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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Journey, once called Dragon, was almost rated Teen for being too bloody

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This past weekend Journey celebrated its tenth anniversary—probably the definitive title from thatgamecompany, the game casts players as a mysterious and be-scarfed figure who runs, surfs, and eventually soars through vast, mystical landscapes. It was originally released on March 13 2012 for PlayStation 3 (March 14 in the UK) before finally coming to PC in June 2019, and has received more-or-less universal praise: it is simply a singular experience.

Matt Nava is now the creative director at Giant Squid, developers of ABZÛ and The Pathless, but before this was thatgamecompany’s art director during development of both Flower and Journey. To mark the game’s 10th anniversary Nava shared some behind-the-scenes looks at how particular elements came together, and in the process showed how developers oft weave magical brocades out of cardboard and sticky tape.

Journey “set the course of my career and my art,” writes Nava. “I’m forever thankful to the community of players and their incredible love for the game.” He starts the tour by showcasing the various protagonist designs leading to the final character.

Every character here was playable at one point in an early version of the game. I went from humanoid to very detailed, and back to as minimal as possible. Each iteration was an important step in finding the final design. #Journey pic.twitter.com/i8D8m2jL7UMarch 13, 2022

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One of Journey’s standout moments is what I guess you’d call the surfing level. This is a game with a rhythm to it, and this section comes after the player has been solving puzzles and moving back-and-forth across a previous landscape: here the training wheels come off, so to speak, and you’re given the joy of sliding down giant dunes, scarf trailing. 

Here is how the surfing level looked in our editor. This was one of the most complex levels to build. I spent so much time tweaking the angle, position, and shape of every ramp and gully. #Journey pic.twitter.com/ydreHsr4voMarch 13, 2022

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Perhaps Nava’s most incredible reminiscence is about one of Journey’s visual spectacles, when you’re suddenly running through a building with huge columns as the sun beams brightly in the sky, casting shadows on the ground. Here’s that moment:

#PS4share pic.twitter.com/6chqXrPrdkNovember 14, 2015

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Well, turns out Journey didn’t have automatic shadows: so Nava did it all manually. Those shadows are hand-placed.

Funny story: #Journey had no automatic shadows. I painted them all by hand. The shadow texture was not hi res. To get the iconic sunset columns to cast sharp shadows, I made sure that they aligned with the pixel grid of the texture. Here you can see the shadow map I painted. pic.twitter.com/9KeocwchQ0March 13, 2022

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The only thing in Journey that could be described as an enemy are these weird (and ginormous) stone dragons that turn up later in the game and, throughout some vaguely stealth-based sequences, will try and fly into the player. This is another memorable sequence in a game stuffed with them, and it turns out may have been more central to the concept at one stage: Nava says that an early working title for the game was Dragon.

In early prototypes the bad guys were snake-like dragons before they turned into stone beings. The game was actually codenamed “Dragon” in the very early days. #Journey pic.twitter.com/uzJqJ0C2VqMarch 13, 2022

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The whole thread is full of tidbits about the game: how a level containing scraps of scarf almost got the game a T for Teen rating, because players thought it was blood. How carefully managed the colour palette was across the game’s arc, and Nava’s recollection of the scramble to get the game’s climax right “at the very last minute. I still can’t believe we pulled it off. We scrapped an on-rails version we hacked in that didn’t feel good and got a schedule extension to make it right. Thank goodness.”

And finally, how something designed right at the start ended up being perfect for the end.

Final moment of the game vs a concept I created during one of the very first days of dev, years before. At the time, I didn’t know what the ending would really be. I remember the moment right at the end when we got the timing just right for this. It made the game! #Journey pic.twitter.com/bj5HsGbst5March 13, 2022

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Journey is currently 50% off on Steam until March 17, and there’s nothing like it. The thoughtfulness and craftsmanship that Nava’s memories exude is a big part of why.

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