In these days of retailer-specific pre-order DLC, creatively devoid annual sequels, not-so-micro microtransactions in full-priced games, and the general greed and soullessness exhibited by many videogame developers and publishers, sometimes it can be easy to forget just how inventive, creative and artistically powerful the videogame medium can be. But look beyond the crass greed and you’ll find countless passionate, hard-working developers and publishers creating imaginative and brilliant games which act as reminders of the potential of videogames as an artistic medium. Journey is such a game.
A PlayStation 3 exclusive, Journey was developed by Thatgamecompany and released in 2012 as a digital title on the PlayStation Network. Journey was the third PS3 game created by Thatgamecompany, following on from Flow (2007) and Flower (2009). (All three games are available together in the Journey Collector’s Edition retail compilation, which I highly recommend). Like its predecessors, Journey was an attempt to deliver an experience outside the norm, something that didn’t adhere to the general template of so many mainstream videogames, and in this goal, Thatgamecompany certainly succeeded.
Journey opens in a vast desert, casting you as an unnamed robed protagonist who could almost pass for an evolved form of jawa (“Utini!”). There’s no dialogue, no flashing giant arrow pointing you in the right direction… but there is a hill with some statues on it. With this being the only real landmark in sight, naturally you climb the hill. And only then do you see, far off in the distance, the mountain with the shining peak, and as the title of the game appears on-screen, it’s clear that this mountain is your destination. And in a nutshell, that’s all Journey is – a journey from here to there. But like a Transformer or a Bangkok ladyboy, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
The minimalist, show-don’t-tell approach taken by Journey is apparent right from the beginning – the title screen gives you no options, only “Start – New Journey”; and no heads-up display is used in the game at all. This minimalism extends to other aspects such as the controls, with only a couple of buttons being used to play the game, and the protagonist automatically hopping up short ledges and over small gaps. The music can also be very subtle and ambient at times, although Austin Wintory’s Grammy-nominated soundtrack is also majestic, foreboding, sweeping and uplifting, and accompanies the visuals and gameplay brilliantly.
Don’t mistake restraint for laziness, as although the premise and execution may sound simple, that doesn’t make Journey any less engrossing or impressive. Your quest to reach that distant mountain peak will take you through the partially buried remains of an ancient civilisation, once powerful but now long gone, but who are critical to the game’s narrative, which is wordlessly delivered via brief cut-scenes, artwork found on murals, and other elements present in the environments themselves. The story and the meaning behind the game’s events are open to interpretation, a narrative approach that can be very effective when done well, as is the case here.
The intentional minimalism extends to the visuals, both in terms of the scenery and environments, and the crisp, clean and colourful graphical style. At the same time, areas are often massive in scope, featuring rolling sand dunes, towering bridges, vast cliffs, large pieces of ancient technology, etc. And although sand – and later, when you reach the mountain, snow – covers many of these areas, the expert use of light and colour helps bring variety and differing moods to the environments, from dark and threatening to bright and glorious.
Alongside these broader elements are impressive smaller details which help bring the environments and characters to life, such as the cloth physics exhibited by the protagonist’s robes; the fact that when you pause the game, your character sits down and waits, getting sand or snow on their robes in the process; and the incredible way in which light glitters on sand. The sand – and again, later, the snow – also stands out in terms of its natural and flowing animation which is shown off in various ways, such as when strong winds blow across it or how it expands outwards in a circle around you when you emit a powerful musical chime.
The player’s ability to emit musical chimes of varying power is an important gameplay element, as although the overall objective of Journey may be a straightforward one, that doesn’t mean there aren’t obstacles and events to keep you occupied along the way. You encounter lengths of cloth which can be brightened up and “brought to life” via use of your chime, which is sometimes vital to progression as these pieces of cloth might form a bridge, for example. The chime can also be used as a simple form of communication (more on this later). Also of note are the flying creatures made of cloth which inhabit the game world, with flocks of smaller ones being able to propel you high into the air while larger creatures allow you to hitch a ride on their backs.
Very early on in the game, you receive a scarf which allows you to leap and glide through the air, although this costs you scarf energy. This energy can be restored, however, and your scarf can also be lengthened – allowing you to retain a greater store of energy – by finding upgrades scattered around the game world. Although your journey to the mountain is a linear one, many of the areas you traverse are expansive enough to allow these scarf upgrades – and occasional murals – to be hidden away, encouraging you to explore the environments fully and also encouraging replayability, as you don’t need to collect all of the scarf pieces in a single playthrough. As well as an increased energy store, collecting all upgrades grants you a special bonus which I won’t spoil here. (No, it’s not a rocket launcher with infinite ammo). There are also a couple of hidden Easter Eggs / Trophies which fans of Flow and Flower will definitely want to put the effort into uncovering.
Earlier I mentioned using your musical chime ability as a form of communication, and the reason for this is that Journey isn’t a journey you have to take alone. There’s an online component to the game which adds a huge amount to the experience.
If you’re playing online, you’ll randomly meet other online players going about their own journeys. Now sharing a game world, you and another player can engage in simple communication via musical chimes (not to mention creating rough drawings in the sand or snow) and assist each other in progressing – if you stick together, you can play through the entire game (apart from the very beginning) together. Even if you do so, your companion will remain anonymous throughout – there’s no text or voice chat, no PSN ID visible, just two unnamed travellers forging ahead side-by-side. The only time your travelling partners are identified is upon completion of the game, when you’re shown the PSN IDs of players you spent any significant amount of time with.
Like so many of the elements that make up Journey, its online aspect is implemented in a subtle way – not to mention a technically seamless one, never disrupting the flow of the game – greatly enhancing the overall experience but without being absolutely integral to the playing of the game. Unlike so many other videogames, the online component here is all about cooperation and companionship rather than competition, and it’s a refreshing approach that seems to work very well in bringing out such positive traits in players. You won’t find kill-counts or internet tough guys mouthing off here.
For example, I’ve played through Journey twice, and both times I encountered another traveller fairly on and the two of us then went through the rest of the game together. In each case, the other player was more familiar with the game’s secrets than I was, taking the time to guide me to some scarf upgrades and murals which I otherwise might have missed. Both of these players were patient and helpful, clearly keen to assist other players on their own journeys, which was great to see. And despite the anonymity – or perhaps because of it – you can’t help but form a bond with such a fellow traveller when you spend hours playing together, pushing on towards that shining mountain peak.
One of the best memories I have of the game involves the online aspect and occurred early in my first playthrough. The thing was, I didn’t actually know that much about Journey when I bought it. I knew of its apparent high quality and massively positive critical reception, and I’d seen enough of the game to know I was going to pick it up at some point, so I didn’t look any further into it as I wanted to avoid any potential spoilers.
And so, when I first spotted other travellers roaming the game world, I assumed they were NPCs, as when I approached a couple of them, they didn’t react to me at all. But then I encountered a traveller who began communicating with me via musical chimes and movement, enough for me to realise, Holy shit, these are human players. It was a stunning revelation that put a huge smile on my face, and I then played through the game in one sitting with this fellow traveller. It was an uplifting and hugely enjoyable experience that has stuck with me ever since, and one I gladly repeated in a recent second playthrough.
Both times I’ve played Journey, I’ve played through the entire game in a single sitting, which isn’t a particularly difficult thing to do as the game is on average only a few hours long. But Journey is a perfect example of quality over quantity, as although it’s a short game compared to many others, in the time you do spend with it, it provides you with an experience that’s memorable, thoughtful, uplifting, extremely well-crafted and stunningly beautiful, from its subdued opening through to its glorious climax. It’s an experience more than worth the asking price and one you’ll likely revisit if it has an impact upon you the first time around – which I imagine, in the majority of cases, it will.
Journey experienced a difficult birth, the game suffering several significant delays while in development, with Thatgamecompany facing the threat of bankruptcy by the time of its completion. But from out of this prolonged struggle an amazing videogame and piece of art emerged, one that lifts the spirits and acts as a reminder of some of the things that this fantastic medium is capable of, so personally I’d say that the struggle was definitely a worthwhile one. And judging by the critical and commercial success that the game has enjoyed, it seems many others feel the same.
Tastes differ and so Journey won’t be for everyone, but if you believe in the vast potential of the videogame medium and you’re interested in games that offer new, innovative and artistic experiences while simultaneously being extremely polished and technically superb, you need to take a trip through Journey. It’s one you won’t forget.
See you on the mountaintop.
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work has covered comic books, prose and videogames. His 8-issue comic series The Fallen, from publisher Monkeybrain, is currently being published on Comixology, while later this year will see the release of his graphic novel Dead Men from Markosia Enterprises. His upcoming videogame projects include action / strategy title Crystal Arena and visual novel Eternal Forest. Marvel at his occasional nonsense on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy