Publisher: SCEA / Developer: thatgamecompany / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $14.99 / ESRB: Everyone [No Descriptors]
Thatgamecompany is in a unique position. They have the financial backing of a first party console manufacturer in Sony but the limitless creative freedom of an indie dev. It’s no surprise that the byproduct of such a rare relationship is a game like Journey. While a majority of modern game design seems predicated on a pretty narrow spectrum of methods for invoking emotions and engaging attentions, Journey’s minimalistic narrative and approach to game design along with its breathtaking visuals result in an experience miles away from most anything you’re likely to play on a home console.
I think everyone will parse their own meaning from their time with Journey. And that’s awesome. I gladly welcome more games that leave their themes up for interpretation. But what’s wonderful about Journey is that even taking it at face value, it’s an experience worth having. Its story, like every other aspect of it, is built upon simplicity. You start the game as a genderless, robed figure (that looks kind of like a Jawa) in the middle of a desert. There’s a mountain that looms on the horizon. The game never tells you that that’s where you need to go, but as the primary visible object you’re compelled to move toward it anyway.
I’ll obviously avoid going into specifics about what follows next except to say they are touching moments, they are frightening moments, and they are awe-inspiring moments, each of which is memorable in its own way. I really, really wanted to avoid saying, “it’s about the journey not the destination” in this review but there. I said it. And now I feel dirty.
At around four hours, give or take, Journey is a very short game. And its length is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it shows a sense of restraint on the part of thatgamecompany. It’s a concise adventure, efficient with what it tries to accomplish. On the other hand, it’s a fleeting experience that ends before it really has the chance to get started. I would have loved more time to grow attached to (and learn about) this world. There are plenty of implications of a deeper history and eventful past but you’re given no more than a dusting of information.
Some light platforming and (very) light environmental puzzle-solving makes Journey more of a “game” than thatgamecompany’s previous titles, but that’s not really saying much. There still aren’t really any real goals to achieve or challenges to overcome, and there’s no mini-map or quest log telling you what to do. At most, you’ll be required to walk past a set of glowing stones to open a door or collect the ribbons in the area to build a bridge. Journey’s most engaging moments come from something different. Cleverly designed environments will keep your next immediate destination in frame, making sure you always know where you’re going and at the same time ensure you’re taking in just how stunning the game looks (but more on that later).
In Journey, you’re constantly on the move, making it feel like you’re on one continuous, *ahem*, journey. Unfortunately, the game’s more traditional structure impedes this a little bit. It’s broken up into what are essentially levels. From a design perspective, I can appreciate why, but it’s unfortunate because these disruptions in gameplay between levels interrupt what is otherwise a totally immersive experience.
With all that Journey attempts to accomplish, it’s no surprise that accessibility is near the top of that list, something thatgamecompany has put a focus on in their previous games. Journey’s controls are simple. Move with the left stick. Pan the camera with the Dualshock’s SIXAXIS or the right stick. Jump with the X button and perform a musical chime with the circle button. You see a lot of struggle as the game industry experiments with the right way to appeal to a broader swath of potential gamers without sacrificing fulfilling experiences, and Journey is a perfect example of success in that regard.
The vast desert landscapes you’ve maybe come to associate with Journey are a small taste of the environments you’ll see. Snowy landscapes, dark caves, and breathtaking vistas vary up the climate and atmosphere and work to emphasize the emotional range of the game. But I think the foundation of the entire experience is Journey’s gorgeous water-colored art style. There’s not a single point in the game that doesn’t look like it could work as a painting on your wall. Don’t be surprised to find yourself in a constant state of awe.
And Journey is just as beautiful in motion. The sand ripples as you walk and your cloak flaps in the wind, sporting some of the best cloth physics you’ve ever seen. Journey is as technically brilliant as it is artistically.
As you make your way through the game it’s possible for you to be matched up with an anonymous player in a similar area of the game. There’s no picking whom you’ll be paired with, and the only form of communication you have is your musical chime.
Despite how distilled my ability to interact with other players was, I constantly felt surprised at how on the same page with them I was. Giving a chime and walking in a direction made my partner understand that I wanted them to follow. There’s not really any important gameplay implications but its novel nonetheless. Journey’s multiplayer is unlike anything you’ve played before.
Once in a while a game comes along that makes you proud to be a gamer. It’s the kind of game you want to show your parents to prove to them that it’s not all explosions and fast cars. It’s the kind of game that you want to tell Roger Ebert to go play after he makes inflammatory statements about how video games can never be art. And it’s the kind of game that given the right platform and exposure, has the potential to resonate with an audience that doesn’t usually care about games. Journey is one of those games.