When I first downloaded Journey off the PlayStation Network, I intended on giving it a traditional review. I had been mostly in the dark about the game itself other than hearing it mentioned after E3 last year. Quickly as I began playing, I realized this is not an ordinary game. In fact, it’s hard to even call it a game in the first place. So many conventions, not just of video games but of what people think of any kind of game be they sport, board, card or video game, don’t exist within the confines of Journey.
The name Journey, not to be trite, actually does say it all. Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with the quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” In Journey, this statement rings true throughout as the player takes on the role of a faceless robed creature as they make their way towards a mythical mountain top location. Other than a three very brief “tutorial” instructions at the start, there is no instruction during the game. Journey is designed to give the player an indication of where to go and motivation to get there but never explicitly tells them why they are headed there. They don’t know what the ultimate goal is other than the location itself or even what the significance is.
In addition to being faceless, the player is also voiceless. While this has been used throughout gaming and worked well with specific examples such as Gordon Freeman of Half-Life or the boy from Limbo, it becomes even more interesting as the game has a built in multiplayer component to it. Much like the rest of the game compares itself to real life, players will find themselves crossing paths with others as they go through Journey. Through body language and the game’s brief musical tone abilities alone, players can determine how they interact with each other. Since Journey can be crossed from start to finish in about two hours, it is realistic that a pair can work alongside each other for the entire time. Others may intersect briefly with one deciding to hang back in hopes of new discoveries while the other pushes forward, a direct corollary of real life relationships. There is an added layer as players have no way of voice chatting over the PlayStation network as their identities remain hidden to each other so not to impair the game’s message by allowing players to chat over the network.
In a traditional cooperative game, players must work together. This convention is completely dispelled in Journey. In a single playthrough, I encountered eight other players. Some were very brief while the player that I completely my Journey with lasted with me for the last quarter of the game. At the very start, it doesn’t feel strange being alone but after encountering a player or two who goes off on their own, things start to actually feel lonely in this big world. Since there is a lack of NPCs in the game, real people are the only companionship someone can find. As you go, you learn the interactions of others and end up finding yourself drawn to staying with them more than the beginning.
Something else gone from traditional game design is the idea of health, death and character progress. During the Journey, players encounter little shining icons which allow them to jump for longer periods of time. If they do cross paths with the ancient opposing forth, they aren’t killed and made to start back at a checkpoint as would be expected. It instead just becomes another obstacle to work around. Instead of inducing aggravation because the player doesn’t want to replay a section which ultimately takes someone out of the experience, there is an actual sense of dread. In any game, a player knows that in theory they should be able to reach the end. It is usually a game being too difficult or the control scheme being configured in a way that prevents this from happening, causing players to have stacks of unfinished games. Again, because of the unique design, Journey doesn’t suffer from this but still gives a fulfilling playthrough from start to finish.
The best way to describe Journey isn’t as a game but as an emotional experience. With highs and lows between the tense and uplifting to the calm moments to appreciating the beauty of the landscape or experiencing the history of this world through the ancient glyphs hidden through sections of Journey, it has all the makings of a real piece of art. And that’s what makes writing a basic game review about Journey so difficult. Because it doesn’t feel like you were “playing a game” at any point other than at the absolute start where the few button prompts appear. Had these been removed from Journey somehow, one could say that it had literally no traditional gaming conventions present in it at all.
The argument for the game as a piece of art is aided by the scenes in which players can actually take their attention off their character and look at the world around them. The way the sun dances through archways and hits the golden sands or glimmers off the ice, Journey has some of the most beautiful scenes in gaming in recent memory.
Journey can be looked at as both an incredible interactive experience as well as a part of the next level of “game” development. Instead of being about high scores and trumping an ultimate evil, Journey exists as an exploration of real life from a different perspective. The comparisons aren’t made with off-color jokes or political satire, but with beautiful artistic merit and thought provoking visuals, control design and a wisely chosen direction for the player. If you have a PlayStation 3, this is an experience worth having.