How does Journey evoke strong emotions?

Ketul Majmudar
Apr 12, 2018 · 6 min read

Journey does an excellent job of evoking emotions within the player in a short period of time. This post breaks down how the designers were successful in evoking the intended emotions.

Feelings that the designers wanted to evoke within the players — first, a great sense of awe; second, the feeling of being small compared to the vast world; third, the feeling of an unknown and mysterious world and fourth, a sense of companionship that is free from all biases. Everything related to companionship should be in the context of the game, and no real-world biases like gender should affect the players’ perception.

Let’s break it down to how the designers went about meeting their emotional goals.

Feeling of being small

Camera
The camera is placed much farther away from the camera than in traditional third person games. The angle of the camera changes significantly during the game. This is to show large portions of the world on the screen at once, which allows large structures to be on the screen for most of the time giving the player a continuous sense of their scale in the world.

Another game that takes great advantage of the camera to evoke this feeling is Shadow of the Colossus.

Large and small structures
Large structures are there to give a sense of scale and smaller structures are geared towards micro interactions in the game. A large world requires a lot of movement on the player’s part, so small structures also act as bread crumbs in the way which clearly communicate a player’s progress through the world.

Unbiased Companionship

Hero Design
The hero is very important because it is the most viewed visual element of the game. Initially, and over the course of the game, every player develops a perception of the hero and to keep the perceptions of the players in a similar space, the visual design of the hero is very minimal and every element on the character has a meaning.

Let us start with why we need the design to be minimal here.

The creators started with a familiar human figure painted in a single color to remove as much bias as possible. What remained here though was a minor hint of clothes being present on the character, which might provide a sense of gender to many. So they cloaked the character in a black robe which got rid of the discrimination that the players might make based on the clothes. At this point, the design resembled a ninja and the players made that connection very quickly. The designers did not want the character to be perceived as a part of preexisting class of individuals as these bring stereotypes with them. So the robe was extended in the next iteration and a long scarf was added to the design, none of which people usually relate ninjas to. Now the character felt more like a ‘traveler’, but there were elements that could still be removed as they did not have much use in the game. Hands were one of those, and so we see that none of the further iterations have hands in the game. Even the legs were simplified eventually as the only goal they had was to point out the direction that the character is looking towards. The feet were removed as this goal could easily be served by the scarf as well which flies in the direction opposite to which the character to looking towards. Removing the feet also gave the character a subtle floating feel which helped understand the fact that it could slide on the sand. All of these decisions led to a design where each and every element had meaning and served a well defined purpose.

Let us discuss the purpose of some of the different elements in the final design.

Eyes are the easiest way to turn a random shape into a living creature. Have a look below

These are a few symbols I created for one of my own games and a lot of them are just random shapes with a small circle that represents an eye. That small circle is enough to give character to a random shape and that was all that the character design of the hero needed because eyes alone are enough to create the emotions needed to establish a connection.

The scarf acts as the strongest medium of feedback in the game. It works as a energy and health indicator of the character. Again, a simple scarf that cannot create much bias and is magical at the same time.

The design patterns on the robe closely resembled the elements of the world. This served two purposes- one, the players were quickly given context regarding the design and hence they were not given enough time to form their own meanings of the designs and two, it made the players feel that the character belonged to the world; that there was some deep and mysterious connection of the player to the world.

Mechanics
Players in the game can affect each other by charging their scarves. This can be achieved in a couple by ways- one by just being in the proximity of the other players and two by releasing a chime that instantly charges up the scarf.

These mechanics feel very natural and positive as they are designed so that every player can only help the other and not hurt or hinder them in any way. This creates a positive attitude in the mind of the player towards other players which in turn makes them want to help others. And this makes sense because the game is geared towards cooperative play.

The technique at work here is called Mirroring, which comes from psychology, is the subconscious replication of another person’s nonverbal signals. Mirroring quickly establishes a strong connection between individuals as they behave similarly in a non verbal manner in the same situation. This tricks them into believing that the other individual has an attitude similar to theirs.

No Dialogue
We believe that spoken language helps us communicate effectively, but it actually acts as a convenient filter to our real emotions. Journey decided to eliminate this filter so that the players can only communicate via the expressive mechanics of the game discussed above. They even hid the player IDs of the companions. They did so to get rid of social distractions which would introduce bias (for example: playing with strangers versus playing with best friends) and break the integrity of the world.

Unburdened and Seamless
Players can play together if and when they want. This has less to do with bias but it is more of an observation that made the experience much more enjoyable. A lot of players can easily get frustrated if the game makes them do something they do not want to do, so forcing them to play with others in a casual game would have led to players giving up before they finished the game. One main reason of the frustration might be the limited number of players due to the game being a new IP and casual.

Loneliness
An actual need for companionship comes from long periods of loneliness. The game achieves this by longer distances between major landmarks in the game. Ultimately the players were filled up with joy and wonder when they met other companions along the way. It was like meeting a long lost soul that was similar to you in most ways.

All of this led to developing a true sense of companionship in the context of the game. A good example of “Less is more!”

Ketul Majmudar

Written by

Game Designer at Entertainment Technology Center, Carnegie Mellon University

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade