“People will venture out to the height of the mountain to seek for wonder. They will stand and stare at the width of the ocean to be filled with wonder. But they will pass one another in the street and feel nothing. Yet every individual is a miracle. How strange that nobody sees the wonder in one another.” ~ St. Augustine
This is a game I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time. This is a game I find myself thinking about a lot because it’s one that has resonated with me on an emotional level over the last 2 years. This is a game of a kind that doesn’t come around often, only one or two games since have come close to capturing that worldly feeling of awe and capturing the kind of emotional intensity you’d expect from Oscar-worthy films.
This is a game called Journey.
You and I are going to have a discussion about this game.
Journey was an endeavour by the indie developer Thatgamecompany, contracted by Sony to make them 3 exclusive titles which resulted in Flow, Flower, and Journey from 2007-2012. TGC’s goal is to create unique games which seek to find ways in which to provoke emotional responses from their players.
Our Mission: Create timeless interactive entertainment that makes positive change to the human psyche worldwide.
They’ve even said in previous interviews that they actually begin a game’s development by focusing, not on the game mechanics, but on how they want the player to feel. Right off the bat here, you know that you’re getting something special from people with a unique vision.
For further information on how Thatgamecompany goes about designing their games, check out this presentation delivered by Robin Hunicke. It’s really worth watching, especially if you happen to be an aspiring indie developer yourself and are looking for some direction for your game to take – Thatgamecompany really know their stuff.So, what is Journey actually about? It’s simple, as it’s based on the first and only visual cue you get: you awaken in a desert with a mountain in the distance and you have to get to its peak. That’s all you have to work with at the start, as a matter of fact the backstory surrounding the world you’re in and who you are is largely left up to interpretation. Throughout the game, you’ll find massive burial grounds with tapestries which depict what appears to be the history of the planet and its inhabitants. Finding these is an entirely optional endeavour, but they add a lot to the creative substance of the game and help you to reconcile the story of the past with what you’re going through in the present.
One of the many things that makes this game so unique is its cooperative play. Cooperative play is hardly a new or noteworthy thing these days, it’s pretty much expected in most game genres and has been for many years now. But Journey does it differently to anything else I’ve played because you don’t just partner up with somebody in the menu, you randomly come across somebody (who you don’t know) as you’re wandering through the game. Also, the only means of communication you have is a series of musical chirps that your character can make. All of this serves to ramp up the immersion factor the game gives you, combined with the fact that it’s only about 2 hours long and designed to be completed in one playthrough.
Also, you won’t ever feel like you’re about to be on the receiving end of some 12 year old’s incoherent trash talk under the name ‘xXxIkilln0obs69xX. These kinds of negative aspects of the gaming community are totally absent in Journey, you either choose to stick together to solve puzzles or you go your separate ways. Everybody is a clean slate, the system is smoothly integrated with no loading screens or menus, it’s all a seamless experience you and another wayward Journeyer can go through.The variety of locations and how they’ve been made is genuinely astounding. While you’ll spend about half of the game in the desert graveyards, exploring ancient ruins, sliding down mountainous sand dunes, and completing various puzzles, there are other locations you’ll find yourself encountering as well. All of these areas stand out for their inherent unique design, but the one I find particularly amazing is the underground ruins segment. The lighting, ambience, and music makes you feel like you’re underwater. Strands of cloth, which you go around reanimating, look like seaweed being pulled to and fro by the water’s current. It has that alien feeling of mystery and ambiguity about it, and it’s pulled off in a way I’ve never seen done by other games before.
As you progress through the game, you’ll track down various glyphs which can extend the length of your scarf – thus allowing you to fly for longer periods of time and reach locations that may have been out of reach before. Jumping/flying and calling are the means through which you and your companion interact and the former has a finite amount of uses before you need to find a means of recharging that ability, making it a precious commodity. You can keep both yourself and your companion sufficiently charged by staying close. There are also a number of gameplay scenarios which are designed to reinforce your comradeship, for instance there’s a segment where you’re forced to take shelter from great gusts of wind behind narrow pillars which knock you backwards if you’re exposed. You are physically forced into close proximity with your companion, and another part of the game has the cold snow and harsh winds gradually freeze your character, making you walk slower. But, if you stay close to your partner then your character stays slightly warmer and doesn’t slow down as fast.
Simple things like that add a nice little touch to how you interact with other players in the game, it’s meant to promote a positive experience as you confront different challenges and face various obstacles together.Visually, this game is gorgeous. Not in how realistic the graphics looks, they aren’t, but in the intricate art design of every location you find yourself in. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the art and sound design for the game has become iconic – the second you hear something, like a chirp, or see that image of the mountain with the pillar of light rising from the top, you know you’re looking at something from Journey.
Also, one can only extend compliments to the developers who made a barren and lifeless desert so beautifully captivating. You’ll see the sand shine and sparkle from the sun’s dying rays as you near the mid-point of the game, I’ve already covered the underwater ambience of the subterranean level, and you’ll see how the snow sticks to your robe as you hike up the mountain to its peak. The game does not offer you a story through a conventional narrative, it is provided through your interaction with the environment and the questions you’ll find yourself asking. Even the figure you play as is a mystery, you know nothing about this agendered creature – there’s no face outside of two inquisitive yellow eyes, it serves as a vessel for you to experience the game without any preconceptions in regards to just about anything. Nothing feels predictable, even in the bits where there’s a great deal of build-up.And you just can’t talk about Journey without mentioning the music. You can’t. Nobody has and nobody will, it’s one of the most important aspects of this game. Austin Wintory’s amazing musical score can be listened to here. The music is a character in itself, in fact you might well think of the music as the storyteller throughout the game, as it serves to illustrate every moment of experience the player is put through. Having said that, there’s never a point where it feels like the music is pushing you into something – it does not feel like a linear score, it ‘follows’ you through the game as Virgil followed Dante in order to saturate every action with colour. It’s easily in my top game OSTs, alongside the likes of Shadow of the Colossus, Halo 4, ODST, Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls and so on.
Everything that is in Journey, the building blocks of the game, are in there for a reason and used for a specific purpose. There aren’t any pointless gimmicks that will take you out of the experience, it’s one of those rare games where everything is seamless. As far as I’m aware, this game took over 3 years to make with a studio of about 18 people (compared to AAA developers who have a team of around 300), and from what I understand they were an incredibly bumpy 3 years. Finance issues plagued Thatgamecompany, they went bankrupt when the game was in its final phases of development, people went unpaid, there were communication issues between the team. It has all the hallmarks of a game which should never have been completed and shipped, as Sony wanted Journey to be done in a year.But, somehow, they pulled through and finished the game. Not only that, they finished a great game, one that I can truly call ‘revolutionary’ in just about any capacity. Journey’s success ended up being a bit overwhelming – It won five BAFTAs and six GDC awards, broke PlayStation sales records to be the ‘fastest-selling PSN game ever released’, and is the first video game to ever have its soundtrack nominated for a Grammy. Reviewers praised the game, lots of them even gave the game a 10/10 rating, and it currently sits at a 92/100 rating on Metacritic. It’s safe to say that Journey ended up being a resounding success across the board and it damn well deserved it.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING ANALYSIS CONTAINS SPOILERS, DO NOT READ IF YOU’VE NOT PLAYED THE GAME (UNLESS YOU DON’T CARE, IN WHICH CASE YOU’RE A BIT OF A RUBBISH PERSON – just kidding).
Overall, to add more of an analytical tone to this ‘review’, Journey is all about life. You begin with no skills or abilities and have to focus on the basic need for survival, supplemented by the various visual cues directing you – such as the mountain. You reach early childhood when you’re faced with your first puzzle, the broken bridge. There’s nothing to hold your hand here, you have to rely on the skills you’ve attained in order to solve the problem and overcome the obstacle (this is also the first time you get to meet and interact with other players). After passing the broken bridge, you’re in adolescence – you’re given a much larger landscape to explore and have the ability to fly properly as opposed to the short jumps and glides you can do in earlier stages. This is the first time we start to see the world populated by a large number of cloth creatures – flying carpets which take the form of dolphin-like creatures and schools of fish, they provide you temporary boosts to your abilities.
The transition to adulthood follows as you encounter the sunken city, the first major change in scenery in the game which represents the player leaving their childhood behind. There’s beauty and mystery in the environment, but you’re on your own and have to venture into the realm of ambiguity. This is when you encounter your first trial as a young adult, you have to navigate through a cave system while avoiding the hostile War Machines, also known as Guardians, who are cloth whales that have been encased in stone and had a searchlight mounted on their faces.Having safely escaped these stone monsters, you climb up the tower of adulthood. The tower seems impossibly tall, it’s actually one of the lengthier sections of the game and revolves around you finding glyphs to fill the room with light which helps you ascend. This is the stage of the game where you’re at your most powerful, you’ve been made wise through your previous experiences and are not quite burdened by old age yet. At the end of this segment, you fill the entire tower with light and get visited by one of the Watchers – a large white-robed, ghostly figure who shows you a giant tapestry of the journey you’ve been on from the start of the game and the ultimate trial you have yet to face.This brings us to old age and death where you confront this final obstacle – the mountain climb. The environment is covered in snow which makes movement through the level increasingly sluggish and difficult, you begin to lose some of your powers and then you’re treated to one of the most brilliant moments of the game. It’s a segment which only lasts a couple of minutes, but you just keep on trudging through the snow at a slower and slower pace before your heart gives out and you collapse and die. The screen fades white and all appears to be over, there’s no happy ending, you never reach the peak of the mountain and the world will carry on without you in silence as nature takes its course.Then, the Watchers appear and resurrect you, granting you all your powers back and shoot you up into the sky as a blazing ball of golden light while several War Machines pursue you. Here, we see Journey’s depiction of the afterlife.
This part of the game is beautiful beyond almost every other game I’ve played, and the player is gifted with an almost infinite flight power as you race towards the mountaintop.You reach the end of your journey as you land at the top of the mountain and walk into the pillar of light. Thus bringing us full-circle around to rebirth, as the credits roll and depict what appears to be your ‘soul’ (the golden orb of light) shooting over the landscapes you’ve traversed and landing back at the very beginning of the game in the very first establishing shot. When you play the game through again, it is as somebody armed with a greater sense of understanding of life’s foibles and challenges which enables you to experience the game anew.
There’s also the whole vaginal imagery of the mountain itself and how it appears to birth life into the world at the end of the game, there’s an awful lot that you can interpret from just about any part of this game and it’s part of what makes the experience so unique for every player.
I will not forget this game. It’s an experience unlike any other game I’ve played and I highly doubt it’ll be replicated any times soon. If you own a PS3 and don’t have Journey, stop whatever you’re doing with your life and get it. I promise, you will not regret it one bit.