Seeking the light
Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 36

Journey as Flow


Mapping out a sky.
What you feel like, planning a sky.
What you feel when voices that come
Through the window
Go until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky.
       -Stephen Sondheim, "Finishing the Hat" 

In my previous post I tried to explain why I see thatgamecompany’s Journey as rooted in the Seven Principles of Enlightenment. This type of comparative analysis is inviting because it allows a critic like me to interrogate his experience with a game and account for why it resonates.

But it’s possible to see an imaginative game like Journey through other analytical lenses, and in this post I contend that the seeds for Journey were planted in 2006 when Creative Director Jenova Chen submitted his Master’s thesis at USC. To understand how and why Journey succeeds as game design, it’s useful to examine how it functions as an expression of Flow.*

What is Flow?
Flow is often equated with the catch-all “immersion,” but that term fails to account for the specificity Chen applies to the experience he wants to provoke. A better way to describe Flow is a feeling of deep, energized focus on a task, delivering a high degree of pleasure and fulfillment.1  Gamers know this feeling of being “in the zone,” thoroughly wrapped up in the experience of play.

Games that strike a perfect dynamic balance between their challenges and the abilities of the player are most likely to evoke the sensation of Flow. In his thesis, Chen argues this requires three core design elements:

  1. As a premise, the game is intrinsically rewarding, and the player is up to play the game. 
  2. The game offers right amount of challenges to match with the player’s ability, which allows him/her to delve deeply into the game.
  3. The player needs to feel a sense of personal control over the game activity.

To keep a player in this pleasurable state, a game’s systems must maintain a “flow state” that rewards players of various skill levels. According to Chen, “To expand a game’s Flow Zone coverage, the design needs to offer a wide variety of gameplay experiences. From extremely simple tasks to complex problem solving, different players should always be able to find the right amount of challenges to engage during the Flow experience."

Flow, Not Flow
So how does Journey deliver on these design aspirations? Interestingly, Chen acknowledges in his thesis that “Game Content” is “the soul of a video game,” but he focuses nearly all his efforts on “Game System,” or what he calls “the “body of a video game” - mechanics, interactions, puzzles, the stuff we generally call “gameplay.”

Journey’s systems beautifully convey a sense of kinetic flow, textured by the game’s natural elements. Wind, sand, and snow each alter the player’s movements, and the game’s keen sense of verticality keeps the player looking up. Journey builds on Flower’s subtle pathfinding system, offering visual clues that gently suggest, without insisting, where to go. You quickly learn what must be done. Simple things. Reach a high plateau. Liberate the magic carpets thingies. Follow the light. On a systems level, Journey makes it easy to do necessary things and more difficult do optional things - a design approach Mario has understood for years.

But Chen’s thesis suggests he may not have properly understood the overwhelming power of place, ambience, and atmosphere in 2006. Tracking the evolution of his work from Flow (a game design demonstration of Flow theory) through Flower to Journey, one can easily see environment grow in significance, communicating meaning through a subtle composite of lush visual texture, landscape design, and abstraction.

Thatgamecompany’s games grow exponentially as visual landscapes for exploration as they remain purposefully simple to play. I like Ian Bogost’s characterization of the studio’s signature: “Its games are about the feeling of being somewhere, not about the feeling of solving something.”

Journey certainly gives the player more things to do - and the addition of co-op play adds an essential dimension to the experience - but even more than in its previous games, thatgamecompany builds an enthralling place for us to be, and, surprisingly, that’s enough.

Reversing the formula
So is Journey a demonstration of Flow theory? I say yes, but not because of its dynamic challenge system. Journey’s “flow zone” accommodates all of us, not because it flexes to various skill levels, but because it essentially ignores the question of “skill.”

Journey presents a vibrant world in which mechanics serve aesthetics. Most “artsy” games (e.g. Limbo or Bastion) succeed by reversing that formula. Journey is very much a game, but it moves much further than Flow or Flower in the direction of “interactive experience,” with a significantly more cinematic visual style.

It’s always fun to watch artists evolve, adapt, and incorporate new ideas. Jenova Chen’s trek from Masters thesis to Journey suggests an expanding creative mind and a refining aesthetic. Regardless of one’s reaction to his work, we can praise an industry and a community of gamers that values unconventional work and embraces artists who give us more to see.

* The concept of Flow was first theorized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, whom Chen amply credits in his thesis.