The visual and aural feast that is thatgamecompany’s Journey has made its way to the Playstation 4, allowing a new group of players the opportunity to embody mute, cloaked jawas on their trek to the top of a mystical mountain peak. Before I get started on this review, you may want to install a hyperbole remover plugin, because this is going to get pretentious with praise quick.
I am an atheist. I prefer to think of myself as more scientifically than spiritually minded. I have always understood the fact that some people find religion a necessity for teaching life’s lessons, and thus understood people’s desire to gravitate towards it. I understand the reasons people become born again Christians – both why and how transitions like that happen. The reason I have pointed this out is because I feel that, through Journey, I had a ‘religious’ experience.
Someone having a religious experience through playing a video game may sound ludicrous. Well, people have had religious experiences from pieces of toast before so why should a video game be any different? Journey contains moments of such pure beauty and glory that they can only be described as otherworldly, divine; works of art.
I’m getting ahead of myself though – let me explain what Journey is. You play as a being concealed by red cloak and a scarf that grows as you progress through the game. As the game opens, you find yourself in a landscape of endless sand dunes. In the distance is a mountain with a shining beacon coming out of its peak. Your goal is to push forward, periodically pressing the X button to jump. Along your travels you may meet other cloaked beings – some in white shawls – who may join you on your path to the mountaintop. You can communicate with your fellow travelers through various symbols which are summoned using the square button. As far as controls go, that’s about it.
As with thatgamecompany’s previous title, Flower, Journey pushes the boundaries of what a video game is. Is this even a game? Or is it more an interactive art experience? What exactly are the game’s creators trying to impart on the ‘player’? The arthouse film-lover side of me admires how open to interpretation Journey is, yet I can understand the reasons that Journey gets criticised for being a very simple ‘game’.
Tetris is also a simple game with basic controls – in fact, like Journey, it has only two important buttons; the directional pad, and a button to turn the Tetriminos. Yet, unlike Journey, Tetris has strategy making it more of a gaming experience. It’s this simplicity within Journey – where there is no major challenge or puzzle elements – that makes it a difficult game to recommend. Gamers should be aware of the sparsity on offer and allow themselves to be open to a very different experience, because – once again – this is not a conventional game.
Journey is not a game in the same sense that Dear Esther is more like a virtual tour around an island than a game. Unlike Dear Esther however, where the ‘story’ is narrated to you, Journey‘s story is fully open to interpretation. The voiceless companions you meet during your travels can assist in showing you the way, or simply become someone to travel with, or they might point out a collectible glyph that helps elongate your luxurious glowing scarf. Their presence is comforting – it’s nice to know you’re not alone at times, and when you are alone, or your companion disappears, it can be quite saddening. The relationship you’ve built up through non-verbal communication can become quite strong – especially during Journey’s final scenes, as you trudge your way slowly through heavy snow.
One of the great things about Journey is that it doesn’t spoon-feed you information; you can decide for yourself what your experience means. To me, the scarf is a grand metaphor about life and lessons learned. The aforementioned glyphs help elongate your scarf, which in turn help you jump higher, almost to the point that you’re flying. At certain points, you encounter beings that can destroy your scarf, reducing its length dramatically. You can quite easily complete Journey without ever collecting a glyph and extending your scarf, but to get a fuller experience it is best you explore your environment entirely. Just like life itself, you get back what you put into Journey and it will reward you with… a longer scarf! Yes, I’m aware I’m stretching it here with the metaphor, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the hyperbole heading into this review! If you explore a little more you could find beauty where you would not expect it – like a flower in the desert, or murals of journeymen past on the walls of caves.
“So Andrew, what about this damn religious experience you were going on about earlier?” you may be asking. Well, I’m glad you brought that up. With the groundbreaking Grammy award nominated score by Austin Wintory, Journey is elevated to a higher level than it would have been if his score was not present. The combination of Wintory’s perfect score and the picture-frame-worthy visuals of rolling sand dunes which fold into fields of snow covered rocks, creates an experience like no other in the realm of this medium we call ‘video games’. The combination of the two helps enforce my interpreted theme of reincarnation.
Birth, life, death, rebirth. No ‘game’ has given me the experience and understanding of these Buddhist values better than Journey. In fact – perhaps betraying my ignorance here – apart from a Haruki Murakami novel or that one Dali painting, I’ve never had such a visceral and real understanding of religion within art as I have had with Journey. Moments of Wintory’s score like Nadir and Apotheosis accentuate heartbreaking moments, where the world feels against you, as you weather a snowstorm, your scarf torn asunder and your ability to progress hampered by heavy winds. Finally you succumb to the winds, as though the cold hands of death have wrapped themselves around you.
In my most recent play-through, I was with another journeyman, and as we moved up the mountain, through the snowstorm, both becoming weaker and weaker, we tried our best to communicate with each other. Faint symbols would appear above our heads and we would nod feebly to one another, trying to communicate the feeling that we weren’t alone. After collapsing in the snow, we awoke in a glorious vista of bright blue. Waterfalls and red scarfed creatures filled the scene. We were alive again, we were close to the end and nearing our purpose. For a moment, I thought my companion had deserted me, too eager to reach the apex, but actually they were atop one of the waterfalls with symbols galore streaming from their head. They were beckoning me closer, showing me the path. They wanted to ensure that crossed the void together.
Combine the three elements of beautiful visuals, the wondrous and joyful score and the companionship Journey provides, and you have one of the most emotional moments a ‘game’ has ever crafted. These elements work together to create a purely spiritual experience. Through Journey‘s short three to four hour play time, you witness birth, life, aging, death and rebirth. Early moments, when you stumble over the dunes awkwardly, learning to become accustomed to your movement, gradually flow into moments of joy and fear as you skate freely over dunes and navigate past creatures that loom in the dark, then finally trudging into a crippling snowstorm that ushers you across the ether into the games emotional conclusion.
I love this experience. I love the feelings Austin Wintory’s score evokes when I listen to it. I love the imagery that it summons. It’s a pure experience rather than being a pure game. Yet, like many ‘experiences’ they do slightly diminish over time. The joy of meeting someone for the first time, the awe of experiencing the games’s key moments and the impactful finale are all great moments in gaming. Like a horror film, where the shocks become diminished over repeated viewings, these ‘experiences’ become diminished over time. I’ve always felt that a game should never be qualified by its replayability – some of my favourite games have been games I would never play through again. The theme of rebirth is great, and it definitely is the reason to give Journey more than one run through. However, after the third or fourth time it does start to become a little tired. Maybe it is like reincarnation itself – the first few times are great, but once you’ve learned all that you can learn, living becomes tiring unless you find joy in teaching others the ways of the world and where the mysteries of the land in Journey are.
For this reason, I recommend giving Journey at least one play-through. I also recommend playing it through in one sitting. This most certainly will not be a game for everyone, but you may be like me and have an experience which you would never have thought that a video game could provide. You may feel that this is a waste of time and a terrible gaming experience; however, there is simply no denying that it’s wonderful to see that a game like Journey can reach critical and commercial success in today’s world. It shows that the medium of video games is ever evolving and ever pushing forward to include new ideas and experiences that challenge players and question what video games are.