A cocktail of curiosity and calm
The indie gaming community has grown tremendously in the past decade. As of now, there are almost 50,000 games tagged as ‘indie’ on Steam, and that number keeps rising. Part of that growth has stemmed from great progress in technology by platforms such as Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, and PlayStation Network, which have allowed for more accessibility towards developers, and seemingly limitless imagination in artistic gameplay through strong narratives. It’s just these types of creative freedoms, a penchant for risk-taking, and experimentation with narratives that have made smaller indie game studios the bellwether for upcoming industry trends.
Journey (2012) is one of the most experimental and experiential indie games on the market, still. Even though developer thatgamecompany was funded by Sony, this game carries all the eloquent building blocks of an indie game. After so many years, Journey got a major boost last year, when it was made free to gamers as part of PlayStation’s Global Play At Home campaign, meant to help ease the rigidness of stay-at-home lockdown measures. This exploratory game asks players to discover multiple areas like an expedition, offering a meditative adventure through an ancient and mysterious world.
With reference to ancient and mysterious worlds, in early 2021, Bolverk Studios, a Danish start-up, released Glyph, a colourful and atmospheric 3D platformer for the Nintendo Switch, with a look and feel that stirred up “Journey-esque” emotions for many players. So, what characteristics do Journey and Glyph, two seemingly different games on their surface, share to make them redefine the emotional landscape of gaming?
Primarily, neither are restrained. The philosophical story behind Journey is much more intricate; it focuses on being connected, and selfless. It can even feel bittersweet at times. While playing Journey, it is as if you are reading an adventure book. There is a slow, yet steady build-up. Through each revelation, you commit to the world more and more. It is very fluid. For Glyph, the experience focuses more on curiosity. Jesper Brun Halfter, lead game designer of Glyph explains: “Curiosity is rewarded; a lot of the levels give the player freedom to find out how they want to tackle the challenges, and there is a myriad of ways to get from A to B that players can explore.”
Of course, there are certain rules for both games. For instance, while playing Glyph (your sphere-shaped mechanical scarab) you cannot touch the sand/floor. However, there is no “losing” in either, you need to complete levels at your own pace. Overall, in both games, the variety in motion control refreshingly provides many opportunities. The world is expansive, and you are not limited in action, something we all yearn for globally amidst the pandemic. In both Journey and Glyph, you feel very tiny in the world you escaped to; it is humbling and freeing.
Both games have fairy tale-like designs. The colours and world-building in both games are like watching a Ghibli Studio movie. The worlds are built almost like paintings, with fluidity to the movement that is soothing. Everything blends so well, and from level to level you get absorbed by the story and the world you are in. The world-building forces you to focus on the now, and practice mindfulness. While Journey is a critically acclaimed, almost a decade-old game, Glyph is a newcomer. However, the studio clearly shows they have pulled inspiration from the former, and it has paid off.
Bolverk marketing genie Rasmus Stouby explains: “Our company has that classic but interesting indie story of almost going under and then not and now we are in the thick again, but smarter than last time.”
Another element redefining the emotional landscape of gaming is the intersection of gameplay and music; it is seamless in both games. The meditative music keeps it tranquil and brings you into the zone. In each level, sound effects evolve smoothly reinforcing your patience; the unfolding from level to level adds to the storytelling. Halfter supports this by adding, “Glyph reflects the basic nature of growing up, where some things are very difficult at first, but can evolve into rewarding endeavours if you keep at it.” We can all agree that while growing up with great background music could have helped us all, a little.
Not least of all, the level of immersion is just right for both games; they are challenging yet calming. There is not a lot of pressure as there is no possibility to die/lose. Balance is key in both. While in Journey the camera view position is set for you, in Glyph you are mostly responsible for this. Therefore, orientation could be a bit more challenging for new beginners while playing Glyph, yet in both games, you embrace the adventure.
Both Journey and Glyph are polished, make you feel good, and are very well scoped. They are also a great remedy if you are seeking to improve your mood and relax. Both games increase positive emotion – something we all can use amidst challenging times. The beautiful worlds combined with simple, gameplay, experimentative narratives, and unique world-building show ultimate creative freedom. This fuels love for these indie games whether they are three months old or a decade. All things considered, both Journey and Glyph show that just because you can go bigger doesn’t mean you should when it comes to building a delightfully engaging gaming experience. Sometimes you just need to unplug and immerse yourself in another soothing reality.