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.

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 when he’s not playing videogames. Follow him on Twitter @wesleyfenlon to become best friends.

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