Join us all month as our staff looks back at the most influential games of the past decade. This is not a list of our favourite games but rather a look back at the games that left the biggest impact in the last ten years on an artistic and cultural level. After careful consideration, we narrowed it down to ten games that have most defined, influenced and shaped the industry as we know it.
Thatgamecompany’s 2012 Playstation 3 exclusive, Journey, is a work of art. Arguably, many games are, but Journey entered into the cultural conversation and presented something new that caught the attention of the world, opening doors for countless other creators to walk through and building a game that moved audiences across the globe.
In 2006, Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago founded thatgamecompany, an independent game studio created with the intention to make a new type of game that focussed on an emotional experience for the user. Chen described the industry as he saw it to the New Yorker, “Right now, most games feel like summer blockbuster films, all explosions and crappy dialogue. A big part of the games industry still hasn’t figured out how to give players something new. That’s what I want to do.” (New Yorker, Aug 2013).
Based on the design success of their first small game, Flow, thatgamecompany was contracted to re-release a new build of Flow and create two other original games for Sony’s then-fledgling Playstation Network. Flow was a modest success to be followed by their first truly original game for Sony, an innovative and contemplative game called Flower, a kind of spiritual successor to Flow that had players simply exploring beautiful fields of flowers, as a flower. It was another success, this time both critically and commercially, and the stage was set for thatgamecompany’s most ambitious project, Journey, a kind of summation of thatgamecompany’s earliest experiment.
Critically adding games producer Robin Hunicke to the mix, Journey was set to be born, but it was a difficult path to bring this industry-shaking game to life. By all accounts, Chen was obsessed with nailing down a game that truly delivered an emotional impact. Eventually, the company asked for extensions and ran out of money in the noble pursuit, but finally got Journey out the door to enormous critical and fan acclaim, garnering countless gaming awards in the process.
The game that was crafted looks simple enough on paper, but it changed what felt possible in video games. In Journey, you guide a mysterious and unspeaking character across a desert towards a mountain peak. You can walk, jump, and sing. The landscape that you traverse is stunning, bold flowing colors and billowing shapes form and intermingle to create a uniquely stylized world. As you move forward, you wordlessly encounter other online players throughout the world on your titular journey, passively helping or simply encountering or traveling with one another and moving forward and moving together – or not. It is all accompanied seamlessly by a haunting, evocative, and award-winning score crafted by Austin Wintory, a musical environment that feels like another character in itself, reacting to your progression with rising cadences and swirls.
It all comes together beautifully. Journey’s great achievement is the sum of its aesthetics and philosophy. Every element builds towards something greater, ineffable, even. What it truly achieves is a sense of wonder and connection. Chen’s vision was made real, the audience feels something.
The result is a phenomenal experience for the gamer, and the audiences and critics agreed. Journey’s achievements pulled thatgamecompany back from its financial brink into a resounding success, and now Chen and Hunicke continue to shape some of the world’s most innovative games in the industry.
What Chen, Hunicke, and thatgamecompany created is something greater than the sum of its parts, an interactive experience that truly moved people. While many arguments can (and should) be made for video games as art, this was the first that so many gamers and critics agreed upon. Journey readied the industry for countless other independent designers and artists to continue experimenting within the form of video games in order to push against its perceived boundaries.
As Chen had hoped, Journey did give players something new. It changed hearts and minds and made its audience feel something, and in the end, that is what art does.