Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Critical Games of 2012

Robert Rath | 27 Dec 2012 16:00
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Most Innovative Multiplayer: Journey

Journey is one of those games that's difficult to talk about in specifics because players experience the most crucial part of it internally. After playing Journey, some people reflect that they felt a sense of calm, or wonder, or melancholy, or each of these feelings in turn. It may, in a strange way, be the first game that uses the player's emotions as a game mechanic.

In 2012 we saw a lot of games add an unnecessary multiplayer option as an afterthought. Journey, by contrast, is a game where multiplayer is an integral part of the experience. And that experience is - well, what is it exactly? It changes for each companion you meet along the way. Because Journey matches two random players and gives them no ability to communicate beyond actions and chirps, your relationship with the Journeymen you meet often becomes very deliberate and kind.

My first companion was helpful but hurried. He'd show me secret places and things, then fly off to the next objective faster than I could follow. We developed a good relationship, powering each other up in order to chain jumps up cliff sides. We flew across the desert, singing as we glided through the air. We skated down sand dunes like Olympic skiers on the slalom. Then, after I dropped into an underground grotto, I turned around to find that he wasn't there. Where's my friend? I thought, then realized that I must've run ahead and left him behind. There I was, underground and in the dark, and suddenly missing my guide. It occurred to me that I'd never see him again. That was the first time Journey gave me a lump in my throat.

I had other companions, some that didn't jive and others that spent most of their time on pause, but then came a companion I knew as Short Scarf, and suddenly I was the leader. Short Scarf was rash and tended to sprint right past power-ups. He also got pummeled by stone dragons, a lot. Getting Short Scarf up the mountain required a lot of hand-holding and leading by example, but I liked him. He had a certain dogged determination to him, and I admit to taking joy in his pratfalls. On my second playthrough I met my first White Cloak. She sailed around effortlessly, showing me to every collectible in turn, waiting patiently as I struggled behind. When I moved on, she stayed behind like a Bodhisattva to help the next Journeyman.

There's a strange thing that happens when you play Journey: You feel yourself becoming gentle. Your methods of communication are so purposeful and abstract that only broad gestures come across, and those gestures are by and large kind ones. That's a new experience in online multiplayer, especially when playing with random matchmaking, and it's an experience I'd like to see explored more in the future.

Honorable Mentions:
Call of Duty: Black Ops II for including a Middle Eastern undercover agent as part of their special operations team. It's nice to see a Middle Eastern character on the good guy's roster for once, but next time let's not have him shoot American soldiers to "maintain his cover," yes?

Papo & Yo, for writing the perfect game mechanics to express the horrors of parental abuse. What makes Papo & Yo so heartbreaking isn't that Monster attacks Quico, it's that despite Monster's potential for violence, Quico is still entirely dependent on him. The result is a chilling status quo - Quico needs Monster in order to solve puzzles and progress in the world, yet as long as Quico stays with Monster, he's exposing himself to harm. In the end, the constant fear of Monster's next rampage becomes worse than the rampage itself.

Max Payne 3, for obviously doing its homework on Brazil, though the juxtaposition of rich and poor can sometimes become overly-judgmental of a country that's still industrializing and finding its feet.

Well, that's 2012 sorted out. If you feel like I've missed anything I'd be glad if you let me know - I can't play everything, and I'm always looking for interesting new gameplay.

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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