“Journey” Review: One of the Most Amazing, Beautiful Experiences You’ll Ever Have
Journey has been in the works a while now. Developer ThatGameCompany has suggested the beauty of Journey lies within the simple level design and the immense vastness of the world. This vastness leads to a desperately lonely world, based in part on the solace of space, according to game designer Jenova Chen. The end result is a truly intuitive, engaging experience—one that will resonate with players far after they’ve finally reached the end of their journey.
When first booting up the game, it may be pretty hard to figure out what’s going on. There is no ten-minute text scroll explaining the events leading up to the game, and neither is there a cinematic cutscene the likes of Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy detailing the mythology of the world. Players start out with their Traveler in the middle of a desert, surrounded by nothing but sand and the occasional stone tablet jutting out of the ground like a tall tombstone. And the only thing players can see in the distance is a large, looming mountain with a bright beam of light shining up into the sky.
It may be paradise, it may be sanctuary, it may be nothing: but with nowhere else to go, you, the Traveler, set out for the mountain to see for yourself.
Journey isn’t a traditional game by any means. Your only available actions at the start of the journey is the ability to play musical notes that emanate from your Traveler in a sphere of translucent white light. Soon, Your Traveler comes across a bit of ruins with a cloud of tattered rags circulating around its center. Walking within and playing your music makes the tattered remnants glow and spin around you, adding to your cloak a scarf-like tail that lengthens with every new cloud of remnants you find. This in turn allows you to levitate into the air and glide certain distances: what may be a dozen feet earlier in the game will later be a few dozen.
As you continue on you’ll find more ways to interact with the world: collectible glowing glyphs; long, banner-sized rags and stone tablets that activate paths; and cloth-creatures that guide Travelers and allow them to fly for short distances while in contact.
As simple as this sounds, it fits in quite perfectly with the beautiful adventure your Traveler partakes in, and all of this becomes even stronger when you have a Companion along. ThatGameCompany took a big chance with the multiplayer. There was reportedly a lot of debate over how to implement it right. The big question was how to keep the philosophy of the game intact while adding in an element of social contact. The answer came in seamless drop-in multiplayer, but absolutely no form of identity or contact installed but through the length of one’s scarf and the playing of notes. This means no gamertag, no way to message them on the PSN, no voicechat: players can only communicate through their actions.
According to Jenova Chen, the idea was that if a person was stuck in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly found another person, the journey would change drastically. A player could still choose to ignore the new Traveler and continue on solo, but, starved for social contact, most players—most people—would probably opt to travel together. While I wish I had a way to put this into words without dissecting the game too… clinically, it seems easier to express the magnitude the game’s emotional depth through a spoiler-free chronicle of my journey.
- At a crossroads. Figuring out which cloths will trigger the right paths to open up my way to the end of this section. I see one Traveler in the distance who I tag along with for a while. After seeing a group of cloths to go after, I turn back and see my Companion has continued on without me. I mentally shrug, and keep exploring a bit before finding my own way.
- I continue onto the next area, finding a host of simple gliding segments that take a little effort with timing to complete.
- I meet a new Companion in the vast loneliness of a new area, and we help each other, intuitively realizing that contact and communication have benefits within the limits of the game to make journeying just a little easier. Similar affects to the world can be replicated through the intimate contact of two Travelers, especially those who keep close.
- We keep close.
- We reach a scary, foreboding place. In our efforts to help each other, my Companion falls into danger: instead of leaving my Companion to its fate, I try to help. In the end, we both suffer, but it’s okay. We have each other.
- We’re almost towards what seems to be the end of a segment. I see something glowing, and for a moment separate to check it out. When I look back, I find my Companion is lost. I can’t find them, no matter how hard I look, or how long I wait, and I honestly feel scared for them. And sorrow. Sorrow that I don’t know their fate, and that I must push on.
- I keep going.
- I wait, again, some weird moment of hesitation where I hope they’ll catch up. They don’t. I look back one more time.
- I keep moving.
- Not long after I’m joined by a Traveler. Oddly enough, I have a moment of caution, wondering if this is the same Traveler who accompanied me just before, or a new Traveler. I even try to see if I can judge by the length of my Companion’s scarf whether it is the same Traveler I journeyed with previously, but I’m unsure. But soon my caution is lifted. We communicate well as we move, and even if it isn’t the same person, we have to keep on.
- The old adage seems increasingly true of our situation at that moment: the Mountaintop seems so close, yet so far away. We face more challenges, trudging on through a gauntlet of obstacles that try to turn us away from our prize. And just before trumping a world resistant in letting us meet our goal, it seems like I’ve lost another comrade.
- It’s not too far now. I take a second to lament, and then I keep going.
- I find that my comrade is still around: my heart warms.
- Things get brutally difficult, but we keep going, together, our musical notes even more special, our companionship even more special. I don’t know my Companion’s name, gender, or anything else even slightly discernible, but together, despite the odds, we’re making it together. It’s our struggle. Our journey.
- And in the end, our reward.
- The credits provide a simple, gentle, serene epilogue to our quest. In it one can see how unimportant the credits themselves are: the credits are elegantly simple and unassuming, the beauty of the game still at the forefront of this production. It’s clear that ThatGameCompany is, from the beginning to the end, about making the experience important.
- And truly, this is one of the most important gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
In an industry where the most lauded multiplayer experiences come from hyper-aggressive, insult-driven, rage-filled competition, or the now much overdone us-versus-the-world Horde modes, it’s refreshing to experience a game that encourages such an intimate relationship in such an immersive setting.
It’s funny to look back at the “Are video games art?” arguments of yesteryear and then to get this nice, incredibly beautiful, silently expressive package of video game art that makes the argument without a single pretentious word.
Play this game.
Go on the journey.
Make it to the mountain.
And tell me all about it.
* * *
This game doesn’t need a rating,
but if I had to give it one, I’d give it:
Out of 10