Gaming as connection: Thank you, stranger

Haven’t talked about gaming in a while. I still play, all the time, but with deadline after deadline looming I don’t dare buy anything new that might actually be good. (Side-eyes Fallout 4, warily.) I’ve been settling for comfort-gaming instead. You know, some soothing State of Decay and Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer, and my favorite real estate investment simulator, Skyrim (with Hearthfire DLC).

But I did buy a new, old game that I’ve been wanting to play for ages, which I could finally get now that I have a PS4: Journey. If you’ve never played the game, it’s haunting and beautiful and cute and terrifying and any number of things for which its studio, thatgamecompany, should be commended… but alas, the studio broke apart after producing this game. Anyway, I can’t describe Journey partly because it’s just hard to describe. But I also can’t describe it to you because it’s literally a different gaming experience every time I play it. See — oh, spoilers from here on, though this game has been out since 2012 so I think we’re kind of past the statute of spoilerations —

— see, one of the lovely secrets of the game is that, along the way, when you meet another character who seems to be a computer-generated companion, that character is actually another player, connected randomly to you by the server. Now, the first time through, this is merely a pleasant surprise. All subsequent playthroughs, though, as you encounter another player and know that it is another player, something excitingly metafictional happens. You and the other player can’t communicate via anything but a simple signal, and your actions. Some players ignore you, some actively try to impede you (there’s only one way they can — in the scenes with the flying snake automatons, if they push you into the monsters’ view), some sit down and wait for you to go away, which is a clear “I want to play alone” signal. But.

I was very tired the other night, but couldn’t sleep. Been under a lot of stress lately. Anyway, I decided to boot up a game of Journey, mostly because I love its soundtrack and I thought that might soothe me into sleepiness. I wasn’t really trying to progress; was mostly just wandering about, trying to find extension ribbons, exploring the landscape, and so on. But along comes another player — a white-robe, which means this player is much more experienced than me and has learned how to find all the ribbons already. I’m a meandering red-robe — obviously either a n00b or just not all that serious about the game. Anyway, Other Player sees that I’m trying to get to one particular ribbon. Other Player shows me an easier way to get up there. I’m a little shocked; there was nothing in it for them. They just felt like being kind. So I signaled back twice — thank you — and grabbed the ribbon, expecting Other Player to move along since I’m obviously in no hurry.

Other Player sticks around. Shows me other ribbons. Waits for me, while I’m meandering. At one point I got a little ahead of them, and it felt… wrong, to leave them behind. So I waited for them. Other Player dances a circle around me. (I grin.) We go on, together. At one point things go wrong; Other Player tries to show me a safe way through a dangerous area, but one of the flying snake-monsters (if you haven’t played Journey, just… go with it) targets OP. I try to make myself a better target, maybe draw the thing off, signal wildly so the snake monster will come after me instead, but it still attacks OP, ripping its ribbon in half. At this point I expect OP to be done with me; it’s not really my fault that OP got hurt, but if OP had been alone, concentrating on themself and not me, they might have done a better job of navigating the area. But. OP stays, once it recovers. We continue to guard and guide each other, all the way through the game. At the end, the most beautiful part of the game, OP starts spinning circles around me. I spin back. It’s an indescribably lovely moment. I often cry at the end of Journey — it’s that kind of game, and I have a marshmallowy center sometimes — but this time was special.

No idea who this person is, BTW. I’m not putting their gamertag online because assholes exist, but… OP, if you read this, and you think it might be you… thank you. Thing is, it doesn’t really matter if it is you. If you’ve ever played Journey and helped to create this kind of experience with any player, I thank you on their behalf. (Also, I slept like a baby after that.)

I see a lot of discussion about whether games are art. For me, there’s no point in discussing the matter, because this isn’t the first time I’ve had such a powerful emotional experience while gaming. That’s why I’m still a gamer, and will probably keep playing ’til I die. This is what art does: it moves you. Maybe it makes you angry, okay. Maybe it makes you laugh. Not all of it is good, but so what? There’s a lot of incredibly shitty art everywhere in the world. But the good art? That’s the stuff that has power, because you give it power. The stuff that lingers with you, days or years later, and changes you in small unexpected ways. The stuff that keeps you thinking.

Right now I’m trying to figure out how to recreate that game experience with my fiction. Books are already interactive; the total experience is a fusion of what the reader brings to the table and what I’m trying to evoke. It’s a strange, delicate sort of thing sometimes, like playing an instrument I can’t see or feel, but when people write to me and say they had a powerful experience, I know I’ve succeeded. How, though, to evoke a shared experience, among several readers at once? That’s something the visual medium excels at, but it can be done textually, too. One of my favorite things to find on Tumblr is impromptu fiction — not a blog, but a phenomenon, in which total strangers spontaneously begin creating together. It’s not quite a round robin; RRs are intentional, usually done by skilled (or at least trying) writers. This is different somehow. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The Insurance Fanfic (as I’m calling it; it doesn’t really have a name) is amazing already, and might become more so in time. We’ll see.

Anybody seen a book evoke something like this? I barely have time to read anything “just for fun” these days, but recommendations welcome.

And in the meantime… I’m recommending Journey. The experience is… well, I can’t tell you what it’ll be like. That depends on you, and other players. But maybe you’ll get lucky enough to find someone to create with, and between you, you’ll make it wonderful.

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11 Responses »

  1. I think a lot of books can give the reader a feeling of shared experience with the characters, but what you’re looking for here seems to be more of a shared experience with the *author*. Compare, say, Brandon Sanderson to Patrick Rothfuss — both authors have incredibly detailed worlds and settings, but Sanderson reads (to me) like he’s showing me something cool and clever and interesting while Rothfuss reads (to me) like he’s discovering the magic right alongside me.

    But maybe a better place to look instead of genre fiction is something like what Simone de Beauvoir called “the metaphysical novel,” where intrinsic to the work is the author’s organic (if sometimes rigorous) exploration of the material. The examples that really come to mind for me are the Principia Discordia and Beckett’s “Three Novels” — books the aftertaste of which involves strong notes of “we have come a ways together, you and I.”

  2. This is lovely.

    Theater gets to some of this (theater only exists because of the interaction between stage and audience). Fanfiction has something of it, where people build on each other’s work.

    I have for a long while felt we are feeling our way into a new form of narrative but we are in the very early stages as yet and don’t really comprehend the form it is going to take. And it has to do in part with creating story together.

  3. Continuing to think about this. Maybe another place to look is highly iterative fiction, even where authorship is largely or entirely centralized — something like the webcomic format where the readership/community is involved in shaping the author. Some examples that come to mind are Girls With Slingshots, Dresden Codak, Questionable Content, maybe Homestuck.

  4. Yes! I just happen to have played through my first Journey run a couple of weekends ago. After burning out emotionally on Witcher 3’s Tough Moral Choices, I wanted something with heart that emphasized cooperation and knew of Journey. Totally worth it, delivered on so many levels. Very interesting phenomenon showing that technology can influence how we think and feel, not just in front of a screen but with each other. Nothing is 100% immune from “griefing” but Journey shows a way, one I really hope designers keep exploring. Thanks!

  5. The only book I can think of that did this for me was I Am The Messenger. I can’t say much about it without spoilers, but I highly recommend it.

    In comics, Grant Morrison has a few things that attempt this to various degrees. Multiversity was probably the most successful at it, especially the Ultra Comics issue – lots of talking directly to the reader, lots of “we’re in this together,” things that make you think about all the other people reading the same issue on the very same Wednesday.

  6. Two things…
    First thing: Skyrim Hearthfire is the best way to unwind. That game is my go to distract and immerse game. Sigh.
    Second thing: this isn’t a spontaneous creation, and you may have heard of this group before; but HitRECord is all about collaboration between all types of artists, writers, musicians, etc to create a beautiful end product. https://www.hitrecord.org/

  7. Yes! Yes! Yes! N.K., I just purchased your Inheritance Trilogy last month, and it will be my first book from you in which I will read. I am still very new to you and your writings, but I have a very strong feeling that I will grow to love you because I’ve spontaneously clicked on your page and see that you like my favorite game in the entire world. When I saw that you’ve mentioned “Journey”, my entire face lit up. Finally, someone gets it!! I’ve been telling my co-workers, family and anyone else whom will listen about Journey since I discovered the game in 2013. Like you said, it’s difficult to describe to someone else and I also end up crying towards the end almost every time. Also, as you have mentioned, one of the best parts of the game is the anonymous players who will often help you out without any kind of reward in return. It’s such a super awesome game.
    I am an aspiring speculative fiction writer, and I want that same feeling that washes over me every time I play this game to come through in my writing as well.
    I wish you many blessings and success. Take care.

  8. Roleplaying games are like this as well. Collaborative fictions generated by players. One game I’m lately enamored of is Lame Mage’s Microscope, in which you play with friends to generate a fictional history.

  9. thatgamecompany didn’t disband after Journey. They became independent of Sony, and are now making a new game. So Yay! There’s also a great video by the devs on youtube called ‘Designing Journey’ that shows some of their creative process, if you’re interested in peeking into the sausage factory. :P

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