[This article was published in the April issue of Indie Game Magazine]
A small glint on the distant horizon, that’s all it took. It was all but a little glimmer in the corner of my eye, and it was all the justification I needed. Without hesitation I jumped from the tower I’d spent the best part of 5 minutes trying to scale. If this was any other game, any game other than Journey, I probably wouldn’t have cared enough to do it. But I just couldn’t help myself; I wanted to know what was there dammit! I wanted to see everything this game had to offer, I wanted to discover something new; the sensation had become addictive! It didn’t matter whether I was going to actually find anything out there in the barren wastes, what matter was that, for once, a game had made me care about a little sparkle off in the distance.
Now, please forgive me for making a shockingly obvious statement that I bet turns up in just about every review of this game: Journey is about just that, a journey. But it’s not the usual kind of journey we see in video games, it’s not the kind that’s been tightly scripted down to every last second by the developers. No, it’s a dynamic experience, it’s your journey. There are no maps, no waypoints and no giant arrows in the sky pointing you in the right direction. You’re just a hooded figure that’s been plonked into a desert, now figure the rest out for yourself!
Alright, here’s where it gets a little tough for me to do my job. I really don’t want to get into specifics about what Journey actually “is” as such, or anything that happens while you play it. As an experience, it’s extremely dependent on exploration and discovery. So if I say much more than I already have, I’ll end up compromising your enjoyment of it on some level. In fact, I’m gonna recommend that you totally ignore the trailer I’m contractually obliged to embed just below this paragraph! And those screen shots? Uh… just ignore them too. Ok, you know what? Just stop reading this article right now. Go play Journey instead. Seriously, don’t bother reading the rest of this thing. I really won’t be upset, I promise!
What? You’re still Here? Hmm ok, I guess you need a bit more convincing huh? Well then, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. I guess if I really had to categorise this thing, I’d say it was a “Platformer” but only in that progress tends to involve jumping between stuff a lot. Don’t get me wrong, Journey is still worlds apart from the Italian plumber and his buddies. You won’t be boppin’ any monsters on the head for one thing, and the skill level required to reach the ending it is minimal at best. Although I suppose there are “enemies” that deal “damage” of a kind…..Ugh! Even just mentioning small things like that makes me feel I’m saying too much!
Okay, how about something less specific? Visually, Journey is incredible. It’s a beautiful, beautiful game without a doubt. But it’s not a high-tech kind of beauty; it’s not super high-res textures or astronomical polygon counts that make it so attractive. It’s something way simpler than that, something far harder to define. I could take the lazy route and whip out old Mr. Thesaurus at this point, but that just wouldn’t do Journey’s glistening vistas any justice whatsoever. So instead, just rest easy in the knowledge that the whole “games aren’t art!” argument just got a whole lot weaker.
Admittedly, though, there’s a bit of an issue when it comes to variety. Almost every environment is simply a different variation on the theme of “stone ruins half-buried in sand” so it does end up feeling a tad samey after a while. But you know, when every screenshot feels like it should be framed and mounted in a museum, you tend not to get too fussed about that stuff.
There is what you might consider a “storyline” linking all the locations together, but it’s told through a series of highly abstract cutscenes in which not a single word is spoken. If I’m quite honest, I still have very little clue as to what most of it was really about. Not that it actually matters mind you! The real memorable stories in Journey, the ones with the most emotional impact by far, will be of your own making. Stories like the one I opened this article with, for example, which are only possible because Journey never overtly demands you to go somewhere. Instead, it gently guides you along the critical path using subtle visual cues and other such fancy tricks, most of which you won’t consciously notice unless you’re looking WAY too hard for ‘em. And while the levels might seem huge, they’re actually just as small any other game’s, if not smaller! But thanks to Journey’s hands-off approach to navigation, it’ll never feel that way. Somehow there will always be that same sense of raw exploration, even when you know full well you’ve already charted every corner of the landscape.
Oh boy, then there’s the co-op. It’s totally seamless; no matchmaking, server selection or any of that junk. Simply play it for long enough and then *poof!* a companion will suddenly appear alongside you. It’s quite a surreal experience to say the least, one that doesn’t really aid you in any significant way, gameplay wise at least. It sure is fun though! The first time it happened (and many of the times afterward) complete whimsy took over me and my partner almost instantly. We both ended up spending a good couple of minutes jumping around some ancient ruins together, constantly mashing the “sing” button to play jaunty tunes and make our randomly assigned emblem flash on screen. I should add that this is the only form of communication the game actually allows between players; you don’t even get to see their usernames!
Yes, it’s a slightly ridiculous and mechanically rather pointless approach to multiplayer, but I honestly can’t understate how quickly you can form an emotional bond with your new companion. But I guess that’s a lot easier when you don’t know that their internet handle is actually TokeTokeRevolution91. But anyway, there’s nothing quite like sussing out a puzzle alongside a fellow wayward soul, or even helping them find one of the game’s many hidden collectibles; it brought me together with other players in a way I never thought possible. And let’s not forget the heart-breaking moments where life outside the game forces you to go your separate ways, causing your BFF to die before your eyes, never to sing with you again.
As I said before, it’s these kind of dynamic, unpredictable and unscriptable micro-adventures that’ll really stick with you the most. In fact, If you were the kind of person who likes pretentious and wholly unnecessary analogies (which I am) you might say that Journey isn’t so much a pretty painting, but more like a really spiffy paintbrush. Just hold it in your hands and do what comes naturally, then you too can create your own personal masterpiece by………by applying paint to……the….uh…canvas? Jesus, I don’t even know where I’m going with this thing anymore.
It just ain’t easy to put into words how I feel about this game, you know? But that’s exactly what makes it so special in the first place. It’s the kind of experience that’s only possible in this medium of interactive entertainment we all love so much. I’m not saying it’s the “ultimate game” or whatever. I’m sure if you were to look at it from a purely mechanical perspective, then yeah, Journey ain’t all that special really. It’s fairly short too; a scant 3 hours if you’re not fastidious about collectibles. Normally that’d be a bit of an issue at a £10 price point, but in this case it seems absurd to boil it down to a simple “hours per £1” value proposition. This game is just SO much more than that! For me at least, every moment of it was magical, and I’d happily pay another £10 to wipe my memory so I could experience it all again. So, provided you’re not dead inside and/or someone averse to the artsy side of gaming, then think of Journey as a unique, interactive poem that’ll jettison you through the whole emotional spectrum across 3 incredible hours.
Ok, I did my bit. Due diligence has been served. Now, just go play it, alright?
Journey for the PS3 is available now for £10 via the PlayStation Network.
A little on the short side