UC Berkeley linguistics students explore the limitations and the potential of Journey's multiplayer communication system.
Journey is a game of subliminal constructs. Its world serves as an artistic interpretation of basic human emotions--comfort, curiosity, and wonder embrace the warm hues of an arid climate while cold, spartan lands conspire with a seemingly insurmountable feat to suffocate players with fear, despair, and isolation. Its characters are shadows, a reflection of humanity, beings that are relatable in structure, but somewhat foreign in movement; their chirps are oblique sounds that conceal who or what they really are.
It's the vagaries produced by this mode of communication that are of particular interest. To be sure, the alliance of strangers in Journey enhances its intrinsic emotional characteristics--loss, triumph, fear, and even frustration have greater impact when shared with another being, regardless of status. But is there more to glean from the corresponding chatter that occurs amid Journey's windswept, decrepit vistas than what initially appears? Is it a language? Is gender a factor? Is it even complex enough to use as a model for games beyond Journey?
A class of UC Berkeley undergraduate and graduate students tackled these and other topics by viewing a series of short clips (generated and presented by GameSpot) featuring significant exchanges between players at various points in the game. The first video highlighted a very real problem in a virtual world: What happens when one player doesn't engage the other? An obvious answer is that normal social concerns, such as shyness or just plain lack of manners, still pervade communication even when presented in its most basic form. The transition into physical gestures, much like a bird, when audio cues no longer work was also a surprising side effect of Journey's limitations.
From the students' perspective, the first clip served as an introduction, provoking questions about Journey's characters and mechanics and the benefit of playing cooperatively. The second clip illustrated more frequent, but scattered, exchanges that highlighted an interesting quirk in Journey's version of first contact--a momentary standoff where participants size each other up and discover how and why chirps happen.
As bonds form in Journey, so does a more formal use of communication. The third clip revealed the first instance of a goal-based conversation, albeit a foolish one, that developed out of a very basic form of chirps that probably didn't carry any significance without a gesture to add some indication what was about to occur. Also of note: When one player recognized the folly, there was an effort to bring attention to a secondary objective by using repeated, short chirps--one of the most frequent and easily identifiable uses of Journey's communication system. The students also made note of the need for positive and negative tones to establish commonalities that are essential for language.
Outside of its bond-forming qualities, the most stirring argument for Journey's implementation of sounds as its primary interaction tool is the articulation of specific needs. The following segment was a primary example--one player not only stopped the other from proceeding through the level, but also conveyed a precise request. This was also the first instance of replication: players attempting to map phrases like "thank you" and "you're welcome" to Journey's chirps via syllable counts. But were the students convinced that this could develop beyond trophy acquisition and similarly straightforward goals into more complex exchanges?
There was some agreement that common goals create a space for chirps to exist in a meaningful way, but what was the significance of players chatting without an explicit task at hand? Was this communication, or was it a metagame that formed to fill what was admittedly a slower-paced slice of the game. Additionally, from that, was it possible to identify gender? It's frequently cited that males are highly competitive in gaming scenarios, so could we infer that the desire to create a "bigger" sound was representative of often-generalized gender characteristics?
A Broken Bond
The final clip was selected as a display of how communication and emotion intertwine in Journey, specifically in reference to sadness--at the end of the clip, a player musters two solemn chirps, lamenting the loss of the other player within the gameworld. At this point, it was clear to the class that much of the interpretation was merely a projection of the thoughts and language abilities of the player holding the controller at the time. The session concluded with several questions posed to the students. How much of the chirping is deliberate communication? How much of it is instinct? Is this more like the way babies talk?