The argument over video games being able to qualify themselves as an art form is ongoing. That said, few were able to deny the simple beauty and charm of 2009’s Flower, a downloadable PlayStation 3 game from developer Thatgamecompany. It was critically acclaimed for its simple but engaging gameplay and presentation. Three years later, the developer has a new game to show the world, and in some ways, it is unlike anything seen before. That game is Journey.
A plot certainly does exist in this game, but it is told without dialogue, and leaves certain elements vague. The game starts with the player awakening as a strange, mute & robed figure in the middle of a sand dune-filled desert. They don’t seem to know how they got there, but are drawn to a mysterious mountain in the distance, and set off to discover what lies at its peak.
At its heart, Journey is about exploration and eventual discoveries. The environments are often wide open with ample room to explore, where you’ll find crumbling ruins, glyphs hinting at the world’s history, and glowing symbols that extend the red scarf your character wears. That scarf turns out to be indispensible, as it enables your character to jump and glide great distances. Extending the scarf will increase the height and duration of these jumps.
Journey also has some platforming elements in it, such as jumping around the various ruins and buildings, but other than the scarf extensions, there are no items to collect or compasses pointing you in a certain direction. While things do become a bit more linear as you progress, the early desert parts allow you to run around a bit and check things out before proceeding to the next area.
The last key component of Journey is its unique take on multiplayer. At any point in the game, you may run into another hooded figure similar to yourself. These are actual people who have been playing solo as well. You can choose to pair up with them to take the journey together. The catch is that you can’t really communicate – you won’t see the player’s name, you can’t chat with them using a headset, and your in-game actions are limited to jumping and making a chirp-like noise with the Circle button. That input is also utilized in the main quest, allowing players to unlock meditative circles that mark the end of each area. Cutscenes are also unlocked, in order to explain things a little more.
I, myself, found another player in the second area, and we went on and played the rest of the game together. The only real benefit of having a second player is that being in close proximity of each other will charge your scarf up for a jump faster than it would playing solo, but there’s something undeniably intriguing and novel about the approach Thatgamecompany took to this aspect. At the tail-end of the game, something happened that I won’t dare spoil, but it made me realize how attached I had grown to my silent partner. With voice chat and player IDs enabled, you could likely end up with a trash-talker who yells nonstop and ruins the immersion; this makes the chat-free multiplayer a blessing in disguise.
I bring up immersion because it is probably the most important factor in Journey. The game is less about impressing you with super-realistic graphics or incredible gameplay and more about getting you caught up in this sparse yet beautiful world they’ve created. Art direction is all-around great, and the haunting, melancholy soundtrack that plays adds to the created ambience. The in-game environments do change as you go on, and there are some neat surprises in store. One part in particular makes use of a gameplay mechanic that enables the player to slide down inclined sand dunes, taking a sunset and making the surface of the sand you skim across glisten and shine like water. It’s an impressive graphical feat, and incredibly beautiful at the same time.
Those who care more about a more substantial and challenging gameplay experience may not care much for Journey. Despite all its beauty, at its core it is a very simple and basic game. Also, despite carrying a $15 price tag, the game can easily be completed in about two hours. There is some incentive to play again to unlock trophies, but some of the thrills of the discoveries you make on your first playthrough will be gone.
Still, those who care about getting an emotional response out of games and want to try something that is in many ways a one-of-a-kind experience should pick Journey up. Thatgamecompany has made a fascinating game that does not stick to the conventions of what people expect out of high-profile retail titles, and are making games that show the potential for new indie developers to come up with experiences that take the medium to new places. So long as you have an open mind, Journey is a fascinating ride to take.
Those who care about getting an emotional response out of games and want to try something that is in many ways a one-of-a-kind experience should pick up Journey.