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The Power of Flight

Wes Fenlon | 5 Aug 2012 13:00
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How do you tell a story without dialogue? How do you craft an emotional connection between game and player without characters speaking to each other, without text driving a narrative? The games, films and novels that leave a lasting emotional mark almost always do so through words. NiGHTS: Into Dreams on the Sega Saturn and PS3's Journey rebel against that tradition by telling their stories through the language of game mechanics. Flight lies at the heart of both games, but the 16 years separating their releases illustrate exactly how that language has evolved. While NiGHTS broke new ground with inventive flight-based gameplay, it was still saddled with the old language of an arcade-style scoring system. Journey strips all that away, rewriting the vocabulary of design to focus on presentation and human interaction.

Soaring through NiGHTS' stages taps into the human passion for flight, and it's the fluidity of that mechanic that makes it such a beloved cult classic.

On Silent Wings

After developing Sonic 3 & Knuckles in 1994, Sonic Team shifted focus to a 3D game that would be more story-driven than their 2D platformers. According to NiGHTS producer (and former head of Sonic Team) Yuji Naka, the development team aimed to create a story players would bond with, and even cry over, without using any spoken dialog. NiGHTS takes place in the dream world of Nightopia, where the evil Wizeman and his minions the Nightmaren are stealing dream energy from humans and planning to invade the waking world. Two children, Elliot and Claris, possess the "Ideya," or dream energy, of courage, and by teaming up with the mysterious Nightmaren NiGHTS they can free the other Ideya from Wizeman's clutches.

None of that story is presented in NiGHTS: Into Dreams. If you don't read the game manual, you'll miss out on all of it - which is fine, because none of NiGHTS' emotional weight comes from its backstory.

The game's introductory cutscenes show Elliot and Claris grappling with self-confidence as they dream, and their journey through Nightopia's stages serves as a subdued coming of age story that sneaks up on you as the game progresses. Sonic Team delved into psychological research to develop the world of NiGHTS: Into Dreams; Elliot, Claris and NiGHTS represent the anima, animus and shadow, parts of the unconscious mind. The dream world was meant to serve as common ground that gamers of all stripes could relate to.

Soaring through Nightopia's stages taps into the human passion for flight, and it's the fluidity of that mechanic that makes NiGHTS such a beloved cult classic. There's a classic arcade-style scoring system that rewards players for chaining together loops and pirouettes, mastering each dream stage's routes through rings and score-boosting chips, but that belies how groundbreaking NiGHTS' gameplay was. It emphasized atmosphere and the feeling of movement - driven by an uplifting, soothing jazzy score - over defeating enemies or navigating tricky jumps. Sega even designed a "3D controller" with an analog stick to improve the smoothness of NiGHTS' aerial acrobatics.

Flight dominates the experience in Journey, as well, but thatgamecompany focused even less on the structure surrounding that mechanic than Sonic Team. Deviating from platforming gameplay was a big step for NiGHTS, but today it's easier to sell gamers on an experience without scores or time limits. Journey's gameplay is as simple as its premise: You control a pilgrim traversing a barren desert, and magic runes scattered throughout the world grant you the power of flight.

Because flight time is limited in Journey, the game doesn't capture the same carefree leisure of floating and pirouetting through Nightopia. Instead, thatgamecompany offers joy and awe through the mechanic of progression and the sublime audiovisual spectacle of Journey. As you collect more runes, you'll advance from a few seconds of airtime to long, breathless flights above dunes and crumbling ruins. The wind rustles your robes, causes your scarf to whip around more violently the longer it grows. Flight in Journey feels wonderful, but where the game excels is in its fluid animation and soaring score. The visual experience of traversing Journey's world - sliding across dunes, watching the sun set, and exploring the desert - uses color, texture and animation in evocative ways that simply weren't possible on the Sega Saturn.

It's possible to glide almost indefinitely in Journey by pairing up with another player, as the press of a button will produce a chirping word of encouragement that refills flight energy. Synchronizing tandem flight fosters an immediate attachment between players. A lone sign of life in the desert is, suddenly, a true companion. While Journey focuses on building bonds between players, NiGHTS uses flight to communicate with us directly.

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