The Review: The Art of Journey

Illustrator Matthew Nava provides insight into the design behind the truly intuitive game, Journey.


Matthew Nava came to hear about the Journey project in his first job interview with thatgamecompany back when Flower was still a work in progress. Jenova Chen, thatgamecompany’s creative director, asked Nava what he thought “an online multiplayer game in which people could develop meaningful bonds of friendship” would look like.  How do you even answer such an open-ended question like that? Nava’s response sums up the art of what was then just an idea of a game. “I told him that I thought two tiny characters in a harsh setting, something like a giant desert… would only have one option: to become friends.”

It’s well known that the games produced by Chen, Nava and their colleagues have all been more emotive than the average games circulating the shelves at GameStop and Best Buy these days. From reading through “The Art of Journey” it’s clear that, at least for Nava, the game is just as much about the atmospheres one can only create in a digital world as it is about the story. He strove to create a game that was not just cross-cultural, but completely ambiguous in terms of character, architecture, and landscape. The game would be played globally and the team at thatgamecompnay wanted to make sure the game could function the same for everyone from Ohio to Indonesia. Even the music is designed to be familiar but altogether something you cannot place within a certain time-period or culture. The result isn’t entirely new so much as a somewhat ethnic mishmash.

“The Art of Journey” is a way to see deeper into the creation of Journey and get to the core of what Nava strove to create. It is crystal clear just how much time, sweat and love Nava put into this game. As he wrote his game design documents, environment and atmosphere within game play were of paramount importance. Each building, landscape, and even the light was colored so as to evoke an emotive reaction. It’s as if Nava questions what it means to be dust and how it feels to be the color indigo when backlit by the setting sun. It has to be said: the artwork is stunning. The result is not an entirely new landscape but rather a place nostalgic for a lost world. Exploring Journey is comparable to discovering Atlantis or a dreamscape that you always knew existed in your heart but are only just now exploring.

As a companion to the game, “The Art of Journey” tries to assert itself as a coffee table book, large and heavy — with the added bell and whistle of augmented reality to make pages come alive with, say, flying dragons. Unfortunately, the narrative isn’t quite as impressive. Nava repeats himself as he introduces each section (character, architecture, color, etc.). He paints himself as a thorough researcher and overworked artist. Again and again he claims the importance of ethnic ambiguity and his attempt to establish a universal language. No offense Nava, you’ve done an awesome job, but I would rather read about specific influences than broad generalizations. Instead I have to look to the hundreds of illustrations for clues and need a hearty background in art history to examine the overall importance of your research. It is not often we find deftly-created, popular games based on quiet friendship rather than barbarous bloodlust. It’s a trope that’s harder to pull of than the clichés of violence, and hopefully Journey will have a positive impact on the market for games, even hard core games.

As the writing and artwork unfold page by page, it becomes apparent that the avatar is fascinating not simply because his robes flow zen-like in the wind. It’s because the final rendition comes out of a universality we all find in movement. The avatar’s emotions are visible only through the swaying cloth surrounding the vaguely humanoid creature. A word that Nava uses is ‘dynamic cloth” as if the movement of the cloth has a life of its own. The tail that extends down the back of the veiled, dress-wearing, cat-like creature flows with movement and with the wind in the desert. The other creatures your avatar will interact with in the game look like empty cloth wrappings – as if the creature would be invisible if the decorative cloth wrapping it wasn’t there. The ‘dynamic cloth” has a breath to it, bringing life to each creature without assigning the usual hassles like race, sex, or level of evil within them.

Much of the artwork is heavily influenced by Greek, Islamic, and Japanese culture. Nava says that he, “created a set of rules for Journey in which <he> blended elements of these styles with <his> own motifs and designs.” He says the result was something entirely new but as Truman said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.” Much of his architecture, specifically the tower the players climb in the book’s desert chapter in the book resembles the architectural impossibilities of M.C. Escher’s illustrations. “Procession in crypt,” “Ascending and Descending,” and “Belvedere” all resemble the vaguely European and Arabic influenced architecture used by Escher and Nava alike. That being said, I don’t think Nava or Journey needs an entirely new yet familiar environment to be successful. Those are extremely high standards and I don’t think Nava needed to have put so much emphasis on them. But I am glad he pushed himself and his team to create something that is truly a monumental step forward in the visceral experience of game play. To explore Journey is to explore movement, light, and color. It is truly a singular thing.

Annatruus Bakker is one of the Critics Circle’s talented interns.  She is a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts where she wrote plenty of art criticism and made a lot of art.

Leave a Reply