Not every game aims to accomplish the same tasks. There was a time when video games were simply a fun diversion. Over the last few decades, it has become fairly common for a game to exist just to give the user an experience. It may not be a “fun” time, but it’s one that will hopefully leave a lasting impact on the player. No other developer seems to have adopted this idea like thatgamecompany.
Journey is thatgamecompany’s shortest title, but it tells its story better than flOw and Flower all while being more of a video game than its predecessors. Flower was something like a cross between social commentary and the sort of thing a hippie might tell you about after returning from a “spirit walk”. The game was literally about the dreams of a flower. Journey moves beyond that somewhat pretentious idealism and seems intent to tell a simpler story. You control a being and that being is on a Journey. I didn’t infer any deeper metaphorical meaning than that and at no point did I feel like my enjoyment of the game depended upon it.
The act of playing Journey is simple, but more involved than you’ve probably come to expect from thatgamecompany. You control a character (Yes) with the analog stick (No kidding) and there’s a jump button (WHAT). Your other ability is what we’ll call chirping. If you tap the Circle button, you’ll make a little musical note. If you hold it, you’ll charge up a louder sound with greater range. Without really ever telling you what you need to do, the intro nudges you towards a massive tower in the distance and you just…well, start heading in that direction. Every now and again you’ll need to climb a structure by jumping and sometimes you’ll leap large distances by chirping near a group of banners. While this is significantly more complex than “tilt the controller to control the wind’s direction” it’s still intentionally simple, which will certainly put off certain players. It’s a testament to great game design and visual cues that without ever being told what you should do, you’ll never get stuck in this game.
As much as I hate to say it, this game really is about the journey. There’s little in the way of story, purpose, or other things that drive a video game forward. However, it is 100% experience. You may just be walking across a desert, but this is possibly the best-looking desert ever. While it is a technical powerhouse with detailed textures and whatnot, the driving force behind Journey’s ludicrous visual production is the artistry applied to each scene. The camera always seems to frame each area in the most picturesque way possible. The sunlight hits the sand in a way that literally makes individual grains of sand shimmer. And while the environments are stunning, the animations of your otherwise soulless character are also fantastic. I’d liken the game to the film Wall-E. There are clear, profound emotions felt by these characters but at no point are these expressed with words, nor are they ever unclear. Journey’s story is basically “Dude has to talk walk a really long way,” but it’s the prettiest walk ever.
While the game is devoid of dialogue and really any sort of communication to the player, Journey still manages to get its emotional hooks into you, and in the most unpredictable way possible: online play. At seemingly random moments, the game drops another player into your world (or drops you into theirs?). There’s no voice chat, no co-op system, no invites, not even a screen name. There’s just you in the vast nothingness and sometimes there’s another you out there. It’s almost impossible to express why in words, but something about that other guy being there gives you a feeling of nervousness and excitement akin to going on a first date. Since you literally have no idea what’s on their mind it just creates dozens of questions. Are they bored? Who’s following who? Should I slow down? Am I taking too long? And just as suddenly as the other player appears, the game randomly removes them from your world as well. In a two-hour game, it’s kind of amazing that you can feel such a high level of social tension followed immediately by absolute loneliness multiple times. This is easily the best reason to play Journey.
Yes, thatgamecompany has again churned out another weird art…thing that we’ll struggle to call a video game. Journey, like Flower before it, is a title that makes you constantly wonder what the hell they’re trying to get across. It’s a $15 PSN download that lasts for about two hours and has no replay value. But it is about the emotional highs and lows of the experience. If you look at it like a movie you control, it is worth the price tag. I imagine every player will walk away from this adventure with a story to tell, and maybe that’s the point.
Is it better than…
Flower and flOw (the studio’s previous games): Yes. It’s shorter than both but it is more fun, more complex, prettier, and more emotionally resonant.
Actually wandering the desert alone with the occasional silent friend (because I literally spent minutes trying to come up with something else to compare it to): Yes. It looks better than real life deserts and you don’t have to worry about food, water, or the heat.
Played as a person with mixed emotions about the developer. Completed the game.