Review: thatgamecompany’s Journey

Let me first just get it out of the way – Journey is one of the most beautiful and intriguing games I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.

I am quite picky with the games I choose to play.  Even though I’d like to, realistically I just don’t have the time to play anything and everything.  I usually go for games that have a great story to tell with engaging characters in an immersive world, and one which I can have an emotional connection with.  I am also a big supporter of game developers who love to challenge themselves and the medium; ones who are not afraid to push the envelope and break some boundaries in order to create something new and exciting, not just another “cookie cutter” game.

Journey is definitely more of an experience than it is a game.  It does not have the conventional gaming features you would typically associate with games; there is no melee or gunplay and there are no scores or lives either.

The premise is simple: you play a faceless traveler who is on a journey.  You don’t know where you are, how you got there or why you are on this journey but once it starts you instinctively know you need to be heading towards that beacon of light on a mountain in the distance.  It is never made clear who you are, where you have come from or even WHAT you are.  Normally withholding that kind of information would be frowned upon as a player needs some level of back story to be emotionally invested and able to make sense of the world but in the case of Journey, it somehow just works.

That’s the magic of this game, in my opinion – everything is stripped back to the bare minimum but yet still manages to be beautifully complex and surprisingly engaging.  Gameplay is minimalistic and narrative is virtually non-existent so all you’re left with is this immense endless landscape before you to enjoy and explore.  Walking, “speaking” and leaping are the three actions that you employ throughout the duration of your journey; all mesh and work together in harmony as you tread the land towards your destination.  You are basically left to your own devices – there is very little in the way of guidance or help prompts but with a little exploring, keen observation and experimentation, the solution is usually never too far away.

 

The isolation for me was strangely comforting.  Even though the character you play is faceless and devoid of personality, as you traverse the land, you oddly start to forge a connection with this mysterious cloaked figure.  The moments that I particularly enjoyed which I found to be so freeing were the times you “surf” across the glittering ocean of sand and glide seamlessly across bridges made of shimmering cloth.

What I thought was a really interesting addition to the experience was the unique and clever incorporation of  “multiplayer” into the gameplay.  I say that with inverted commas because it really isn’t what you would expect.  Along the way you get randomly connected with another traveler who is not an NPC but actually another player who is playing the game too – you can then choose to travel the rest of the way together or you can completely ignore them and do your own thing; there is no right or wrong way.

It really adds a different dynamic to the journey, particularly because there is no way to actually communicate with this other player.  In fact you don’t even get to find out who you played alongside with until the end.

The most amazing thing about this game above all else is the stunning visuals.  Coming in at a very close second is the incredible score that just perfectly complements what’s on screen.  Many reviews have said this and I am about to echo them – Journey is hands down one of the most gorgeous games out there today.  The world is absolutely breathtaking with its glittering sands, glorious rays of sunlight and spectacular landscapes that stretch out as far as the eye can see.  Everything you see, every frame, just looks like a moving painting.

You also get to witness the dark side of the land.  There are portions of the journey where you will experience firsthand how harsh and treacherous the landscape can also be.  Consequently the music seamlessly switches to more jarring and threatening tones to match the change in atmosphere.  I thought this contrast was a good way to not only showcase two different color palettes and visual styles but also to help keep things well-paced and interesting.

I did come across a bug near the end of the game (I got stuck outside the map TWICE) which unfortunately did put a bit of a damper on the experience but apart from that my only other negatives are that there weren’t enough save points and that it could have possibly been a wee bit longer.

All in all, Journey was just a moving and exhilarating experience set in an utterly beautiful and magnificent world.  Don’t let the “artsy fartsy”-ness of the game scare you away or fool you; Journey is very much “no frills gaming” – it is simply all about well, the journey.  It’s about being curious and exploring the world around you and just embracing whatever that comes your way.

I have intentionally not been too specific about the game mechanics and how they play out in your travels because I believe part of the magic is figuring it out for yourself.  And trust me, when you finally do make it to that shining summit, the pay-off and what you had to do to get there is well worth it.

If you have a PS3 and have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing Journey, get onto the PSN right this minute and get downloading – this is a definite must play for all gamers who enjoy something a little different.

Whimsical Banana rates Journey: 4/5 bananas (would have gotten 5 if it weren’t for that bug…)

Well done and big kudos to the team at thatgamecompany for this impressive work of art!  Muchos respect!

Heavy Rain: Interactive Drama at it’s Best

I recently decided to go back for a second playthrough of Heavy Rain, primarily with the goal to *finally* Platinum it – and I’m so chuffed I went back.  A year and a half later and the experience still feels as fresh and engaging as it did the first time.  I’ve definitely fallen in love with it all over again!

When I first got told about this game about 6 years or so ago, it definitely peaked my interest from the get-go.  And back then I wasn’t into games at all really so that’s saying something.  In those early days there wasn’t too much mention of the story or what it was going to be about, but it was more a reveal of what kind of game this was going to be, gameplay-wise.  Quantic Dream, the developers of the game had big plans and hopes for Heavy Rain because it was going to be pioneering a new genre in games – the “interactive drama” as they coined it.

Let me start by giving a brief synopsis of what Heavy Rain is all about.  Don’t worry, I’ve kept it spoiler-free, should anyone feel encouraged to play it after they read this post (I hope so!).

The story spans over several days in October 2011 in a city somewhere on the east coast.  The location is never mentioned in the game but there are several clues throughout the game that suggests it is set in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.  You play 4 characters at different stages in the story – Ethan (a father and an architect; he is the main protagonist), Norman (an FBI profiler who suffers from drug addiction), Scott (a private investigator) and Madison (a chronic insomniac).  There is a serial killer on the loose – the Origami Killer as he has been labeled by the police – whose modus operandi is to kidnap young boys during the rainy fall season.  The victims are found dead several days later in a remote location, always with an orchid on their chest and an origami figure in their hand.  Ethan’s son, Shaun, disappears and the police soon link his disappearance to the Origami Killer murders.  Meanwhile unbeknownst to the police Ethan is being contacted by the Origami Killer himself – he has to undergo different “tests” in order to gain clues to the whereabouts of his son.

The underlying message throughout the game is simple: How far would you go to save the one you love?  The game has a very strong moral compass – every action and decision bears consequences that will not only affect later scenes in the game but the overall narrative arc; ultimately all your decisions, what you did or didn’t do, how you reacted, who survived and/or didn’t – will impact how the story ends.

As you play each character you have the opportunity to react and respond differently in different situations.  In conversations you can choose to be reasonable or aggresive, to forgive or to reject, to come clean or to lie.  During the majority of these scenes you can gain access to the character’s thoughts which could help/affect your decision.  In the faster paced action sequences, you do not have direct control of the character but instead you have to be prepared to respond to a quick succession of button prompts (“quick time events”, for you gamers out there!!) in order to get through the scene – in some of these scenes, failing too many times could result in that character’s death.  The prompts are not just you mindlessly button mashing but also makes use of the PS3’s motion-sensitive controller.  For example, choosing to kick down a door could involve you physically moving the controller to mimic that very action.  It was these prompts that I found particularly engaging as it increased the player’s involvement to the action on screen.  What I found effective as well was, in scenes where the character is in a stressed or panicked situation, the button prompts or options mirror the character’s feelings – they appear shaky and blurry onscreen which makes you, the player, become equally stressed and panicked as well.

To have a better understanding of what I’m going on about, the below video is the first trial that you can choose to have Ethan do.  I think among all the action sequences that are in the game, I “enjoyed” this one the most.  It was the first time in the game that I actually felt completely immersed and connected to what was going on onscreen – I had invested in Ethan by that point and so how you see him in that sequence, that’s exactly how I was too – I remember feeling absolutely terrified for my life; my heart was pounding out of my chest and there definitely was some screaming and swearing going on too!

*Thank you to MahaloVideoGames for the video

What I find most interesting about this game is that it does not play like your usual shoot bad guys/ drive fast cars/ jump from platform to platform/ save the damsel in distress type games.  Instead it is meant to feel and play out as closely to reality as it possibly can do within the rules and universe of a game.  This is best illustrated through what I think is the game’s unique “selling point” – and that there are no game overs which then require a replay.  So like if in a particular chapter you stuff up too many times and wind up getting killed, instead of the scene ending with a “Game Over” forcing you to repeat that sequence, the story just carries on without the character.  Any contributions that character had to the plot will now become null, and will of course, affect the progression and ultimately the conclusion of the story.

Most if not all games are designed to encourage replayability and Heavy Rain is no exception: there are literally countless ways you can play out the story.  There are multiple options for most choices and actions that could branch out to many different narrative threads – the possibilities are seriously endless.  One of the trophies in the game is “See all endings” – it took me awhile but I finally got it; there are seven different endings with seventeen various epilogues spread out between them.  However with each ending there could be multiple ways of getting to that ending. (I know this because I tried!)

Interestingly enough though, David Cage, the CEO of Quantic Dream who also wrote and directed the game doesn’t actually encourage replaying the game.  In an interview with G4TV he said “I would like people to play it once…because that’s life. Life you can only play once…I would like people to have this experience that way.  I’m fine with [reloading to avoid a bad result], but the right way to enjoy Heavy Rain is really to make one thing because it’s going to be your story. It’s going to be unique to you. It’s really the story you decided to write…I think playing it several times is also a way to kill the magic of it.”  I doubt many, if  any, gamers heeded to his advice (I certainly didn’t!) but what he said definitely rings true to the spirit of the game and what it’s all about.  As I said earlier, I definitely get the sense that the game is made to play as close to reality as possible.  Echoing his words, in life there are no second chances and so good or bad, you have to live with the choices you make – and that is what you constantly get faced with throughout the game: tons of decision-making.  It sounds tedious when put like that but it really isn’t.

As brilliant as the game is on so many levels, it does have it’s faults too.  Controlling the characters can sometimes be a tad awkward (R2 to move, left analog stick to control the direction – not just the left analog stick which is the standard) and at certain times they do seem a little robotic in their movements, in particular when you change the direction when the character is walking.  In terms of facial performance, for the most part it was pretty spot-on however I felt that this seemed to only be largely limited to the 4 main characters; the more minor characters (namely Lauren Winter, for me personally) tended to have a very deadpan look in their eyes and often just a lifeless expression on their face regardless if they were happy, sad or angry.  This was a bit disappointing considering overall the game visually looked stunning and very realistic.  Another negative for me was some very obvious plot holes towards the end of the game.  Again, very disappointing especially considering the game’s main strength is it’s story.  I’m uncertain as to why this wasn’t picked up on but giving them the benefit of the doubt I can only hazard a guess that assuming all bases had been covered, what must have happened was when cuts were being made to manage the length, some important facts and information may have gotten lost along the way but not removed entirely – and so plot holes are born.  Pretty careless but hey, happens all the time – in movies, especially.

Flaws aside, I do feel that overall Heavy Rain‘s positives far outweigh the negatives.  In my opinion Quantic Dream did manage to achieve what they set out to do and that was to create a unique, first-of-its-kind, gaming experience – a psychological thriller with a strong narrative and underlying moral theme, in the form of an interactive drama.  The “mood” and feel of the game is masterfully executed through the gray color palette of the world, the sombre and haunting soundtrack and the well thought-out characters that complement (and sometimes contradict) each other.  The actors who were cast all performed brilliantly (they all did both the voicework and motion capture); in particular the ones who play the 4 main characters.  Pascal Langdale, who played Ethan, perfectly embodied the character, in my opinion.  He definitely breathed life into Ethan and made him feel like a real person, not just a character I was playing in a game.  I felt emotionally connected to Ethan from start to finish; I felt his fear, I understood his guilt – often I found myself getting so immersed in the experience that it didn’t feel like I was playing a game anymore.  It’s amazing that you can feel like that for something that is in essence completely virtual.

It is this feeling that I hold on to and why subsequently I think Heavy Rain is simply a fantastic game.  Again, it is far from perfect – it’s fairly buggy and definitely has room for improvement but for what it stands for and sets out to do – it is brilliant and in my VERY humble opinion, an important pivotal game in the gaming industry.  Games should always attempt to challenge or break down boundaries as it is still (sadly) the underdog among the different sources of entertainment, and Quantic Dream did just that with Heavy Rain – proving that games can be more than just “saving the princess” or shooting enemies left, right and center; games can also be incredibly interactive and highly engaging – it can involve moral decisions and invoke an emotional experience that you would (prior to this) normally possibly only ever akin to real-life situations.

So, if you have a PS3 and have not yet played Heavy Rain, you really need to!!  ‘Nuff said.   I think I have sung it enough praises, I will let the game itself do the rest of the talking…

Whimsical Banana rates Heavy Rain: 4/5 Bananas!

L.A. Noire: Closing the Gap Between Game & Cinema

Anyone who plays games and/or has some knowledge of the who’s and what’s of the gaming world will need no introduction to L.A. Noire and what it is all about.  I have pretty decent knowledge of the gaming industry – for a girl, and for a “part-time gamer”, that is! –  but surprisingly I didn’t know of this game until about 6+ months ago. Ever since then I have been anxiously awaiting it’s release.  That day finally came on Friday the 20th, and what a happy kitty I was!  29 hours later, plus a few more hours of gameplay replaying missions and collecting trophies, here I am, ready to share with you all my experience and thoughts.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, let me firstly sum up in a nutshell what the game/story is all about: It is set in 1947 Los Angeles and you play Cole Phelps, a returning war hero who joins the LAPD force.  You start off as a patrolman but as the game progresses, you quickly rise up the ranks of the department.  With each case solved, Phelps delves deeper into the criminal underbelly of  L.A. and soon learns that nothing is as it seems; that underneath all the glamor and fame of the post-war boom, crime and corruption are rampant.

The game is greatly influenced – visually, stylistically and thematically – by film noir.  For all you non-film-geeks out there, film noir is a style of film made during the 1940s and 1950s which have a distinctive “look” (and sound) about them – they are generally shot in black-and-white and with low-key lighting, involve plots that center around sex, drugs, corruption and moral ambiguity, and accompanied by a haunting jazz soundtrack.  The game incorporates all these elements, even down to having the option of playing the game in black-and-white!

This was the first thing that attracted me to L.A. Noire.  The history of (American) film has always fascinated me and I have always been particularly drawn to film noir – I even took an entire paper on it at uni!  There’s just something about crime/ detective stories that peak my interest, for some reason.  L.A. Noire – put simply – is completely and utterly AMAZING.  I haven’t played many games as I am still fairly “new” to the gaming scene, but I have a deep, innate appreciation for the arts (yes I do consider games to be an art form) and thus believe I have a pretty good grasp on what is a good game, or what makes a game good.

The game is brilliant and impressive on so many levels.  The world is beautiful – what’s amazing is that 90% of what you see is historically and geographically accurate…minus a few artistic licenses here and there.  The production team spent months and months painstakingly researching to recreate 1947 L.A. as accurately as possible – even down to mirroring color palettes of corridors in certain key buildings, products/brands used at the time and billboards displayed on the streets.

Hundreds of aerial shots were taken so as to perfectly map out the streets and locations of landmarks and buildings of L.A.  This staggering attention to detail is truly incredible; it really makes you appreciate the game so much more when you know the lengths that the production team went to and how much effort was put into creating the world.  If you find this intriguing and want to learn more, check out this feature article.

Many of us enjoy entertainment mediums like film and games because it provides us with that few hours of escapism.  L.A. Noire does this brilliantly – the whole time I was playing I was completely immersed in the world; I really felt like I had been transported back in time.  Being able to experience this period in history – one that would have otherwise been impossible to experience firsthand – and especially one that is so significant and one in which I have a personal interest in, is what made the game all the more enjoyable.

I’ve watched many a film noir and yes I’ve felt connected to the stories, the characters, etc.  But here’s the big difference with games, a “leg up” over films, if you will – in games you get to interact and actively engage in the world.  You don’t just passively sit and watch the world unfold before you (literally), instead it is your actions in the game that sets in motion how the events will unfold.  Of course, some games are more restrictive than others, in terms of your control over the narrative/outcome.

I think the more seasoned, hardcore gamers will probably criticize the linearity of the game.  It is considered a somewhat open-world game (like it’s predecessors, Red Dead Redemption and the infamous GTA series) however after you’ve completed all the usual “easter egg hunting” (in this case, collecting Hollywood film reels and solving street crimes), there really isn’t anything else to do on the streets apart from literally just driving around sightseeing.  Unfortunately your ability to interact with the people and places in the city is virtually non-existent.

In terms of the actual storyline, there are some forks in the road (e.g. bringing in multiple suspects for questioning and having to decide which one to charge) but for the most part, the story is set in stone.  Many will see this as boring and unimaginative but do not be fooled – there is more to the narrative than meets the eye.  The story does have a lot of depth and many layers that unravel at the opportune time.

There are many subtleties and “hints” that are purposefully placed at specific points in the game that you later discover were there to foreshadow future events.  In a well-executed film, every camera angle, every shot, every choice of soundtrack, is there for a reason.  Similarly in L.A. Noire, everything you see, everything that is said, has a specific purpose that serves the narrative.  I felt the plot and sub-plots including the side missions (street crimes) were for the most part perfectly written, perfectly timed and perfectly intertwined – this is something that is not easy to do so it is mighty impressive that they managed to pull it off so seamlessly.

I have to say I really enjoyed playing detective.  All the cases you investigate are based on or inspired in some part by a real-life crime story that happened in and around L.A. circa 1947.  You can read about one of them here.

As you get promoted within the LAPD you get the opportunity to work across different “desks” – namely traffic, homicide, vice and arson.  I found the homicide cases to be the most intriguing and exciting.  This aspect of the game, however, loses brownie points in terms of replayability as I can imagine it could get a tad tedious having to go through the motions of searching for the clues all over again; even inspecting dead, mangled bodies in just the first playthrough starts to get a bit routine towards the end of the game.

Detective duties aside, there is enough action to keep you hooked and entertained – on-foot and car chases, fist fights, and shooting aplenty.  I was actually dreading the chase and gunplay sequences quite a bit, knowing full well that it will be a struggle for me.  As expected, I completely sucked at driving, and even moreso when I had to speed after fleeing suspects, however to my utmost surprise I’m actually not too shabby with a gun!

One of the awesome things about this game – and I believe it’s a first – is that after you’ve failed a sequence a few times, you will actually be given the option to skip it and move on.  Personally it is a bit of a slap in the face because it’s like you’re being told “hey it’s obvious you suck at this, you should just give up” but then looking at the big picture, it’s actually bloody brilliant.  Had this option not been there, I would probably not be very far in the game and eventually get too irritated/impatient with where I was stuck at and give up and not finish the game.  Or I would have gotten a more experienced gamer to give me a hand.

The decision to have this option available to the player can be seen as a cop out, but I see it as a “free pass” to more casual gamers like myself who are not necessarily so skilled with the controller but still want to engage in and enjoy the whole gaming experience.  It is what I feel makes L.A. Noire such a remarkable game – it’s more about the story than it is about gaming prowess.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the game is how real the characters look, in particular how realistic their facial features and expressions are.  This is all thanks to a groundbreaking new technology called MotionScan which closely and accurately captures every aspect of an actor’s facial performance using 32 surrounding cameras.  It’s really amazing stuff – check out how it all works here.

The difference in visual quality, and more importantly, in the level of realism of the character is mind-blowing.  Combine this with the use of motion capture to record the actor’s physical movements and you’ve got one very real, albeit digitalized “human being”.  Aaron Staton (of Mad Men fame) plays Cole Phelps and when you look at him in person and compare it to his character in-game – it is essentially the same person!  It’s him through an animated lens…quite freaky really.

The game gets to really show off this fantastic new technology when you interrogate suspects.  Once the suspects have responded to your question, you have to determine whether they are telling the truth or lying.  I don’t claim to know a lot about the technologies and engines used in gaming but I daresay that it would have been near impossible to construct believable reactions and true facial expressions…least not ones that are realistic enough anyway.

Heavy Rain comes to mind when I think of this – it came pretty damn close; the characters overall were pretty life-like but when it came down to actually conveying true emotion (e.g. anger), it fell short.  But in L.A. Noire, thanks to MotionScan, it is pulled off seamlessly – the level of detail is astonishing; if a suspect is lying and you are attentive enough, you would be able to catch even the smallest nervous tic.

It’s blatantly clear from all the praises I have sung that I think this game is the best thing since sliced bread.  However anything man-made, no matter how great it is, is not perfect.  The game does have some flaws.  First thing that comes to mind: the passersby on the streets say things to/at you as you walk by.  The trouble is they have very limited dialogue – the things they say are on a very short loop so it repeats fairly often; after awhile it starts to feel like Groundhog Day.  Of course this is a very trivial gripe – the city folk do not affect the narrative in the slightest so it doesn’t matter and I can see why not more thought was put into it.  However one could also argue that with everything else being so hyper-realized, it does put a bit of a damper on the experience.

Additionally there are some minor continuity errors (e.g. my car ending up at a different location from where I had originally parked it)  and plot loopholes that I noticed in a couple of the cases, plus I don’t quite understand certain decisions that were made near the end of the game (I won’t be more specific, don’t want to spoil it for anyone!) – but overall these faults are very few and far in between.  The positive aspects far outweigh the negative and thus these shortcomings can be forgiven – in my humble opinion, anyway.

A good story is built from great writing and excellent storytelling.  I thought the script was skillfully written; very true to 1940s America –  in particular the slang words and phrases used in the dialogue – this made the characters believable and seem more like actual real people, not “talking puppets”.  I felt Cole Phelps was a very interesting and complex character to play; I enjoyed playing him and very quickly got invested in him and his plight to “right all the wrongs”.

In addition, the accompanying jazz soundtrack was exceptional – again, very true to that period in time and particularly to film noir.  When you are driving, the radio plays actual songs from artists of that era and also actual radio shows that aired during that time – yet another admirable effort at making the world as realistic as possible.  The score which plays at crime scenes, interrogations and the action sequences perfectly complement and add on to the experience – for me even moreso during the more “intense” situations.  For example I remember my heart literally pounding out of my chest when I was chasing a crazed serial killer throughout a long maze of catacombs – most seasoned gamers have probably become really jaded by sequences like these, but I really felt like I was Cole at that point in time, fighting for justice and for my own survival – never been so terrified in my life!

And this is why I have taken quite a keen interest in gaming lately, specifically games that blur the lines between the filmic and gaming worlds.  Some gamers are of the opinion that games shouldn’t try to be like movies, that by doing so they are just being “lazy” and not utilizing the full potential of the gaming medium and what it can offer.  To some extent, I agree.  With technology getting better and better every day, games have the ability and ongoing potential to do so much more – things specific to games which are not possible in a movie – so why play safe and take the “tried and true” route of making just essentially a playable film?

Here’s where I play the devil’s advocate: I do not see anything wrong if the game developer knowingly and intentionally wants to make their game in the style of a film.  Making this choice doesn’t necessarily make them uninventive or unambitious, but could very well just be their nominated style of making games.  In some ways I see games like these – and L.A. Noire is obviously one of them – as categorized under an altogether different kind of game genre in its own right.

It’s a mission on its own making a good film, it’s all the more challenging making a perfect marriage of the two, a “game-film” that makes sense in both universes – one that looks and plays out like a film on the game-screen but also simultaneously manages to interact and actively engage with its audience the way only really great games know how.  But if you get the balance/mix right – absolute magic is created.

With that being said, I feel L.A. Noire has hit the nail squarely on the head in this respect.  I think the fact that it is the first game to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival speaks volumes on what it has achieved in terms of closing the gap between game and cinema, and how taking this route could potentially make for a truly remarkable masterpiece of a game.

It has its issues but overall L.A. Noire is a visually stunning film noir-style crime thriller that promises an interactive gaming experience that you will not soon forget.  From start to finish I was completely immersed, engaged and emotionally connected with the world, the narrative and its characters.  I was transported back in time and experienced an important era in film history through a game – that is what great escapist-entertainment is all about!

It has undoubtedly set a benchmark for any future game developers who wish to make film-style type games but regardless of how many other “game-films” that come along from now onwards, I firmly believe that L.A. Noire – and what it has managed to deliver visually, stylistically and emotionally – will always own a piece of important gaming history.

Whimsical Banana rates L.A. Noire: a well-deserved 5 bananas!  I’m also stoked to say that I have become a slightly better gamer because of it!