite games. Sometimes it moves people to write moving passages about ritual and spirituality. This year, though, I couldn’t stop focusing on the logistics of the experience.

Obviously the artistic majesty and powerful themes of the game still made an impact, but the mechanics of how these things were produced captured my imagination this year. Maybe it’s because I spend my day focused on making sure large projects don’t implode, but the sheer amount of effort that must have gone into scripting Journey is incredible. Somehow, the game always seems to put you in a position where your movement, the terrain, and the music all sync up to create breathtaking scenes.

The fact that any of this lines up seems downright miraculous. In reality, it must have taken an immense amount of time and effort. Everything seems so effortless, but this game wasn’t created procedurally. The music and the size and terrain of the levels had to be manually engineered. The little flashes of light that subtly alert you to the presence of another player catch your eye without distracting you. The very fact that you can have a completely seamless multiplayer experience that is essentially troll-proof is one of the wonders of the Internet age.

Every year I come back to the game and find something new. Logistics might not be the most poetic discovery, but there is beauty to be found in structure.

Earthbound

As the years go on, I feel like the milestones of life get increasingly polarized, either as moments that are joyful or tragic. I’m at a point where births and deaths, graduations and retirements, weddings and funerals are beginning to reach a curious equilibrium. Ultimately the latter will outweigh the former, but today it’s an emotional seesaw. It’s also a stage at which that whole joke about how every adult is simply pretending to be one and making it up as they go along is a hilariously sad truth.

Hilariously sad is a good way to describe Earthbound. Coming back to it for the first time in at least ten years, I am struck by how bizarre and melancholy the game is. Most of the adults make off hand remarks about being confused, overworked, or just plain sad. Ness and his friends are thrust into a coming of age story that forces them to be self-reliant in a world where they can’t really trust anyone but each other. “Uncontrollable crying” is a status effect.

Earthbound has been a surprisingly cathartic experience because it is a game that is willing to mix a little sadness in with the standard moments of JRPG triumph. The game isn’t afraid to put a huge emphasis on mundane items or ordinary relationships. It’s also rare to find a game so willing to stare into the face of an existential crisis.

There’s no “meta”-game to Earthbound and Journey. Their evolution is more closely linked to the personalities of the people playing them. Both games are deep, but it takes a certain kind of vision to see everything, and there’s no good way to see it all at once.This is a good reminder to come back to my favorite games more than once, especially if those games are story-focused. The games themselves haven’t changed on a fundamental level over the years, but I have.

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