Shall we take a trip?

I was quite critical of Sony’s E3 conference this year, partly because it seemed to drag on forever but also because it showed very little that interested me. It spent plenty of time talking about Move, included a self-indulgent section with internet favourite Kevin Butler which amounted to little more than a series of pot-shots at the opposition, took the time to introduce a faintly desperate marketing campaign for PSP, and showed absolutely nothing on PlayStation Network bar the fact that users will have to shell out for a premium version of the service.

Tucked away somewhere in a room that few people knew about (having tried and failed to contact Sony’s PRs several times, ultimately I didn’t find out where until it was too late) was a game which could have completely saved the conference in my eyes. That game was Journey, pictured above.

Journey is the latest from Flower/flOw creator thatgamecompany, the third title in a three-game publishing deal this tiny but mighty independent developer has forged with Sony. Much like its previous work, it blurs the lines between ‘game’ and ‘experience’, focusing on a hooded character heading across a vast desert landscape towards a mountain with a mysterious light emerging from its peak. Like its predecessors it uses very few buttons on the controller, with gentle tilts of the Sixaxis guiding the game’s camera, and a single button used to make your avatar ‘sing’. This is used to communicate with other players who are hiking through the landscape at the same time. Synchronise your button-pressing with a fellow adventurer and you can harmonise. Alternatively, you can create patterns in the sand. Assuming other people’s actions affect the landscape for everyone else, you can probably expect to see a few giant phalluses as you’re trekking through the desert.

An arthouse MMO, then? Sort of, but stripped down almost entirely to focus on the exploration. It’s a monster-, loot- and stat-free world. There are a few environmental puzzles to negotiate, but otherwise it’s just you and a vast expanse of sand – and any companions you’ve brought along for the trip.

The idea of non-verbal communication is certainly an interesting one, as it will likely force players to be creative in the way they relay messages to each other. It will obviously help maintain the ambience and atmosphere that have been such key factors in the success of Flower and flOw.

Perhaps its subtleties were too difficult to convey in a packed and expectant auditorium more used to booms and bangs than something this cerebral. But it’s a pity Sony didn’t see fit to even pay it lip service during its press briefing. I can only hope that, now the publisher is finally making a profit on each PS3 sold, it uses some of that money to invest in creative endeavours from progressive minds like this.

I also hope it spends a bit extra in telling the world all about them. At a time when the medium is coming under closer scrutiny than ever before from the mainstream, it would highlight the fact that gaming isn’t all about blood, guts and guns. There’s still plenty of room for the Bulletstorms and the Rages of this world, but it would be nice if the world saw something to counterbalance the blinkered idea that gaming is an exclusively adolescent pursuit.

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