When Journey began and I was plopped down in the sand, briefly shown how to manipulate the camera, and then set free in the desert. Traditional tropes we associate with teaching us rules (complicated button layouts, explicit tutorials, wacky sidekicks demonstrating perplexing mechanics) seemed deliberately absent from Journey’s visage. It was as if the development team at thatgamecompany regarded established means of instruction as a potent barrier of entry. The closest association I can think of is the niche of runners whom believe shoes are an obstruction to a human’s natural stride. An alternative seems unwieldy because we have had the rules beaten into our heads for most of our lives, but what if a change in approach was actually for the better?
Consider the concept of death in games. Failure by death is almost always employed as a baseline to judge whether or not a player is skilled enough to continue the trials and tribulations ahead. Plenty of games have played around with this formula, but few have completely removed it from the equation. Though it contains numerous sequences of moderately challenging platforming and some foreboding instances of danger, you cannot die in Journey. Not because it wants to be easy or accessible, but rather because the concept of death is completely alien to the presented experience. Like adding oil to water, death is irrelevant to Journey’s purpose and conceptually indifferent to its alien world.
Journey’s setting is as much a main character as your shrouded avatar, and both delight in being exceptionally vague. Save the credits, I don’t think a single word ever crosses the screen. Journey deals its narrative exclusively in presentation, allowing the lack of exposition to serve as a warm invitation to exploration. The singular driving force is a giant mountain affixed to the horizon, and while each area is ultimately linear it’s also filled with artifacts of a lost civilization. Collapsed structures, cryptic hieroglyphics, and bits of preservation are all sequestered in the surrounding sand. By the end a tangible resolution is certainly achieved, though what happens along the way is completely (and delightfully) open to the player’s interpretation.
Journey’s mechanics (we are still talking about a game here) are far more accessible than the vague world they inhabit. Your character can walk and talk, and uses these abilities to uncover sentient bits of cloth floating about the world. If you stumble upon a piece of cloth that glows white, it will become a part of your scarf and enable your character to jump higher and longer. Other bits of cloth seem trapped in cages, and by chirping your character can release them. From there cloth has a myriad of uses, almost all for the purpose of guiding the player toward the defined end of each level.
While significantly more complex than the single button entities of flOw and Flower, Journey is still relatively simple and remains satisfying on an interactive level. Sliding down dunes and bursting up in the air is oddly gratifying, and Journey packs enough detail into its dark corners to justify its playful ballet. Skill may come into play if one desires to move through the levels quickly, but even when a jump is missed or some other obstacle is botched, failure feels like a word left out of Journey’s vocabulary.
Journey also happens to have one of the more interesting and risky approaches to multiplayer. Somewhere toward the middle of the game I had gotten up to use the restroom, and when I returned I discovered my character had sat down to meditate – and that another person just like me was there doing the same thing. There was no voice chat or text input and no way of communicating save the chirp used to awaken cloth pieces. Unsure really of what to do (because when has anything like that ever happened), I got up, and then my anonymous best buddy rose and followed. I was never too interested in following the straight and narrow, and he or she was content to explore along with me. During a rather involving platforming sequence we made the habit of chirping to let the other know if one of us fell down. When that happened I would jump down to rejoin person and he or she would always do the same for me when I made a mistake. Our individual motives were obscured, but we were on the journey together spawned a vague but mutually recognized sense of camaraderie unlike anything else I have ever played.
I don’t think our shared fondness for play was an accident. Meeting this person and subconsciously being aware that I would never know who they were (at the time – Journey slips your friend’s PSN ID after the credits roll) or interact with them again reminded me of childhood. My parents would take me to a near-by park and I would inevitably wind up going down slides or destroying lightning bugs with another child who I would probably never see again. Together we shared a sense of purpose and a discreet yet recognized mission. A week later I would do the same thing, with minor variation, with some other random friend until my mother decided it was time to go. I imagine Journey is intended to function along similar lines. You’re supposed to be with someone like you, and the game facilitates this through its delicate construction. Plus, if it doesn’t seem to be working out there’s zero restriction on keeping up; you can both go your separate ways with zero penalty.
So much of Journey is enjoyed through discovery and I’ve deliberately avoided most anything I found to be a surprise. The entire game is beautiful in terms of both art and concept, but a unique and likely underappreciated asset also rises to the surface; Journey doesn’t borrow from anything to make its point. Both the ride and the finale evoke genuine reactions through moments that of subtlety, menace, and excitement rather than doing the typical videogame thing of reminding the player of some cliché they saw in a movie. Thatgamecompany understands how to appropriately use an interactive medium to tell a story, and the delight in indulging in their art mitigates potential complaints concerning its condensed ride.
Journey’s masterful presentation is paramount to the potential of its impact. It’s one thing to make sand realistically shift, blow, and sweep across the land, but another entirely to make it come to life with a combination of inspired art direction and legitimate technical skill. Sand can be cold and collected in a lifeless wasteland or illuminated like a sea of fire during a rush of excitement, and each exorcizes a different sentiment from the player as they pass by. Journey looks like a full retail game and its visual presentation carries few hints of its modest price or downloadable rank. As if that wasn’t impressive enough a full orchestral score sets the stage for nearly every moment. It seems to dynamically change at rather intense moments and it is consciously aware of when it needs to slide back into ambience. Surreal percussion instruments come into play with odd hums and hisses and run the gamut from malice to exhilaration. It goes without saying that thatgamecompany, a relatively small group of folks, knocked Journey’s presentation out of the park.
I’m not going to submit to the “games as art” argument, but I would like to relay a different perspective on Journey. After I finished the game a second time I sat down to write this review and my girlfriend picked up the controller and decided to give it a go. Three hours passed, and when she had finished I was eager to see if she shared my elation. She didn’t. She said it was a complete waste of her time and seemed fairly angry. An…intense discussion followed and I learned that Journey can be honestly understood and differently appreciated, and qualities considered rare and valuable to me were obtuse and abrasive to her. Works of art are appreciated and criticized in a similar manner, and I can’t recall many games that prompt that level of discussion. It’s one thing to recognize a metaphor, but another to speculate about the purpose behind its elusive possibility.