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On Harmonious Communication, with Examples from Journey

July 22, 2012

Video games, like all media, are about communication. To some, games are about having fun, which is, ostensibly, not about communication. Yet I would suggest in response to that view that even games that are simply meant to be ‘fun’ are still communicating with the player—and I don’t think that that’s hard to see. Probably the most prominent example of ‘mindlessly fun’ games are FPS and war-based games, and do these not contain messages about perspectives on war, combat, and killing? But even if you can pull up an example of a game that contains no obvious messages (perhaps some arcade-type games like Bejeweled fall into this category?), the game still communicates the rules of the world it creates, and provides feedback to the player, effectively communicating either, “You understand the rules of this universe”, or “You do not understand the rules of this universe”. And typically such messages are not quite as overt: they manifest as, respectively, increases in points and nice jingles, and point decreases and Game Over screens.

So may we be in agreement that games communicate with the player in at the very least a trivial manner? Understanding that games do this (just as films, music, television, visual art, and performance art do) is important because it prepares us to explore both the messages that a game presents and the effectiveness of their presentation. But given that this is certainly a multi-faceted issue, I wish to step away from the general and move toward the specific. In particular, I would like to discuss harmony in game communication.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will understand ‘harmony’ to mean “consistency, accord, or agreement”. And in particular, we will understand ‘harmonious communication’ to mean “a presentation of messages which are consistent, accordable, or in agreement both in the content of the message and the way in which they are presented”. Already I fear two things regarding this topic: first, it may already seem too theoretical and will thus become entirely intangible, and second, that this topic, though more specific than ‘game communication’ as a whole, is still too large to be covered in a single essay. Regarding both fears, I will state clearly now that I will be touching on only a fragment of the topic and will do so with specific examples from Journey, since just today I’ve gone through the game taking notes with this in mind. A more thorough examination of harmonious communication in video games would be nice, but I’ll leave that for the future.

To begin now, I will make known my own view of harmonious communication in games. Put simply, I believe not only that harmonious communication is effective, but that effective communication is, by and large, harmonious. Thinking abstractly, I can imagine there being cases in which discordance among messages may communicate something rather clearly, but I believe that most games either fall into the category of harmonious messages or disharmonious and conflicting messages. I will not sufficiently back that claim at this time, however.

Why do I believe this to be so? That’s a difficult question to answer, and I only have guesses. My best guess is that it’s because subtle messages are more interesting to me than overt ones, since they provide a reward for keen observation and thoughtful consideration. Awareness is a Good Thing as far as I’m concerned, and encouraging it with rewards is, then, also Good. So if a subtle message is not supported by other messages, it can be easily seen as a misunderstanding on the part of the player, and may be consequently dismissed or else overlooked. Additionally, several subtle messages working together may produce a more powerful, clearer message. With so many things works toward the same goal, their purpose is undeniable, and we can be sure of what the message is.

Let’s move now to our case study, Journey. As we discuss it, we’ll assemble a list of messages that the developers have communicated to us along the way. Frankly, the list is overflowing, so we’ll only discuss a few messages and the way that they support one another.

In Journey, it’s very clear from the beginning that your goal is to head toward the cloven, glowing mountain in the distance. How do we know that? Well, the first thing that we do in the game is climb up a large dune, at which point the camera lifts upward, revealing the mountain in the distance. The camera pauses with this frame and ‘JOURNEY’ fades into the screen above the mountain. From this scene alone—not 30 seconds into the game—we already have two messages that will return later in the game:

  1. The mountain is a Good thing (and we want to go there).
  2. When we pause on something, it means that it’s important.

As we progress forward through the desert, we come across ruins and cloth ribbons that grant us the ability to float and fly briefly. Wind plays a prominent role in these areas, creating an atmosphere of shifting and blowing sand, and drawing our attention by causing the ribbons to flap in the breeze, effectively waving at us, calling us over. We once again add some messages to our list:

  1. Ribbons give us the power to fly.
  2. We activate ribbons by singing.
  3. Wind draws our attention.

Onward we go, being led by flying ribbon creatures. They beckon to us with their voices, guiding us as we go. We see them as helpful, Good. And noting that, we actually already see harmony in the messages: just as we activate ribbons by singing (and in the case of the living ribbon creatures, drawing them near to us), they interact with us by singing. Hence, we find continued support for messages 3 and 4. We also add some messages:

  1. Ribbon creatures are Good.
  2. (Therefore, since they enable us to fly) Flying is Good.
  3. The voice and singing is Good.

All throughout this, at the end of each stage, we also sit down to meditate (2 perhaps?). And in so doing, we receive visions of a Godlike being communicating with us, telling us a story in glyphs. To begin, he always sings a single note, making it clear to us that voice (messages 4/8) is important in this world. And in the stories we see the birth of all life through the mountain raining down glowing symbols onto the earth (supporting the goal in message 1), we see the robed figures drawing power from and abusing the ribbon’s power (thus using message 6 to indicate that this is an evil act), and each story fragment ends with a pause on the final glyph (message 2). So we have another:

  1. The robed race has committed evil by abusing nature.

Not long after this, we reach a point in which we are entirely surrounded by the ruins of the past civilization shown in the glyphs. After a nice sliding ride through the sand, we fly off an edge, down into a city buried in the ground. As we fly, the camera follows us downward. And although off in the distance we see the mountain, our goal (message 1), it is quickly eclipsed by the towers and building of the robed race (9) until we are entirely underground, completely out of sight from the mountain, the giver of life (here a violation of message 1).

Let’s take a brief pause (2!) now to see what we have so far. We see harmony in the view of nature: the mountain, which gives life, is Good (1), wind is used to our advantage to grab our attention (3), living ribbons are Good (6), and singing is Good (5/7). Thus, from these three messages we can create a more generalized message:

  1. What is natural is Good and should be treated with respect.

Furthermore, we see the robed race violating nature (59) and failing to respect, and downright ignoring the mountain (1). So we see that message 9 is well supported thus far by an harmonious violation of a set of harmonious messages. Let’s continue.

At this stage, in the sunken city, we finally encounter the mechanical flying dragons that were shown in the glyphs. We see them seek out and destroy ribbons and ribbon creatures (violating 6 by destroying the ribbons and 7 by using flight to accomplish this). Additionally, if dragons attack us, we lose part of our scarf and with it part of our ability to fly, further violating 7. Thus we may conclude that:

  1. Mechanical dragons are Evil.

What support do we have for this? Well, they were created by the robed race in their abuse of the ribbon power (6/9) and the sounds they make aren’t in musical harmony (8). Further, these dragons, we are told through glyphs, were used in war between groups of robed men to kill one another (violating 10). Clearly, there is sufficient support for this message, and there is no discordance with previous messages.

In the final section of the game, in the snowy mountain, we reach a long field of snow and a violent storm, cutting us off from the glowing summit. The wind (5) throws us as we try to march forward. Our voice (8) is quieted by the cold, by fatigue. The wind tears off our scarf (5/7). When the thunder and the wind abate, we still trudge onwards, but now more slowly, and slower still. The snow falls silently around us as we take each laborious step toward the summit. The moment never seems to end (2). Until finally, we stop. And collapse into the snow.

So what’s the message here? Nature is supposed to be Good, but hasn’t it struck us down here, violating itself? Perhaps, but as I mentioned before, deliberate violation of a message (discordance) may be a useful tool to draw attention. And it certainly has. In this case, though, we do appear to learn that this is not truly a violation of the messages. In our near-death, we receive a vision of 6 Godlike figures standing over us. And through their power, our scarf is returned to full length, the snow is shaken from our cloak, and we are thrust into the air, flying upward through a safe passage through the storm clouds. Around us fly mechanical dragons, following us upwards. And as we burst through the top of the clouds, we finally see sunlight, we see the summit ahead, and we see that the mechanical dragons are now made of cloth. It is abundantly clear that the summit, this mountain, is Good and holy, cleansing away what is bad and restoring what is good.

And in this support for message 1, an explanation for the violent storm below the summit comes together: since the summit is holy, it should not be infiltrated by evil men and evil mechanical beings. The storm acts as a gateway: those who are Evil will fall and be prevented from entering, and those who are Good will be restored for their Goodness and their faith and determination in continuing on their journey. So although the storm kills, it still acts in a Good way and thus does not violate the message (10) about the Goodness of nature.

The holy summit, then, is filled with all that is Good: ribbons, ribbon creatures, and an abundance of flight and singing. When we finally reach the very top of the mountain, the source of the glow, our steps slow down once again. But this time it is not because of the cold but because of a respect for this holy place. Entering the crevice, bathed in white light, we stop onward slowly (2) until our journey is complete and we burst forth from the mountain, a shooting symbol, flying (7) through the air ready to being life anew (1).

Remarkable, is it not? Among all these messages (and countless others that I omitted), there remains a noticeable harmony: messages support one another completely, building up generalizations and communicating, in their violation or further support, additional messages. And we are not necessarily conscious of all of these things. For one, the killing nature of the mechanical dragons would seem to us naturally bad anyway. But that’s exactly the point here: in addition to all the messages that Journey explicitly communicates about its own world, we also see harmony in the messages that make sense in our world. Thus, these messages seem very naturally harmonious to us, and we automatically understand and accept some of the things that are communicated to us, which makes it easier to see and understand the new, unfamiliar messages.

So it is in this harmony that we see an effective communication of ideas (the over-arching ones, morals, and conclusions I’ll leave you to discern for yourself) that support one another completely. And in this harmony is crafted a space to be affected by and explore these messages. By contrast, it would be difficult to feel a sense of wonder and awe and victory upon reaching the summit if it were not clear that cloth creatures are good, that mechanical creatures are bad, and that flying is a joyful, rewarding gift. Yet that’s exactly what we feel, and I would argue that it’s because of this harmonious communication.

And now, I feel, we have discussed this topic to a sufficient length and should swiftly wrap up our discussion. I think it would serve my point well to provide examples of where disharmonious communication causes a breakdown in meaning and a weakening of the persuasiveness of the message. And to that end, I would refer you to Jonathan Blow’s talk, Design Reboot, in which he discusses some interesting (and discouraging, I think) things about present game design and what we might do to fix it. The most relevant portion, regarding conflicting messages in BioShock, begins at 32:54. He provides a very tangible example of where conflicting messages harm the potency of the developers’ intended message.

We’ll leave it there, then. I hope that this discussion has been thought-provoking. I welcome your responses, and would very much enjoy discussing this topic further, so please feel free to comment below and let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

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