I’ll never forget the first time I played Travel.
Throughout the game, real players can join you on your quest to a mountain on the horizon. Players can jump in and out of your adventure – maybe they want to go faster than you, maybe they just give up – but in the second half of my game I had found someone who stayed with me. Travel has no voice or text chat and no identifying names of other players you meet. The only way we could communicate was through our movements, by sticking together to recharge each other’s energy and by singing chirps. Despite these limitations, we built a relationship.
Towards the end of Travel, you have to climb the mountain, and as you approach the top, you get caught in a storm. Much of the game is filled with sunlight, flight, and happy music, but the mountain is gray, the winds shake your character, and the music is uncomfortable at times. Even though the level was running out I was glad to have my mate and we hugged each other as we walked to the top.
Eventually the music fades and you can only hear your footsteps marching slower and slower through the elements. Then, as the game died down, my friend collapsed in the snow. In fact, I cried out in dismay. Then my character also fell and the screen went blank.
In many video games, you often die. It’s the only time a virtual death has made me feel like I’ve actually lost a friend.
Fortunately, this is not really the end. In a cutscene, I was resurrected shortly after I fell, then, in an exuberant celebration of color and music that is perhaps my all-time favorite video game “level”, I climbed to the top of the mountain – with my once fallen friend flying by my side.
Travel turns 10 today, March 13, and I still haven’t experienced anything like this. To mark the anniversary and learn more about the game’s multiplayer mode, I spoke with Jenova Chen, President and Creative Director of Travel developer thatgamecompany. While it might seem like the game effortlessly pairs you with companions as you go, from what he told me, it wasn’t that simple.
The goal for Travel was “to innovate how it feels between people on the internet,” Chen said. “Can we invent the right environment, the right feedback, to bring out something that we are more proud of? What about having an online game where people feel friendly and compassionate towards each other? He elaborated later in our conversation. “We want to see two people go through the journey together, [like when] in our life, we meet someone special, and we travel with them, and eventually, we might separate from each other.
While this was a profound ideal, “the reality is this: human beings, unfortunately, are giant babies in the virtual world,” Chen said. “No matter how old you are, even if you are over 70, if we move you from Earth to virtual space, [that person] would become a giant baby. A baby does not know what is good moral value and what is bad moral value. The baby just knows: if I’m in a new environment, I’ll try to push the buttons and see what kind of feedback I can get, and babies are good at seeking maximum feedback.
To encourage compassion, the team tested many ideas. They tried a system inspired by armament of war it allowed you to help an incapacitated friend, but found that even in game testing among developers, the player would rather not help the other person. “That way they create a lot of anxiety in the other player and make them more angry. And they actually get more satisfaction from the feedback,” Chen said.
They also tested a mechanism where one person could push the other high, and then that person would shoot first. “But once we gave this physics simulation to the players, they chose to push themselves off the wall and watch them fall off the cliff and die, waiting to be helped,” Chen said.
During these tests, people said, “I prefer to play this game on my own. Why are you forcing me to play with this other person? I hate them,” according to Chen. That’s because “killing is much more important feedback than just helping the other person up a ledge,” Chen said.
The challenges of making these mechanisms work affected Chen. “At the time, I was like, ‘Is the humanity at its heart just dark?'” he said. But a child psychologist helped Chen see things in terms of how babies perceive feedback. “If you don’t want babies to do something terrible, don’t give them any feedback,” he recalled learning from her. “Don’t give them negative feedback because they’ll interpret it as positive feedback.”
This led to a change that would have a huge effect on the game: when you get close to someone, you recharge their energy. (In the end game, you use your energy to fly.)” And that makes people feel like, “Oh, I like to stay close to someone because I don’t have to run for the energy” , he said. “So they end up staying together, and they travel together, and they form a company. It was just a simple change. Assholes who want to kill each other and dance around their corpse, creating hatred, to “hey, they’re all in love, they help each other and they couldn’t leave each other”.
The team also had to experiment to land on musical tweets that players can use to communicate with each other. They tried a “thumbs up and down idea” where you could push the controller up to show a green ping and push it down to show a red ping. But in testing, the majority of pings were red because players spammed them to invite their partner to do whatever they wanted, which created a sense of stress.
“Eventually we realized it was better to stay neutral,” Chen said. “And then we let the frequency and the amplitude [of the ping] be interpreted by the other player. But we’ve noticed that when we don’t add context, people generally interpret the other person’s intent positively. I think it’s deep in our human nature.
Although the chirp is intended to be neutral, it is not static noise. It’s almost like a musical instrument, and its sound evolves throughout the game, Travel told me the composer Austin Wintory. “At the very start of the game, it’s very birdy, and there’s flute and little cello bits,” he said. But during the game you will hear more of a human voice in this sound. “So by the time you’re in the clouds and the really big final, especially if you’re doing one of the big loads [pings], you can really hear that there is a human voice in there. (The human voice used in the pings is Lisbeth Scott, who sings Travel of credits.)
Humanity in the design of Travel, from the human voice in the tweets to the multiplayer design that encourages co-op is a big part of what makes the game memorable to me. As I climbed the mountain with my mate the first time I played the game, I now realize that even though I may have been huddled close to my friend trying to share my energy, deep down from me, I just wanted to do whatever I could to help them up that mountain – and I knew they were doing the same for me.
Before talking to Chen and Wintory, I replayed Travel for the first time since its release. Despite how much I love the game, I always worried that another race would change how I feel about it. I was so afraid of how it might distort my memories that I was actively procrastinating to play it.
To my surprise, the experience was just as powerful. Ten years later, there are still people playing Travel, and I met four other companions who were part of my adventure. I even made a new friend who stayed by my side throughout the snowy climb to the top of the mountain – and the joyful flight to the top.
Travel is available on PS3, PS4, PS5, PC and iOS. Composer Austin Wintory has also just released a reorchestration of the Travel soundtrack performed by the London Symphony Orchestra entitled “Voyageur – A Symphony of Travel.” I listened to it and found it very good.