I decided to write a review for Journey. We discussed the game on last week’s show, but I felt it deserved a post of it’s own, for reasons I will address in the body of the review. This may come off as overly-hyped, and for some it truly will be: if anything, this game is not for everybody. And even those who like it may not be affected as much as I was.
But this was written from the point of view of someone who’s been totally blown away by the level of creativity, intelligence, and professionalism on display in this title. So know that going in. I hope you enjoy it.
I’m bored with video games right now. I mean, I still play them frequently, and I still enjoy myself when I do, but I cannot deny that the past few years have seen fewer and fewer great games released. Creativity is at an all-time low when it comes to the gaming industry. Profit is king, to a degree that no other entertainment industry can touch. A few months back, I organized all my thoughts about gaming in an article you should check out here. So it’s needless to say that when a truly great game comes out, I get pretty excited.
It is with tremendous pleasure, then, that I tell you one of those has arrived in the form of Journey- a game so wonderful that it actually surpasses what any other title has done for me prior to now. Now, before we go any further, I should say that I’m not labeling this as the greatest game of all time- it’s not. What it is, though, is something more than a game.
Journey is, ostensibly, an adventure platformer title, but to label it as such is to misrepresent an astounding collection of hard work completed by one of the brightest developers in the industry: thatgamecompany (we’ll go with TGC henceforth for brevity’s sake). What TGC have accomplished here is something that I have never seen before, and was not sure if I ever would see. But more on that in a little while.
Explaining away all the mystery of Journey is something I have no interest in doing: simply put, you must experience this game for yourself. As such, I won’t go into too much detail as far as describing scenes from within the title (which, by the way, is available exclusively on the PS3 as a download from the Playstation Store), but rather paint a picture using broad strokes.
When the game starts, you are dropped into the middle of a desert with nothing around you except a distant mountain. You play as a “cloth creature” who can walk, climb (slightly), slide down hills, and even fly- well, for short periods, at least. Your only other ability is to emit musical notes, which can have various effects on the environment around you: from activating new pathways, to gathering more energy to fly for longer periods. You have no name, no backstory, and your sole mission is to make it to the top of the aforementioned mountain. This is revealed as your goal not through the traditional means of dialog (there is none) or instruction windows (there are none of those, either), but because the mountain is the only possible location you could get to.
After this humble beginning, you guide your cloth creature through about 8 different chapters (calling these sections “levels” would be inaccurate) as you make your way to the mountain’s foot, then up it’s slopes. The chapters do feature some platforming elements, but what makes this game truly sing is it’s overpowering sense of soul. Yes, soul.
Playing Journey puts you smack dab in the middle of it’s universe. When my fellow Spiny Shell Radio co-host DJE played the game while visiting at my house, he remarked how “I feel connected to this universe, like I’m really a part of it.” By the ending stages of the game, he was singing the game’s praises as much as I was, and saying how “I feel like I’ve been on this journey for years now.” Those are very astute comments, because TGC have developed exactly such an experience.
You become part of the story because there isn’t one being pushed down your throat like in all other games. The lack of a traditional narrative does wonders for this game, as it allows you to make whatever conclusions you’d like to about what you are seeing and feeling. It also ensures that the eventual payoff at the end of the title works exceptionally well.
In a standard game, your character would be given a name and backstory, your race of “cloth people” would be totally explained, and the goal of reaching the top of the mountain would have all of it’s intrinsic power robbed from it by the needless insertion of a storyline to accompany your climb up it. Journey sidesteps around all these problems, allowing you to experience it in a far more raw fashion than perhaps any other game I’ve ever played. Gliding my cloth creature down a beautiful shimmering sand dune as the sun sets is an experience I’ll never forget. The other cloth creatures, controlled by simple yet extremely effective and well-programmed AI, who help you along your quest become closer friends to you without saying a word than almost any character from a past video game I can recall. The visuals are fantastic, the music spectacular and fitting, and the gameplay incredibly satisfying.
Having all of this included would already make any game a must-have. Journey, however, has a humungous ace up it’s sleeve: multiplayer. If you know me, then you know I’m not a big fan of multiplayer. Oftentimes, I find that game developers use the multiplayer component of a title as an excuse to skimp on the single-player campaign. It frustrates me how, in today’s gaming market, more people are concerned with the size of a game’s multiplayer community and the support behind it than the campaign’s story.
Journey has the most wonderful multiplayer component I’ve ever experienced.
It seemlessly combines your campaign experience with another player’s- without the use of any kind of lobby system or server list. You start playing your game, and throughout your experience you’ll run into others who are at the same point you are. You cannot speak with them, and you don’t even find out their gamertag name until after the credits roll and all the people you ran into while playing through your mission are listed.
But what you can do is sing to one another, using the cloth creatures’ aforementioned musical abilities. These untraditional means of communication are a gameplay revelation. Simply figuring out how to get from point A to B, or hiding from the terrifying monsters that assault you later on in the game while only using your “chanting” capability makes for a deeply personal, emotional experience. Believe it or not, removing the means to communicate directly with one another intensely increases the bond between you and your gaming partner.
I ran into two different gamers who came and went during my first run through Journey, but then met a third at about the halfway point and wound up finishing the rest of the entire game with this same person. I don’t know who he or she was, where they were from, how old they were, what language they spoke, or by what name they called God (if any), yet together, using only music, we worked our way through the various platforming sections, puzzles, and enemy encounters. And it made me feel closer and more dependent on that totally unknown person than I ever have with anyone else before in an online experience, even my best friend covering my back in Counter Strike.
As I mentioned before, Journey does something I thought I might never experience: it speaks to you emotionally. In all my years playing video games, I’ve never actually felt something like I do when I play Journey. It truly is remarkable: the title extends far beyond the simple labelings of a “game.”
This is art.
Yes, believe it or not, I have finally found “a game that qualifies as art.” Not even Chrono Trigger or Zelda: Ocarina of Time have given me feelings equal to those of Journey. This is a game that tells a story worth telling. That makes you experience something.
I remember saying that no video game had ever made me feel like I did when I watched the (phenomenal) film “Black Swan.” While Journey tells a very different tale than Darren Aronofsky’s film, and therefor gives a very different feel, this previous statement that I made is no longer true. I have now been given a comparable feeling by a video game to that of a piece of artwork.
When I look at the Sistine Chapel, I recognize greatness. When I read Catch-22, I face flawless wit. When I listen to Sgt. Pepper’s, I hear brilliance captured on 4-tracks. When I attend a performance of Phantom of the Opera, I encounter beautifully crafted music and accompanying lyricism. When I watch The Graduate, I witness the uncertainty and nervousness of youth’s progression into adulthood. When I look upon the Cathedral of Notre Dame, I behold architectural perfection. Now, I would never compare Journey to these legendary works of art, but the feeling I experience is within the same realm.
Art is, as far as I’m concerned, defined most simply as a form of human expression that speaks to the soul. It can speak in a wide variety of manners, but to me, this is what art truly is.
Journey fits this description. When I play through it’s (admittedly short) runtime, I am under the influence of it’s creator’s intentions. TGC has created a masterwork in Journey, and every self-proclaimed gamer needs to experience it. Again, to be clear, this is not the best video game of all time. But it is the most important.
Journey proves that this is a viable medium for artistic expression. That video games can be better, can be more than kill-count simulators. When I expressed my frustration that more games cannot embrace this mindset, I had no idea that a developer would come across and do so with such grace like TGC has done, let alone so soon after my lamenting this industry’s lack of creativity.
As a gamer, I am more pleased than you can imagine to see them address my concerns so swiftly and completely. As far as the industry is concerned, Journey announces the arrival of a new powerhouse in TGC, and should be viewed as a turning point in video game history.
If my statements seem too grandiose, please understand that I’m incredibly enthusiastic about this game because it has affected me like any great work of art would. I have now experienced art in the form of a video game, and it’s every bit as effective as words written on paper, life drawn on canvas, or drama captured on celluloid.
Play Journey: it is the first, and will forever remain one of the best, of it’s kind.