March 26, 2012

The white cloak

This is the lesson I learned on my voyage through thatgamecompany's superb friendship generator and awe machine Journey.

During the story of Journey, Great Ancestors, clad in shimmering white and gold, tell your character about the world's history and, I presume, the meaning of your travels. The story is relayed with mural-like cutscenes consisting of simple pictures full of symbols and vaguely recognizable elements from the world.

The point the ancestors are trying to make gets across to you eventually in some form, but very likely only after repeated playthroughs, and even then it’s difficult to decode their message with any degree of certainty. For beings of an advanced civilization that’s some pretty ineffective communication. But then, it's the same vagueness that has ailed ancestors and advanced beings in fiction for ages.

God never spoke especially clearly in the Bible, Gandalf knew a lot more about the world than he let anyone in The Lord of the Rings ever know, and Kosh rarely spoke at all in Babylon 5. It's the part played by all manner of precursors and advanced entities in fiction. Superior beings rarely impart knowledge in sensible manner and verbosity. For all their eminence, they communicate rather poorly.

I've always wondered about that. I mean, god, God, spill the beans already if you want us to follow your plans.

In Journey, all characters start out looking the same. They have a red cloak, a red hood and red clothes. At some point they get a scarf, the length of which varies throughout the game. But in essence, all travellers look the same.

Until you finish your journey, that is. When you start a new journey, your character's cloak has more embroideries than it did before. In practice this means you can tell how experienced someone is by looking at the decorations of their cloak.

At first all the characters were equal. Equally lost, equally bewildered and equally clad. But it wasn't long until everyone changed. Soon the little travellers had capes full of ornaments and everyone knew at first sight who was and who wasn't on their first trip to the mountain.

During the travels you find symbols, little glowing things that make your scarf longer. Once you've found all of these, you unlock an option to change your cloak from red to white. After changing the color of the cloak, your little traveller bears a striking resemblance to the ancestors.

Also, from that point on, it’s obvious to everyone travelling with you that you're no mere enthusiast, retaking the trip to the mountain: You're someone who knows the game's secrets in and out. You're akin to the ancestors in look and in knowledge. You know things a common traveller doesn't.

And wandering around in my white cloak, looking like an ancestor, made me understand.

I had become a God, a Gandalf, a Kosh. I was a being of superior knowledge, empowered with the ability, and responsibility, of sharing it.

I could lead my companion to every secret in the desert, show every trick I know, and in doing that pass on my full knowledge. But in doing that I would also rob them of an important experience. I would rob them of their own journey and discovery. They would learn everything and learn nothing. In a game like Journey the, well, journey is more important than the destination. And I would take that away if I taught my red-cloaked friends all the rules.

So I became vague. I led less-experienced companions near secrets, but didn't always reveal them. I hinted and suggested. Sometimes they discovered the hidden delight. Sometimes I let them run past it even when they were close to a discovery. I would make sure they found something new on their trip; maybe a wall glyph they meant to run past or a scarf symbol they clearly missed. But I let them miss just as many.

And now I know. I know the weight of holding back. Of making a journey worthwhile by being obscure and vague. Of holding yourself back so someone else could grow.

I have become a God, a Gandalf, a Kosh. I have become an ancestor, and I only speak in riddles.