I got two story-based single-player games for my birthday, The Journey and Catherine. The games make an interesting comparison, so I will write about them both at the same time, although I am far from finishing Catherine.
The Journey is the rare example of an arts game that becomes an immediate bestseller. It is abstracted to the extreme: just as Shadow of the Colossus, The Journey takes a few interaction elements from the singleplayer genre, slims them down and refines them to the extreme, and integrates them into a hauntingly beautiful graphical and audial setting. There is very little you can do in The Journey. There are very few enemies and the ones that exist you cannot fight, only free from. The puzzles are few and simple. There are no dialogue trees to choose within as there is no dialogue at all, even though there is a cryptic backstory that gets revealed through graphical cutscenes throughout the game.
Instead, the gameplay experience in The Journey is completely based on how it feels to move in the game. You are travelling through a barren desert landscape, initially just walking. Almost immediately, you find out that it is easier to walk in some directions where you can slide with the sand; in other directions the sand and wind will instead work against you. Soon, you also learn to jump and to fly, creating an enormous feeling of empowerment and freedom. But when the problems start to mount, you lose your abilities and must struggle forward against wind, sand, and snow.
The ability to jump and to fly is very often used in games to make players feel powerful; just think about the double-jump from the platformers. The feeling is particularly liberating when it comes after being earth-bound. I remember Black and White in which you were cast as a god over the villagers on a small island. But for being a god, you were rather crippled: your avatar was a huge hand, and you moved through the landscape as a clumsy five-fingered crab. If you got enough worshippers, they could give you the ability to fly, at least momentarily. After hours of earthbound struggling, the feeling was exhilarating.
The Journey casts the player as a hero throughout the game. Although it is a bit unclear what you are expected to accomplish, it is clear that you are not guilty for the problems depicted in the back story, but that you can help. From this perspective, it is interesting to note that The Journey can be played together with other players. If you play online, you get paired with another player to complete the game together. You cannot talk to each other, but you can help each other and you can play simple music together. This wordless interaction creates the strongest sense of togetherness that I have ever experienced in a game. It reminds me slightly of the very rare occasions in World of Warcraft when I collaborated with a player of the opposite faction, and the communication was almost as restricted. In line with the rest of the game, the collaboration is slimmed down and refined to its purest essence in The Journey, creating a much stronger emotion than in WoW.
Catherine can be seen as the very opposite of The Journey. The best way to describe its genre is as a survival horror platformer. The player is cast in the role of Vincent, who is having strange nightmares and a strong fear of women, and finds himself cheating on his long-term girlfriend. (I have mixed feelings about the misogynic theme of the game, but it is still a great game.) From the very start of the game, the story generates a feeling of guilt, as Vincent feels a bit guilty for his reluctance to commit himself to his long-term girlfriend. The feeling of guilt is reinforced throughout the first part of the game, as Vincent gets more and more entangled in a web of lies and threats.
Catherine consitst of a mix of quite extensive cut-scenes, some scenes in which you can walk around and interact with characters in the game, and a puzzle-solving platform game mechanic. The latter occur primarily in dream scenes, and consist of a timed puzzle in which you must find a way to climb upwards on a wall, where the lowest part keeps falling off and you sometimes are hunted by a monster. Catherine is not about flying but about falling, or rather, the fear of falling. If you fall you die, even if it is in a dream. Just as in The Journey, Catherine offers no enemies that you can fight – all you can do is to flee from them to survive. But there is no game element that creates a sense of power and freedom in Catherine – at least not as far as I have played.
A nice touch in Catherine is that your character doesn’t level. You never get any lasting powers, although you can find or buy temporary power-ups. Even so, you do get a feeling that you are getting slightly more empowered, if only through the fact that you are learning how to solve the puzzle.
Finally, just as The Journey, Catherine offers an online element. In line with its horror theme, it is one that breaks the fourth wall, directing itself directly towards the player. Throughout the game, the player gets to answer questions related to his or her ethics, and the results are compared to what other players have answered. (At the point where I am now, these questions seem to have nothing to do with the game at all, but this might change later in the game.) Ultimately, Catherine is a game about ethics and morals, and interpret this element as an attempt to create a bleed effect.
(I need to finish off this sequence of blog posts on single-player games soon, to get to more juicy stuff on role-play. But there is at least one more post to go.)