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Ambiguous Exposition: Mass Effect 3 and Journey


A look at the juxtaposition of the narrative designs found in two recent releases

Posted by Matthew Sawrey (matski53) on Mar 28, 2012 - 11:23pm EST (Mar 28, 2012 23:23)

Oh narrative, narrative, wherefore art thou narrative?” pondered a wandering, introspective, maroon cloth shrouded silhouette as it traversed the lonely dunes of a vast desert. “Over here, pretentious!” replied the ballsy, bull-headed, N7 armour suited space marine: ‘Sheeplover’ Shepard (my personal commander’s name). And so begins the fan fiction conversation between the protagonists of Thatgamecompany’s Journey and Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 within my head…

For two titles released within a week of each other, they couldn’t have more opposite approaches towards weaving the delicate tapestry that is an interactive narrative. Both are action adventure titles, taking mechanics, structures and ideas from others and moulding them into their own experience. Journey integrates light platforming with visual cues to aid progression and Mass Effect 3 employs a science-fiction twist on Gears of War-style cover shooting with an abundance of dialogue. In addition, both send a central hero on a monumental task of life threatening danger and bravery, but the similarities end there when you begin to consider their diametrically opposed approaches to storytelling.
 
Journey PS3

One is a hinted tale awash with ambiguity and personal interpretation, and the other a well-defined fiction of choice and consequence detailed by reams of exposition. They are both titles at the forefront of videogame narrative design, but in what dimensions are they so different? Does each succeed where the other fails? Many would undoubtedly go as far as to claim that Journey doesn’t truly have a narrative beyond ‘Silent traveler climbs big mountain to reach shiny thing at top’, which is perhaps a valid point should you examine it solely at face value. However there are many others (including myself) who would vehemently oppose such an opinion.
 
Mass Effect 3

Throughout its length Journey is peppered with vagueness. It is entirely wordless, the characters are expressionless puppets and its MacGuffin is an ever-present mystery looming in the distance. This is evident even within its more common narrative devices. The cutscenes depict the near past, present, and future of your adventure, like the ghosts of "A Christmas Carol" all rolled into one, while its lands are littered with 8-bit stylized cave paintings of events, though nothing is ever fully explained. Progression in Journey is never far away from a metaphor, a mythical monument, or a suggestive artifact.

Where it succeeds is in balancing this ambiguity on the teetering edge of bewilderment. Its mechanics and structure raise such a myriad of questions, that by answering them with suggestions rather than definitives, it invites your imagination to run wild. We know the goal is to reach the gleaming beam of light at the summit of this mountain, but for what purpose? We learn how to invigorate the floating cloth creatures with our voice, but what are they and why do they help us? There are so many who’s, what’s, where’s, and why’s left after Journey finishes that you cannot help but inquisitively ponder.
 

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