Journey [Review] – A new frontier1 Mar 2012  by
At the risk of sounding incredibly clichéd and melodramatic, Journey is more experience than game. Like thatgamecompany’s Flower before it, this is an experience based around the evoking of certain emotions. In this case, and while they may sound mutually exclusive, it’s isolation and companionship being explored.
The ‘journey’ in question is a pilgrimage of sorts in which we’re tasked with guiding a cloaked and hooded figure – whom we know nothing about – to the peak of a towering mountain. Starting in the desert, the pilgrimage takes us through the sands into rocky canyons, through underground catacombs and across wind blasted, snow covered peaks. Needless to say, the journey is remarkably tough on our hero. However, from a gameplay perspective, it’s less tough on the player.
While there are moments in which basic platformer skills come in handy, there’s nothing that will trouble even the worst Mario player. Journey is not about testing your control pad prowess, it’s about experiencing the testing nature of our hero’s quest.
Played in single player, Journey is isolating to the point of inducing monophobia. The environments have been created with a sense of scale in mind, resulting in moments where the epic landscapes completely dwarf you and make your personal quest feel insignificant. That feeling of environmental magnitude is heightened by the particular way certain parts of it have been designed to feel almost magical.
Sand, for example, ebbs and flows almost like water. Stand at the top of sand dune and look out along the seemingly endless expanse of golden yellow waiting to consume you and the feel is something akin to viewing a shimmering ocean, reacting and morphing in the wind.
Then there’s the mountain, a beacon of hope visible for the bulk of the game that serves as a constant reminder of why our cloaked and hooded friend is putting himself through such perils. As an observer, we’re not privy to his true motivations for wanting to get there. All we know is that it’s important to him and it’s up to us to guide him there. By the end of the quest you have a pretty good idea of what it’s all about, but I don’t want to spoil that for you.
However, while the scale of the environments make the life of a single entity seem meaningless, the properties of our hero make him feel like a part of it – albeit a small part of it. While he/she is trying to conquer the landscape, the two feel inseparable as though one wouldn’t exist without the other. It’s a difficult feeling to translate into a review without writing a whole separate essay on the nature of reality in videogames and how a setting and character can often be one and the same thing.
You could even go as far to say that the bond between character and world here is spiritual, especially in the ethereal way you move across the land and through the sky. There’s a bond between the two that, while isolating due to their comparative scale, is inseparable.
In terms of AI, encounters are few and far between. Predominantly, these involve being handed the ability to glide by fragments of cloth that congregate in small groups that dot each of the levels. These light up the scarf you wear around your neck, signifying you can now glide on the wind.
There are moments when you’ll need the ability to make it across gaps too wide for a standard jump and, towards the end, to literally fly from one place to the next; powering up your scarf via handily placed bundles of cloth in mid-air. Still, don’t expect to be challenged in the traditional way of executing perfectly timed jumps or managing your glide quota – when you need the ability you’re given it, when you don’t you’re not. Again, this is an interactive experience and not necessarily what many people think of as a videogame.
It’s the ability to glide and ‘fly’ that provides the strongest link between character and setting. When moving through the air, it feels as though you are literally the wind – elegantly moving and swaying from place to place. Indeed, the whole game could be read as a metaphor for the way in which the wind traverses the globe, takes in all kinds of environments and affects them as it does so.
You can get a more immediate sense of companionship by playing online with another person. Despite not being able to interact with one another beyond giving a call to draw your partners attention to yourself (perhaps you’ve found a scarf-extending orb, for example), the experience is markedly different from playing by yourself.
Isolation is replaced by a sense of empowerment; despite there only being two of you, the juxtaposing emotions of playing alone or as a duo are stark. If nothing else, playing as a duo serves to highlight the single player’s success in radiating that feeling of isolation upon you.
A single playthrough of Journey takes about 70-80 minutes. That may not sound like much, but any more than that and the message would probably get old and start to feel a little preachy. Because there’s no emphasis whatsoever on typical videogames fodder such as levelling up or learning new abilities, Journey ultimately feels like a piece in an interactive art installation or art house movie – a sensation sharpened by its shorter runtime.
Journey is ultimately one of those games that challenge our ideas about what a videogame actually is, and what a videogame can be. Thatgamecompany have created a high-level and emotionally engaging experience that, thanks to the hand-picking of a select few familiar mechanics, will entice rather than alienate the majority of the intended audience.