To Hell, To Heaven, and Back Again

Another post, another warning about spoilers.  Only this time, the warning is a bit more relevant.  The following article discusses the endings of Shadows of the Damned and Journey, two very recent games.  I think everyone should play both of these games, so if you do not want anything spoiled, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Over the previous weekend, I was able to accomplish something I have not had the time (or the focus) to do since college: I completed not just one, but two (COUNT ‘EM, TWO) video games!  The first title that I finished was the over-the-top, and super-gory Shadows of the Damned, while the second was the simple, yet deeply moving Journey.  At first glance, these games have almost nothing in common (save for both being excellent), but upon further reflection, the trials that each of the main characters must face, as well as the outcome of their respective journeys (HA!) are not so different after all.

I must admit, when I first played Shadows of the Damned, I did not plan on seeing it to completion.  It was not that it was a bad game, how could it be?  This title is the love-child of three game developing greats: Suda51 (creator of Killer7), Shinji Mikami (creator of Resident Evil), and Akira Yamoaka (composer of Silent Hill’s soundtracks).  With these titans of gaming at the helm, I knew I was in for a treat.  No, it was the excessive violence and gore that started to deter my progress. 

Now, I am sure many of you are thinking (or shaking your head whilst saying), “But Chip, Shadows of the Damned is a game about gunning your way through the Underworld in order to save your girlfriend from demons.  Surely you didn’t expect the path to be paved with sunflowers and rainbows!”  Well, of course I didn’t, that would be silly.  But it is one thing to have a game where you shoot at stuff and kill your way to victory, and it is another for a title to contain the following elements:

-Almost every headshot follows the bullet trajectory through the cranium, resulting in a gratuitous explosion of grey matter.
-Enemies spawning from pulsing sphincters built into the scenery, or tearing their way out of convulsing near-dead bodies.
-Walls composed of guts and tortured people. 

I could go on, but all of these issues began to turn me off from playing this game.  But Shadows of the Damned handles it in such an over-the-top sort of way that I just couldn’t take offense from any of this.  The dialogue between the hero (who is a stereotyipcal Mexican badass) and his talking demon gun (who is a terribly dry British gentleman) provides a silly banter that breaks the grim environment around them.  Combine this excess of tongue-in-cheek humor with excellent gameplay and variety, and I simply couldn’t stop playing. 

Through the course of Shadows of the Damned I encountered third-person shooting, block-turning puzzle gaming, a bowling minigame, a tower defense set-up, and a side-scrolling space(kind of) shooter.  While most games that pack in such variety tend to be collections of half realized ideas (read: disappointments), Shadows of the Damned manages to provide a satisfying experience with each type of gameplay, and none of these excursions overstay their welcome.

Journey is on the opposite side of the design spectrum from Shadows of the Damned, providing the player with simple gameplay and uncluttered design.  In Journey, you take control of a red-robed traveler, who awakens in a vast desert with little idea of how he/she came to be in such a desolate place.  The only clue that lies before you is a shining beacon at the top of a mountain, far towards the horizon.  So you begin to make your way towards this glowing marker, finding the remnants of a lost civilization as you travel.  Within these ruins you encounter pieces of fabric that float within the air, which are drawn to your own clothing, and provide your character with a scarf that allows them to jump and even fly for short periods of time.  There are no special items to fill an inventory, no health meter or score count to clutter the screen; just your character, a scarf, and the Journey towards the unknown. 

You are not completely alone in this desert, as Journey is a multiplayer game.  As you make your way through each part of the ruins, you may run into another traveler along the way; other players from the online world.  While most games would allow you to use a headset or text message to communicate, the only way to do so is through a musical resonance language that your character may hum at anytime.  The identity (read: Gamer Tag) of the other player will not be known to you until the credits roll.  So the idea of getting to know each other outside the world of Journey is removed from the equation completely, allowing the two of you to focus on helping each other make your way to that mountain in the distance (or not, if you are a jerk).

Just reading the descriptions of these two games seems like they could not be more different, but they share many similarities if you look beyond the basic design elements.  As Garcia Hotspur (the hero of Shadows of the Damned) makes his way deeper and deeper into Hell, he often sees a tower in the distance.  This tower is the castle of the Lord of the Underworld, and serves as the prison where his girlfriend is being held.  Hotspur is forced to endure many trials along the way, most of them involving watching his girlfriend being killed over and over, never being able to fully pass on.  Each time he witnesses these horrors, Garcia is given a glimmer of hope, that maybe he has finally saved his beloved.  And each time she is violently taken from him, and he is forced to continue his way to the tower in the distance.

Similarly, as you complete each area in Journey, the traveler is given time to meditate, and he/she is visited with a vision from the civilization that inhabited these ruins previously.  In each vision, the mountain is closer than before, and the avatar of the past seems to encourage the traveler to carry on.  But as you return from these visions, the mountain still looms far in the distance, and a new set of ruins lies before you to be traversed.

In these two games (along with pretty much every game that ever existed), the player will reach the goal at the end of the road.  Garcia ultimately saves his girlfriend at the top of the tower, and the traveler makes his way to the light at the top of the mountain.  But victory for each character is met with the realization that these quests are part of a cycle that cannot be broken. 

Garcia finds out that his beloved is a demon hunter from the past, who had challenged the Lord of the Underworld and lost.  She was cursed with amnesia, and forced to be the demon’s bride, left with a lingering feeling to want to return to Earth.  After defeating the Lord of the Underworld and returning to his home, Garcia receives a curse of his own.  Hotspur receives a phone call that implies his girlfriend will always be pursued by demons, and he will have to fight his way through Hell over and over again to save her.  In Journey, the traveler passes beyond the gate of light at the top of the mountain, finally being able to rest after an epic march to enlightenment.  But just as he/she crosses into the light, a shooting star bursts forth from the mountain, and travels far above the desert, over each of the ruins you have just crossed, back to… the start of the game.  The star lands, the glow fades, and there your traveler sits, only to wake up and start the Journey again. 

Both of these games find the hero ultimately trapped in a cycle of trials and tribulations, but in each of their quests, the main character learns much about themselves, and the world around them.  Thanks to the demons Garcia faced(both literal and figurative), he learned just how far he would go for love, and how much his feelings are returned by his beloved.  The traveler in Journey discovered a little bit about where he/she came from, and had a glimpse into the mistakes of past civilizations along the way.   Video games can be a way to pass the time or even escape reality, but they can also be excellent means of storytelling that allow a player to learn something about themselves reflected in a fictional character.  What will you learn as you search for lost loves or journey to that place of enlightment?

Personally, I learned that Shadows of the Damned and Journey are both great games.  So maybe you should check them out.

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2 thoughts on “To Hell, To Heaven, and Back Again

  1. […] that the game we played would not only be fun, but relaxing as well.  Thatgamecompany’s Journey was a soothing balm for our wedding-weary brows.  The plot of the game is simple: guide a lone […]

  2. […] gameplay.  The final member of this motley crew is a creation from the director of Killer-7 and Shadows of the Damned, Goichi Suda (Suda51, if you’re nasty).  And despite his track record of grindhouse style […]

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