Multiplayer vs immersion, and Journey

The other day I played a game that did something I wasn’t sure was possible: let me interact with other players without breaking my immersion with the game’s story.

That game is Journey by thatgamecompany, downloadable on the PS3. It places your avatar in a beautiful, wordless landscape and challenges them to reach a mountain they can see in the distance. Soon you begin running into other avatars like your own–these are other players playing the game.

I’ve previously found that any interaction with other players breaks story immersion for me. This isn’t necessarily bad, of course–there are ways to appreciate a game other than being fully immersed in its story–but story immersion is one of the things that I look for as a gamer, and I’ve never been able to get it from multiplayer games. If a game has a story at all, it feels entirely separate from the actions of the other players: I’m interacting with them as other players playing the game, rather than as people who inhabit the world, and that means I’m conscious that it is a game, so I can’t lose myself in the same way that I can in a single-player game.

Before now, the multiplayer game that’s come closest to immersing me in its story is Left 4 Dead. The other players’ avatars still don’t move in natural ways, and my communication with them over voice chat is obviously still out of character, but the game goes to lengths to preserve its ‘in-character’ story despite that. The game characters have automatic in-character dialogue in addition to what the players say, and all the in-game actions make sense from a thematic and in-story point of view.

Journey succeeds on a whole extra level, though, and it does this by removing all out-of-character means of communication, and drastically limiting the selection of actions a player can take. I can run around, fly in a limited way, and ‘sing’, which both alerts the other player to where I am and also activates certain game objects. This ‘singing’ helps players to stay together (which is useful but not essential) and provides as much communication as is really needed to overcome the game’s fairly simple puzzles.

The result is that I didn’t experience any in-character/out-of-character disjoint while playing Journey. The other character, my little avatar’s travelling companion, was all I needed to think about; I wasn’t pulled out of the story by being reminded of the player holding that character’s controller.

Perhaps this is an antisocial way to enjoy a multiplayer experience! But I did enjoy it, more than I do most multiplayer games, and also more than I would have if the travelling companion had been an AI character. Even if it had been a very sophisticated AI, there’s something about knowing you’re travelling with another player that makes the game more special.

Journey has proven for me that multiplayer games need not break story immersion. This limited approach to multiplayer interaction is far from the only good way of doing multiplayer, but it’s a way I hope more games will explore.

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