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Release Date: March 13, 2012

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GDC 2012: One Designer’s Fight to Save the World

Posted on March 7, 2012 AT 05:55pm

Not that this comes as a big surprise to anyone out there, but I played a lot of tabletop RPGs as a kid. Naturally, when MMOs began to materialize as a viable experience in the late 90s, I was beyond stoked to take those dungeon-crawling, dice-dealing experience to the next level. And while I had a blast with the likes of Ultima Online and Meridian 59, there was one inescapable truth that invariably ruined the experience on some level:

Most people are total assholes.

Moreover, unlike my friends in high school, the vast majority of online gamers aren’t too hot on getting into character and role-playing their faces off. This often results in an unfortunate loss of atmosphere that would have gone a long way towards re-igniting my pen-and-paper passions in a medium that had so much more to offer.

At his lecture on fostering relationships in online games at this year’s Game Developers Conference, I got the distinct feeling that thatgamecompany’s Chris Bell knows exactly where I’m coming from. While explaining the motivations behind Journey’s lack of voice chat, he pointed out one key element of the ability to communicate freely that threatened the game’s focus.

“Though we could argue that it would be good to give text and speech to people so that they can sort of connect over a particular moment,” Bell explains, “it also introduces all sorts of unwanted…”verbs” that we can’t control. So players can be pulled out where the game becomes an object for discussion, verses the world it simply is.”

In a world where conversations about “mobs,” “aggro” and “grinding” are often more common than actual role-playing, it’s hard to deny that Bell’s got a point. Still, many people have made a lot of noise about the game’s unflinching stance on communication, but I think there’s a lot to be said for the fact that Bell and co. recognize the importance of protecting the “man behind the curtain.”

I’m sure a lot of folks will play Journey and find it vague or simple or even silly, but to me, this sense of self is one of the main reasons it stands out as less of a traditional game and more of an experience. In that sense, I wish more people would follow their lead, and felt particularly moved by Bell’s closing challenge to the crowd:

“As architects of games, we have full control over what it is that is valued. If the world doesn’t value something we think is significant, we have a responsibility to create worlds that do.”

It’s a tall order; one that’s easier said than done these days, but the fact that games like Journey are finally finding a stage means that there’s a fighting chance that we won’t be stuck in the muck with griefers and virtual gangstas forever – moving ever-closer to that place where we’re getting into character, instead of just controlling one. Sounds good to me.

Brandon Justice, Executive Editor
Brandon Justice spent the last 17 years in the game industry wearing hats as an annoying retail weasel, an overly opinionated journalist, and game-development ninja—until he got tired of the all the caviar and groupies, returning to the ring as a rowdy, rambling writer in 2010 for EGM Media. Follow him on Twitter @jokeontheworldMeet the rest of the crew.

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