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The Power of Flight

Wes Fenlon | 5 Aug 2012 13:00
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Each stage of NiGHTS: Into Dreams begins with the player controlling Elliot or Claris in Nightopia. To soar above the ground and collect the dream energy needed to defeat one of Wizeman's minions, the player must enter an Ideya Palace and merge with NiGHTS. But in the final stage, Twin Seeds, NiGHTS is imprisoned out of reach. You're trapped on a tiny chunk of rock floating over an empty abyss with no escape. There's nothing to do but jump, and fall, and fall, disappearing from sight. The music stops, and "Game Over" seems like it should appear on screen at any moment.

Empowering them with flight is Sonic Team's way of reaching out to the audience and saying: "This is you, and in your dreams, you can fly."

And then you fly. The music trills triumphantly. That one moment encapsulates the kids' journey towards self discovery and their struggle to believe in their own abilities. Twin Seeds is unforgettable because it matters that you are flying, this time, without NiGHTS' help:. The relatively generic designs of Claris and Elliot are meant to shape them as surrogates, not unique characters.

NiGHTS allows players to invest in its protagonists through the power of abstract iconography, a concept expertly dissected in author Scott McCloud's book Understanding Comics. In short, a generic or abstract image is more universal and easier for the reader (or player) to imbue with their own personality. Compared to NiGHTS' elaborate costume, Elliot and Claris are unassuming.

Empowering them with flight is Sonic Team's way of reaching out to the audience and saying: "This is you, and in your dreams, you can fly." Instead of developing intricate characters who voice their hopes and fears, Sonic Team focused on depicting them finding silent courage through gameplay alone.

Journey encourages player investment through the same abstract design as NiGHTS. The berobed characters serve as stylized, but mostly blank, icons for players to fill with their own personalities, which becomes key when thatgamecompany's implementation of online co-op comes into play. Journey balances isolation and companionship with seamless online co-op - so seamless, in fact, you could miss the fact you're even online - but it abandons mechanics we expect from a cooperative experience. Just as thatgamecompany stripped away the traditional scoring mechanic NiGHTS used to give its stages structure, they removed the traditional matchmaking and voice chat that typically form online co-op structure.

Journey's only communication comes from the chirps and longer tones produced by pressing or holding a single button. That limited form of expression saves Journey from the inevitable immaturity of online play, but it also makes co-op an unusually powerful storytelling mechanic. Each successful flight is a triumph of silent teamwork, a fulfilling partnership that builds bonds between strangers. Because Journey's emotional power comes from that interaction, thatgamecompany's use of abstract iconography is especially powerful. Fellow journeyers are indistinguishable, so we create our own stories about them based on how they behave in the game - whether they chirp gleefully or walk in silence, whether they lead or follow.

It's a rare example of the stories we weave superseding the reality of the actual game experience. At the end of my first playthrough of Journey, I was shocked - and, briefly, a little disappointed - when the game revealed I'd played with five separate people over the course of an hour and a half. During the play experience, I couldn't tell. I'd created my own narrative about traveling with my companion: He needed my help after being attacked underground, and the most triumphant moments of our time together came when I flew beside him, keeping his truncated scarf charged so he could overcome obstacles impossible to conquer alone. That's the biggest difference between NiGHTS and Journey: they both connect with players through the mechanic of flight, but Journey also uses that mechanic to connect players with each other.

It's amazing that, 16 years ago, NiGHTS played differently from everything on the market. It was breaking new ground in 3D game design, and the physical sensation of flight in the game was so important that it prompted the release of a new controller. Looking back from 2012, NiGHTS is structured so much more like a game than Journey, with scores and time limits framing each few minutes of play. Journey tossed that aside, but it's still a modern evolution of what NiGHTS was trying to accomplish: using music, stylish visuals and flying to build an emotional journey rather than a literary one. Something as simple as a written chronicle of Journey's dead civilizations would diminish the impact thatgamecompany created with isolation and silent exploration.

If more game designers do away with words, they may be surprised by how much they still have to say.

Wes Fenlon writes about technology and defeats Omega Viruses for Tested.com when he's not playing videogames. Follow him on Twitter @wesleyfenlon to become best friends.

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