Anything I could tell you about Journey would slightly detract from this unique experience. I’m not sure it can be ‘spoiled’, exactly, but revealing too many details will take away the players’ chances to discover them themselves. With that I will say: if you’re at all on the fence about Journey, go buy it now.
Still here? Fair enough. Journey is the latest release from thatgamecompany, developer of critically acclaimed art games Flow and Flower, known for their non-traditional approaches to gaming as a medium. Instead of providing linear stories or familiar mechanics, thatgamecompany are focused on the player’s experience, creating vibrant worlds for people to explore and figure out on their own.
Journey certainly continues this trend. You play as a hooded, scarfed hero (who I will call “Scarfy”), journeying across the desert to reach a light at the top of a mountain. No more plot is given, none is needed, it is up to the player to determine how much meaning they give to this narrative, the world and it’s obstacles/objects. The player can fly for a short amount of time, and let out a short note to communicate or interact with the world around them.
And what a world it is. I had watched trailers beforehand, expecting this to be a very pretty game, but I was not prepared for the visual treat this ended up being. The levels are vast and stylized, with elements that literally made me gasp (the sand-surfing level being a particular highlight.) In a world of grey and brown ‘realistic’ shooters, there is really nothing that looks like Journey. The soundtrack is a highlight as well, offering a simplistic, child like beauty to accompany your journey while still feeling appropriately epic as necessary.
Scarfy has a few different environments to face between the bottom and the top of the mountain, all of which give you just enough of a taste without overstaying their welcome. The game is very careful to give you enough wonder and mystery to thrive on, while always giving you something new around the corner. By the end of the game, you will certainly know the world, even if you don’t necessarily fully understand it.
Though you might not fully understand the world of Journey, the game provides you with an emotional connection to the environments (unless you are a heartless misery-guts). This is a key theme of Journey – communication of ideas and feelings through non-traditional means. There are no text explanations of the world, or even familiar elements beyond a few crumbled structures, but everything is carefully designed to make Scarfy’s adventure suitably epic. You don’t just know Scarfy feels scared in the underground cavern, or deperate in the cold snowy mountaintops, or joyful whizzing through the waterfalls – you will actually feel these emotions yourself. This isn’t just sympathy, this is empathy.
Another key element in this communication theme is the way Journey uses online multiplayer. There is no competitive element, or even real co-operation, instead giving players an experience to share in a unique way. Along your way, you will encounter other Scarfies, with no way of knowing who they are, and no chat function – the only real way to communicate is through in-game ‘chirps’, and unless you both know morse code this will not translate into ‘real’ chat. As a result, an emotional bond between players is formed solely by their shared experiences in the game, and the game really benefits from this. I read about players sharing their journey from across the globe, not even realising they spoke completely different languages until after they had finished. It is difficult to describe the value of this gameplay in words, and must really be experienced.
The only real drawback of Journey is its length. A first playthrough will take less than two hours, and is meant to be played in one sitting. However, I don’t think this is a bad point – experiencing the Journey all at once is a very satisfying meal, and one that can be revisited multiple times – and not just for the collectables and trophies. This is definitely a case for quality over quantity.
Journey feels like an important evolution in gaming as a medium, providing an emotional experience in a way only video games can. It demonstrates the language of interactive entertainment by providing feedback in abstract ways, and shows how unique games can really be. Many games try to be movies with interactive elements; Journey combats this by focusing entirely on player immersion and interactivity, and deserves your support as a result. It may be short, but will keep you going back for more, and is still less expensive than a average trip to the cinema (which would provide a similar length of entertainment). Besides, it’s not the destination but…well you get the point.
Story: 4 / Graphics: 5 / Audio: 5 / Gameplay: 4.5 / Overall: 5